A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke:
Jesus addressed this parable
to those who were convinced of their own righteousness
and despised everyone else.
“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a pharisee and one was a tax collector. Two people as far apart as they could be, two opposite ends of the social spectrum, went to the temple to pray. A pharisee who did everything right went to the temple to pray, and so did a tax collector who did everything wrong. Everyone all together, the whole of humanity, you and I went to the temple to pray.
There is nothing praiseworthy about going to the temple. One way or another, we all find ourselves there.
Two people went up to the temple to pray.
The pharisee took up his position, because he knew who he was and where he was supposed to go. This was good of him. It’s good to know where your position is, your place in society, your role in the community, your particular pew in church, your particular spot to stand and pray. “Pharisee” has come into our language as a colloquialism for “hypocrite.” But as far as knowing what to do and doing it to the letter in one context or another, they weren’t wrong. They came the closest of anyone to get it right. No one is perfect, but there is supposed to be a Law, and the ones who try to keep the Law are trying to do right.
The tax collector stood off at a distance.
Who was he standing away from?
At this point, was he standing off at a distance because he didn’t feel worthy to approach God? Or did he want to avoid the pharisee’s eye? Did he want to stand at a distance from God, or from the pharisee and what the pharisee might say?
I don’t know.
And when I see someone who doesn’t go to his place, doesn’t behave as I think he should, doesn’t seem to be following the Law, I don’t know that about him either. I never know who is standing apart from God, or apart from me. I don’t know if he’s doing it because he hates God or because he hates what believers have done to him, and neither do you.
The man who knew his place went to his place and began to pray, but not to God. He may have thought he was talking to God, but he wasn’t. Christ tells us that he spoke a prayer to himself.
He told himself, “‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
“O God, I thank you that I am not like everyone else. I am the one who does what I am supposed to do.”
And that prayer doesn’t rise to Heaven like the sacrifice of Abel. It descends to the netherworld like Cain’s offering, because God is truth and that prayer is a lie. The pharisee is like the rest of humanity– greedy, dishonest, adulterous, and all the rest, and at some level he knows it. He’s been given the great grace to know where he’s supposed to stand and what he’s supposed to do, and he’s been given the means to stand there and do it, and so far he’s faced little resistance, and he’s done his best and haven’t made mistakes that are apparent to anybody else. But he doesn’t know where he’d have ended up if that grace hadn’t been given to him. On his own, he’s no different from anybody else. And faced with that grace, He doesn’t ask the Lord’s mercy. He just exalts that he isn’t like somebody else.
But he is like everybody else.
The pharisee surely felt quite happy after saying a prayer like that. He must’ve left the temple with a spring in his step. He went where he was supposed to go, and celebrated that he had done what he was supposed to do.
The tax collector doesn’t even lift his eyes to Heaven.
Who taught him not to lift his eyes to Heaven?
He beat his breast and muttered the quickest of prayers. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
That was all.
He stood in the back away from anyone. He didn’t look at God because he didn’t feel that he should. He wasn’t the right kind of person and he didn’t do what he was supposed to do. He didn’t have a Praise Report to give. He didn’t have a mountaintop experience. He had a miserable time; he snuck into the back of the temple, stared at the ground and muttered a quick prayer. He surely walked away feeling as bad as ever.
But, unlike the pharisee, the tax collector prayed.
He told the truth, and the truth rose to Heaven as a prayer. The tax collector was, indeed, a sinner. He admitted it and prayed for help.
I can’t imagine what happened after that.
Maybe things went on just as they were. Maybe the pharisee went on doing everything just as close to right as he could and the tax collector went on doing everything wrong.
But at that moment, two men went to the temple– all of us together went to the temple.
And those of us who said to ourselves that we were better than anybody else because we were standing in a temple instead of any other place, doing what we were supposed to do instead of something we shouldn’t be doing, not like those people over there standing in the back with sad expressions, failed to pray, and walked away not justified.
Those of us who talked to God, and begged His help, were justified, even though we were doing it wrong.
This is what humility is: to stand in the presence of God instead of your own. To step out of yourself and stand in the Presence of the One Who is greater. And there, in His presence, to speak your petition to Him instead of your own self. And yes, you’ll be conscious that you’re doing everything wrong, because the fact is that in the presence of the One Who is greater, no one gets it exactly right, not even a pharisee. It doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to try to do everything right, it just means you stand there just as you are and acknowledge the ways in which you don’t. And then you say “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And you walk away justified, because you stood in the Presence of the One Who is greater, and told the truth, and asked for mercy, and He graciously provided it because that was what He wanted to do in the first place. He wanted to supply for you wherever you were lacking. He knew from the beginning that you couldn’t do what you were supposed to do; that was never a question in the first place. That’s where He comes in.
If you exalt yourself, it doesn’t matter how close you came to doing what you were supposed to do, because you aren’t standing in the Presence of the One Who is greater. You’re pretending to be Him. And that’s a lie. And so you’re not praying but talking to yourself. And God can’t grant you mercy, much as He wants to, because you won’t go and stand in His presence. So you go on believing yourself justified when you are not. You won’t see all the minuscule ways in which you’ve gotten it wrong, not until it’s too late.
And so, whoever exalts himself shall be humbled in the end. But if you humble yourself, you will be exalted.
(image via wikimedia commons)
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