He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But 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!’ I 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.”
I catch the television news in snatches, when I’m getting ready for work or for bed. Often, there’s a video of somebody who’s accused of (or has been convicted of) doing something bad. It’s not uncommon for this person to have his head covered with a jacket, or to be holding a briefcase in front of her face. Shame? Embarrassment? Fear? On more than one occasion I have smiled to myself and had a snarky thought like, “Well, I might have been snippy with my husband this morning, but at least I am not walking around on camera with a jacket over my head!”
Pharisees were good people. Tax collectors were not.
This Pharisee prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
No, none of us would ever say such a prayer in public, but we have probably had similar thoughts.
The Pharisee felt he not only kept the Law, he surpassed it. The Law required fasting once a year; this guy fasted twice a week. Here was a man who tried very hard to be good. And he felt good telling God about it (and letting others listen in on his goodness). He doesn’t sound like a bad person. He approached God with a pride of having done good things. The fire that burned in his heart was zeal for making sure he was good in the eyes of others and himself, and for exposing those who weren’t so good.
Then there was the tax collector. Even his body language was different. He stood apart from everyone else, his eyes cast down, not up in the customary attitude of prayer. He was overwhelmed by his need for God and his struggle to be forgiven. He had cheated and lied, and made a living from those things. He was a sinner in anyone’s definition. And now here he was in the temple. Who let him in? As someone in a “sinful” profession he wasn’t supposed to be there. He knew that in order to be forgiven he must pay restitution. How would he afford to pay back all those he has cheated over the years? How would his family survive? Would he ever be accepted and trusted in his own community again, after what he had done to his neighbors? The fire that burned in his heart was for wanting to be changed.
Why did Jesus prefer the one over the other, or at least the prayer of the one over the prayer of the other?
God is not an auditor who keeps accounts of good and bad deeds to see how our lives add up.
God is life.
Sometimes we think we are made right with God by being good, or at least being better than “those other people” we see on the news–or anywhere.
But God is life.
When we come to worship, or pray in private, we are made right with God not because we are able to pray just right or because we’ve done all the right things; it is because God is life. The tax collector’s prayer seemed to reflect this, asking for grace. Unlike the Pharisee he seemed to understand innately that God could receive his pain and shame and turn it into life. Not that it would be easy—he had a lot of things to make up to his community and family.
I’d like to think the tax collector left the temple not only justified, but resolved to do something different. To imagine how he might make a life that was just and fair and good, rather than continuing in the practices that brought ill to himself and others.
I’d like to think both men eventually learned that God is life-giving, That the fire of God’s heart and life can purify us from the sins that are visible, and the ones that are harder to see.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2010