He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
“My dad can beat up your dad.” That’s just the beginning. Next it’s, “I can out do you.” “I’m smarter than you;” “I’m better than you at soccer, at tennis, at bridge.”
“U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi you ugly.” This is how things begin. Kid’s stuff right. Show everyone just how good we are; at least how good we are compared to some people.
Last night we had a great time at the club de chicas y chicos Halloween fiesta—kids carving pumpkins, roasting hotdogs and marshmallows, games including bobbing for apples. The kids gathered around the wheelbarrow full of water and apples. At first they went one at a time, and everyone kind of delicately dipped their heads into the pool, gently trying to gather an apple between their teeth.
I was getting bored so I said, “Alright, now see who can get the apple the fastest.
Antonio versus Scarlette…” The two dive in, I won’t say who won, but the effort certainly was increased. Then Trasie said “Gigi vs. her friend Lauren”, and both whom had been standing back just watching as if they couldn’t care less, dove in after those apples, their faces underwater. In seconds Gigi emerged triumphant, arms in the air, and water pouring all across her front!
We love to compete; to compare with others.
Jesus tells a story to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. The story is about two guys, “a good guy” –The Pharisee, and a “bad” guy—a tax collector—who just so happen to be going up to the church to pray together. Well, not exactly pray together, they just happen to be there at the same time. The really good guy goes first, lays it all out there before God, kind of…. “Oh God look at me. Now, consider the worst people around; you know all those terrible people out there, I mean, just look at that loser over there, a tax collector of all people. God, I am great; I am about as perfect as you can get.” In reality what does he lay out there before God?
He just talks about what he is not like; then he talks about all these “Good” things he does—praying, fasting, tithing...
But who is he? We know what he is not like. We know what he does. But who is he? Does he know?
And then it comes right back to us? Who are you? Who am I? Do we know?
Or does it take looking at others; particularly others who we think are doing things worse than we are, and defining ourselves over and against them.
This “good” guy “has found no certainty in himself and is evidently suffering from lack of personality;” so in his anxiety he makes others out to be terrible people, so that he can think himself all that.1
So the good guy is an upstanding citizen who fasts twice a week and tithes…
This guy is actually a model church-goer! If only we could live up to his example of moral conduct. Not to mention his fasting praying and tithing. This world is hurting for prayer; and of course stewardship season begins next month!
But, apparently, according to Jesus: He’s done something wrong. Even though he thought he was doing everything right—Right in the eyes of all the people, right in the eyes of the law. But, when he left the temple and went home, he was not justified.
The person who did leave the church justified was the tax-collector—the “bad” guy. He was up there praying too: but he stood off to the side, would not look up to heaven [which I suppose is where we get the tradition of bowing our heads in prayer]; but beat his breast [so why don’t we beat our chests?] and cries, “Lord, BE MERCIFUL, I am a sinner!” In that phrase, he has spoken from his heart; “he has uttered the complete truth about himself. He is a ‘sinner’—before God, before the law, before the standards of his own people, and before himself.”2
He has spoken directly about himself. He has not tried to make excuses for his own shortcomings; he is not looking toward the shortcomings of others to make himself feel better. He is simply claiming a reality about himself. “I, sinner.” I have messed up. I have done others wrong, I have done myself wrong. I need mercy from the one who is merciful. “This one went home justified.” Jesus said.
What is the difference in these two? Why is one justified and not the other?
I think the Pharisee didn’t go home justified because he didn’t go home free.
He left still so worried about what others thought of him, and worried about all the things he had to do to prove himself; he didn’t really seem too concerned about what God thought of him. He had not received mercy, nor did he understand what it meant to receive mercy.
Do you remember when we talked about mercy a few weeks ago; my buddy who would say “mercy” when an attractive young lady walked by?
Let’s think about mercy again for a second: Was there a time in our lives before we knew the good news? Do we remember the time before we knew we were loved and forgiven? The time before we were called to be disciples? This was the time of “pre-mercy.” In the time of “pre-mercy,” we have to reinvent ourselves every day, we face daily pressure to achieve, accomplish and impress. Good enough to impress our parents or our boss; smart enough to impress our teachers and peers; and romantic enough to impress our significant other. “But of course it is never enough; Because then, then, the next day it has to be done all over again, until we’re simply exhausted and left in despair.” Do you remember: Once you had not received mercy.3
This was the world of this Pharisee.
The other one, the tax-collector cried out: “God be merciful, I am a sinner.”
“This one went home justified.” Jesus said. He left there free, not worrying about what other’s thought or said, but having stood naked before the one who is merciful and pleads for mercy. This one went home justified.
Did he change his evil ways and stop ripping people off? We don’t know? But even by asking that kind of question of the tax-collector, we might be slipping off into the realm of Pharisee, judging what this bad guy should be doing.
Who are we to compare ourselves to other people, to compete against others to make ourselves look better? We can only stand before God—have God see us just as we are. We can cry for mercy, and trust that our loving God is merciful. God is merciful, God loves us. Do we believe this? That we are recipients of mercy, even when we may forget to ask for mercy? Or do we have to go around looking for other ways to feel good about ourselves.
I love to think I am such a good husband because I don’t do a lot of things that some of Trasie’s friend’s husbands do. I like to think I’m such a good citizen because I stay informed, I participate in public life, I’m a Presbyterian minister.
I like to think I’m such a good environmental steward because I recycle and I catch shower water in a bucket and use that water to flush the toilet. How many of you do these things? Ya’ll didn’t know what you were getting when you called me to this church!!!
These are silly ways that I compare myself to others. But about they ways the we compare ourselves to others that is damaging and hurtful to the other. We look at the homeless, and say. “Why don’t you just get a job? I’ve worked hard for what I have”. Or at the women experiencing domestic violence, “Why doesn’t she just leave? She deserves it.” Or to the immigrant, we dehumanize by making them “illegals” and criminals. In our efforts to make ourselves better, we judge and we exclude others based on race, class and gender. We hurt others, we become paralyzed and imprisoned by our judgment and the walls that divide us grow taller.
“We too have come to the “temple” this morning—come to church to pray, to come before God, and to come before one another. We are seeking assurance about ourselves and about other people before God. But who gives us this assurance? We too are hungering for acceptance (recognition), for without acceptance (recognition) no one can live. What kind of acceptance do we seek?
We, too are seeking mercy in the things about ourselves that neither we nor anyone else can describe as good.” And who shows us this mercy?
Are we past these silly games of trying to make ourselves look better by saying things like: My Daddy Can beat up Your daddy? Are we ready to accept ourselves tal como somos? Just as we are each of us uniquely and wonderfully made, and then be free to love others just as they are. Not judging and comparing and holding in contempt of whatever.
We could go around comparing ourselves all day long with other people.
But it just doesn’t justify. What justifies is God’s mercy in our lives!
1 Jurgen Moltmann, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” in Chorus of Witnesses, ed. Thomas Long, p. 25.
2 Jurgen Moltmann, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” in Chorus of Witnesses, ed. Thomas Long, p. 27.
3 Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, pp 80-81.