9th Sabbatical Sunday
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Do you realize that we compare ourselves to one another from birth? I heard a friend of mine with a young son say recently, “I hate comparing him to other kids his age- but he’s not walking yet!” (of course he did a couple of weeks later). We rank students when they get to high school so they know exactly where they stand academically next to all their classmates. We compare height, age, IQ, shoe size, and paychecks.
I know in my own life I compare myself to others frequently (even daily?). For instance, I felt a little twinge of falling behind socially when my best friend in the world got married when we were 25 and I was still single. The other day I was at the gym, working out at my all-female gym, designed specifically for women so we wouldn’t have to compare ourselves to body-building, weight-lifting men, and I heard myself thinking, “I wish I were as thin as the woman on that side of the room- she doesn’t look like she’s having to work nearly as hard as I am!” One of my least favorite comparisons that many ministers tend to make is the “I’m busier than you” comparison, as if filling your life with too many tasks is to be worn as a badge of honor as to how much a person can take. I hope I never win that competition.
Comparing ourselves to others is a natural human tendency, but as it turns out, not something that is tremendously helpful in our prayer lives. This morning, Jesus tells us another parable about prayer. Last week we were encouraged to be persistent in prayer, and this week Jesus adds on an example of the way we should pray. It’s no secret for whom this parable is intended, Luke says, “he also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This parable is for those who compare themselves to others and come out the winner.
The story goes like this; two men go up to the temple to pray and the take two very different prayer postures. The hardworking servant of God, known as the Pharisee, confidently looks toward heaven and gives a roll-call prayer of all the kinds of people he’s glad he isn’t. Then he describes all his good works to God. Then the tax collector, who is despised by his community, turns his head downward in humility and simply utters, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That humble prayer was all he needed to say to leave the temple in restored relationship with God. That small prayer of confession was all he needed to be justified.
“Another story is told of two pastors who fall to their knees at the front of the church, crying out to God, saying, ‘I have sinned. I am unworthy, I am unworthy.’ Just then the janitor walks in, and observing their display of piety he joins their refrain: ‘I have sinned. I am not worthy, I am not worthy.’ The first pastor turns to the second and sneers, ‘Now look who thinks he’s unworthy!” (Christian Century, October 16, Audrey West)
Jesus seems to be telling us that prayer is not a time when we need to be comparing ourselves to others. Prayer is a time to build the relationship between you and God, and part of that relationship is the simple act of confession like the tax collector made. When it comes to the spiritual life, you need not compare yourself with others. I hope that you will not find yourself saying, “Oh I wish I could pray like her,” or “I wish I could give as much to the church as they can.” I especially hope that you will not make negative comparisons like the Pharisee, “thank God I’m not like him!”
Your spiritual life is between you and God only, not to be compared with the spiritual path that anyone else has taken. Each journey is different, because each person is different. Stop comparing yourself to others. If you can’t do this in every area of your life, at least practice this in your relationship with God.
Another thing I notice about this parable is the litany of good works that the Pharisee considers so mentionable in his prayer. He fasts twice a week, he gives a tenth of all his income- these are good things. The Pharisee is not a bad guy, to our modern ears we often think the word Pharisee equals the term, “bad guy”, because they were so often the subject of the parables and stories Jesus told. But they weren’t inherently bad guys, in fact they were a lot like what we strive to be. We strive to be church going folks, who remember to pray, who might even fast once a year or so during lent, and who give a tenth of all we have to the church. These, most certainly are not bad things, but these acts are not all there is to faith by any means.
The danger here is in thinking that all these acts of good works, or good piety will make us righteous. If we think that it is only the things that we do that bring us into close relationship with God, then we are forgetting about the things that God does for us. What the tax collector knew was that he fell short of God’s expectations for him. Instead of sending up a list of all the good things he had done to try and make up for it, he simply acknowledged that he was a sinner. As soon as he humbled himself before God, that’s when God began to do God’s part in their relationship. God began healing and reconciling the tax collector’s broken life.
I guess the lesson here is that faith is not all about us. I know that’s disappointing to hear for some of us, we are used to relying on ourselves for the things we have and accomplish, but what about God’s part? God’s part is really the amazing part I think. God continues to show up, every time we cry out in prayer. God hears our prayers, and immediately forgives our sin if we ask for it. God can fill our lives with comfort, peace and love- the things that are sometimes hard for us to attain all on our own. That doesn’t mean that fasting and tithing don’t help bring us into relationship with God- to the contrary, both practices are beneficial. However, our works of piety are not all there is when it comes to the life of faith- God has a part as well. And we need to allow space for God to take part in our lives.
There are several lessons one can glean from this parable. One is about prayer- although this isn’t Jesus’ only lesson on prayer. Last week we heard about being persistent in prayer. Jesus had already given us the Lord’s Prayer as a model of how to pray. This story gives us an example of how to present ourselves as we pray, reminding us that humility and confession are important parts of prayer. In part, this story changed how the church felt about the posture of prayer. In the Hebrew world it was common to look up toward God as one prayed, as the Pharisee did. But through years of Christian tradition we have been handed down the humility of the tax collector, as he bowed his head, not wanting to meet God’s gaze in prayer. But this story wasn’t told soley because the people needed to know about prayer postures.
Humility is an important part of this story. In fact the last line of this parable may sound familiar. Jesus says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” We heard these exact words a few weeks ago when we studied Luke 14 and Jesus gave us a manners lesson on where we should sit when invited to a banquet. We should take the humble seat, just like we should take the humble approach when coming to God in prayer. And yet this story isn’t all about humility either.
No, as I said before, Jesus makes it quite clear who this parable is addressed to- “anyone who regards themselves righteous and looks on others with contempt.” I hope that is not the case for any of us here this morning. Let us not compare ourselves to others saying, “thank you God that I am not like her!” But let us also avoid the comparisons that cause us to ask, “please God, let me be just like him!” We must all be exactly who God has called us to be, not thinking any more or any less of ourselves than we already are.
As far as prayer goes, you can hardly go wrong with the simple prayer of the tax collector, “Oh God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I hope that each of us will approach God with humility and allow God to have a part in our life of faith. And for heaven’s sake- let’s stop comparing ourselves to each other and simply be the best of whatever God has created us to be. Amen and Amen.