Jesus told a story one day to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV).
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11 NIV84).
Notice the list, from robbers to tax collectors. Seems like some kind of progression, right? The bottom line is when I want to think better of myself, it helps to have a list of all the things I’m not. Let’s be brutally honest…this listing exercise is a diversionary tactic. As long as we can keep the focus on them, no one is looking at us.
It’s hilarious that the Pharisee would pray this way, and that he “stood up” to do it. What an obnoxious sense of pride and arrogance. Probably cleared his throat, “Eh hem.” Then he proceeded to “pray about himself.” Jesus is making this story up, and it’s dripping with sarcasm.
I’m pretty sure he imitated this guy with some kind of snobbish British accent.
Almighty God of the Universe, thou who reigns on the eternal throne of the highest Heaven. I have decided to grace you with my presence today. I come in gratitude today, omnipotent one, and let me begin by thanking you that I’m awesome. I’m not sure if you had anything to do with that, O Lord, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. I certainly look good here next to that guy, which is why I decided to stand up to greater illustrate the comparison.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, mighty one, I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get (Luke 18:12).
The first step in self-aggrandizement is to make a list of the people who are beneath me. Step two is to make a list of all the things I do well.
And while I’m at it, Holy Omniscient Benefactor, please don’t forget all that I’ve done right. My piety, and my contributions to your account.
He sounds like a person giving money to charity who expects to have his name put up on a wall somewhere. The problem is, the Pharisee did not really go to pray; he went to inform God of his goodness. He fasted twice a week? Jewish law prescribed only one fasting day per year, on the Day of Atonement. But these guys were into extra credit. So, they fasted twice a week. History tells us it was likely on Monday and Thursday, which just so happened to be “market day” in Jerusalem when the town was full of people.
This fasting fakery was Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16 ESV).
Those who fasted would literally make themselves look as poor, hungry, and deprived as possible. Even to the point of putting on “fasting makeup.”
What about the other guy at the temple? The “sinner”?
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13 NIV).
That was probably how any tax collector would feel and should feel. There was a reason they had their own sin category in all these stories. He knew who he was and what he’d done, so he stood in the distance. The Pharisee walked right up to the front and prayed about himself. The tax collector stayed in the back. Why? He knew he didn’t deserve to be there. Actually, as a tax collector, he was forbidden from even being in the same place as a normal Jew, so the story has to be somewhat creatively drawn. The church had already decided that if he was going to sell out his Jewish brothers and sisters, he would be treated as such. As a tax collector, he was only allowed to go as far as a Gentile, back where the money-changers and the animal sellers were blocking things up.
This is why Jesus used a tax collector in his story, as the extreme opposite of the holy, fasting Pharisee. Let me make up a term for the issue this Pharisee was struggling with.
Gracism. Religious racism. Gracism, like racism, also excludes someone because a person believes they are superior to another. But this time, it’s not about the color of your skin; it’s about the color of your sin. “I only listen to Christian music. I’m boycotting Disney. I fast twice a week. I think I’ll stand up to pray.”
Gracism – I deserve to be with the Father, but you don’t. Gracism – I am deserving of God’s grace, but you aren’t.
Again, consider the target listener of the story. “To some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV).
But here is the zinger.
I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:14 ESV).
We may not understand all the cultural nuances of his story, but it’s plain to see that Jesus couldn’t have used a more drastic contrast in humanity. It makes for a better story. Most of us don’t feel like we’re as conceited as this Pharisee. In our honest moments, we don’t lie awake at night and think, “Oh, my, I’m such a good person.” Then again, we aren’t as bad as this tax collector, either. We all probably think we fit somewhere in the middle of this story – with perhaps a leaning toward the good side.
Here is the important part, though. It just doesn’t matter.
Being “justified” has absolutely nothing to do with goodness or rule-following or what music they listened to. It’s the exact opposite. This is especially poignant when you consider that much of the Scripture we’ve been reading here was penned by Matthew – the former tax collector.
As a matter of fact, as you watch Jesus interact with people in the Gospels, it really seems like the better a person was at following the rules, the harder time they had humbling themselves before God and asking for mercy.
This is painful to think about as I ponder how the church has handled itself since Jesus went back home.