Whenever I used to get a little too full of myself as a child, a little too proud of how great I was, a little too big for my britches (as they say in some circles) my Dutch maternal grandmother would level a very steely gaze at me and exclaim, doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg. Translation: behave normally, that’s crazy enough!
As I read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector I found myself channeling my grandmother, saying to the Pharisee, doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg.
Oy! Is this Pharisee full of himself or what?
Let’s envision this scene. This guy goes to the Temple to pray. So, as we hear his prayer it is important to note that Pharisees – as scholars of the law – took pride in their scrupulous adherence to it. He winds up standing near a tax collector, certainly one of the more despised people in that society. Standing proudly – dare we say arrogantly - he says, “ ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'” Do you know people like this? I don’t mean people who tithe their income; we need more of those! But people who are just so impressed by themselves, how good, smart, generous, pious, etc, etc. etc. they are. And they never loose an opportunity to remind you of it.
Like the Pharisee, the tax collector was a Jew, but he was seen as a traitorous Jew because he worked for the evil Roman Empire. And not only worked for the Empire, but used his position to extort more than the required taxes from people to line his own pockets with. Ethically he was certainly a compromised person. He too goes to the Temple to pray. But his prayer is a complete 180º turn around from that of the pious Pharisee. The tax collector, “would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'’’ He was totally aware of his sinfulness and threw himself completely on God’s mercy.
This parable is directly linked to the one we heard last week about the widow and the unjust judge; they are two pieces of a whole as they are both about prayer. In the case of last week’s parable, Jesus tells us how we are to engage prayer with unrelenting persistence, confident that God will in due time, provide us with what we need.
This week’s lesson is about how we are to approach God in prayer. Jesus uses two polar opposite people to illustrate his point: one at the presumed top of the heap and the other at the presumed bottom of the heap.
Notice that the Pharisee really prayed with himself, not to God. While he did address his prayer to God, his arrogant words reveal that he was completely absorbed in self-congratulations. We can imagine his arms wrapped around himself as he patted himself on the back. Good job!
No person who is proud and full of his or her self can truly pray to God. No person who despises others can authentically approach God in prayer. To do so defies an over-arching theme of the Bible. Proverbs 16:18 states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Well, if pride is leading us toward self-destruction it certainly can’t be leading us to God.
Here is a fact. Those who trust in their own righteousness will always end up regarding others with contempt. You can’t make distinctions – draw a line in the sand – between yourself and someone else and be righteous in the eyes of God. Yet the Pharisee does precisely that with the tax collector.
In Facebook, a colleague posted that his sermon would be based on the parable, “The Pharisee and the Bad Hombre.” Think about it.
The Pharisee is so self-righteous that he ends up disdaining a laundry list of others. And those who regard others with contempt cannot bring themselves to rely on God’s grace to redeem them.
In prayer we are not to lift ourselves above others. Rather we are called to humility, remembering that we are but one of all humanity who are sinning, suffering, sorrowing people, all coming before the throne of mercy, just like the tax collector did.
While this parable is about prayer, ultimately it is really about our relationship with God.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he states, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2: 12-13).
Friends, it’s enough work to work out our own salvation with God without condemning other people who we believe to be beyond God’s salvation. Let’s leave that to God.
In true prayer, we should be setting our lives besides the life of Jesus. When we set our lives beside that of Jesus the only thing left to pray is “God be merciful to me – a sinner.”
It is critical to do this because as people who are aware of their own need for grace and forgiveness –which is all of us - will not be able to despise other people. Only those who are able to develop empathy for others can receive God's grace. And in that empathy, God’s love and mercy blossoms in our lives.
Pope Francis wrote a book last year titled, “The Name of God is Mercy.” He writes this:
“We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers [and sisters] live. We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness . . . [we need to reach out to] everyone by sharing the experience of mercy, which we ourselves have experienced, without caving in to the temptation of feeling we are just or perfect. The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are or looking upon the many ‘wounded’ we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy. So we must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in our brother’s eye while remaining unaware of the beam in his own. Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need for repentance. When a person begins to recognize the sickness in their soul, when the Holy Spirit – the Grace of God- acts within them and moves their heart toward an initial recognition of their own sins, he needs to find an open door, not a closed one.
He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes, when some Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of the sinner when he stands at the threshold, when he [desires to return to right relationship with God.]”
My sisters and brothers, Pope Francis beautifully describes how God’s merciful embrace works in our lives. And that grace comes to us through our humble prayers before God, which nurtures the growth of empathy for all humanity. In that prayer we each feel God’s merciful embrace and we are moved to see all other persons with compassion and give them that holy embrace as well. In that prayer our lives change, because it is in that moment we are transformed and we are able to respond with gratitude to the immense and unexpected gift of God’s grace and mercy to each and every child of God. Just like that tax collector. And that mercy heals the world.
Pope Francis, “The Name of God is Mercy”, Random House: New York, NY, 2016, p. 67-68.