9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Christ Jesus gives us the moral of the parable. God will exalt the humble man, but bring down the proud. It’s nice when He does that. We don’t have to debate the meaning.
The religious man saw himself through his culture. He had been raised in a religious household. His religion was conservative, fundamentalist even. His religion taught him that to be a righteous man, he had to not do a list of things that God frowned on. Keeping that list of rules made him a better man. Obeying the religious traditions meant that he was a good man. And God loved good men.
Maybe he believed in predestination. God had, after all, made him one of the Jews, the chosen people of God who had an ‘in’ when it came to getting into kingdom of heaven.
So he thanks God that he was born the man that he is that he is a righteous man. Unlike that filthy sinner over there. He brags a bit to God, just to remind the Lord of his religious observances. He fasts twice a week. He tithes. He’s a good member in standing at his church/synagogue.
Unlike that sinner over there. That guy steals from people. He doesn’t fast. He hangs out with the wrong crowd. He almost never shows up to church, and when he does, we make sure to remind him of all the ways he’s failing in our (and therefore, the Lord’s) eyes. Oh, we just want him to feel bad so he’ll repent, of course, we’ll still remind him of his past failures, because we’re better than him. We have a hotline to heaven. God takes our calls. I’m pretty sure God wouldn’t even be seen on the same street with THAT guy.
If your religion makes you see yourself as better than your fellow man, your religion is wrong.
The other man, having been reminded time and again of his failures, his inability to make God happy, and his wretched state by the religious people, abases himself before God. He pours out the anguish and guilt he feels in one cry of pain, “Please, be merciful to me, I know I’m a sinner. I know I’m horrible. I know I’m awful. Please have mercy, Lord.”
Let’s go back a couple of chapters. Remember the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons? This man sees himself the way he’s been taught to see himself. He doesn’t see himself as God sees him. His perspective is just as warped by his cultural influences as the Pharisees. There is a difference. The Pharisee sees himself as better than he is, so when he is confronted with the truth of how God sees him and how God sees the tax collector, the Pharisee is going to be humbled. He’s not any more special than the man he sees as wretched and vile.
The tax collector… wow… the tax collector, when his eyes are opened, when he sees the Father rejoicing over him, when he realizes that God has been seeking him out in earnest to find him and bring him home into a healthy, loving relationship, that God sees him not as a vile wretch, but as a lost son. That there is a place of honor at the table of the Lord for him… that is amazing. He’s lifted higher than he could ever dream. He is loved. He is accepted. God cherishes him. God will heal that pain he’s felt. God will forgive him his trespasses.
I think as Christians we tend to vacillate between these two extremes more often than we realize. We lose our proper perspective. We start to get big heads. We start to see ourselves as being above other men because we’re doing well. We’re going to church. We’re giving. We’re praying and studying our bibles every day. We’re not screwing up any of the big commandments. Unlike those people. Those folks who should be ashamed of themselves. Those people who are destroying our nation with their evil. Those people who are corrupting our culture.
And then, of course, when we fall (if we fall particularly big), or if we struggle with a particular sin, we come to God scraping and begging for mercy, ready to start flagellating ourselves so we’ll feel less guilty, less like those vile people we were just thinking ill of.
And then once we’re doing well again, oh yeah, we’ve got an ‘in’ with God. We’ll be ruling and reigning over angels. We’re awesome. Unlike those people.
Of the two, the humble perspective is better. It at least puts us on common ground with every other man. We don’t think better of ourselves. We think worse.
But it’s still not the proper perspective. There’s a time for penitence, and there’s a time to accept grace. And if we can’t accept that grace, then we’ll never have the right perspective. We’ll keep jumping back and forth between Pharisee and tax collector, because we see our value based on our goodness as defined by our culture or our churches.
When we accept that grace, we’ll see ourselves as God sees us. A son. And we’ll see others as God sees them. As sons of God and as our brothers. They’re not worse than us, they’re not better than us. We’re all loved, we all have a place of honor at the table of God, we all get lost sometimes and need to find our way back home. And when we have that perspective, we won’t be like the older brother standing outside angry at his wayward sibling, we’ll be right there with the Father running outside to hug him.