A few weeks ago, I was preparing for my sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and The Tax Collector.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, in Luke 18:10-14 Jesus says, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man 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.”
I’m about halfway through preparing my sermon outline when I started to think about my older sister.
My sister got to try out everything first and if my parents did not like it, I was not allowed to do it.
To me, this seemed like my parents liked me better. After all, why shouldn’t they? I was not the troublemaker of the family.
Now that I have kids of my own, I understand how shortsighted it was to think that way.
My sister is a wonderful person and when I read that parable again with my sister in mind I had a rather humbling thought: I was the Pharisee, my sister the tax collector, and my parents are like the loving God gently guiding both children on the straight and narrow.
Though I doubt Jesus had me in mind when he said these words (perhaps an added bonus) Jesus often taught in extremes to prove points.
In this case we see two men. The Pharisees were highly respected in the community and others aspired to be like them. The tax collectors were considered to be cheats and traitors.
Just mentioning both men by their profession was powerful enough to recall many different thoughts and feelings to the forefront of those listening to the parable that day.
If Jesus had left out the middle part of the parable the audience would have assumed the Pharisee was the one who was justified by God.
Fortunately for us, we do not have to assume. The answer is given to us.
Notice above how many times the Pharisee uses the word “I.” Furthermore, notice how many times he implies the word “I.”
By contrast notice the reaction of the tax collector. By standing far off, he chooses the lowest seat. By not looking up he admits his guilt. By beating his breast, he shows his remorse (a sign of mourning).
One reeks of hubris while the other cries out for mercy. It is not even a contest; the tax collector is the better man here.
Pride is a struggle many of us deal with. I think this is because there is a strong desire in all of us to be in control of our situation.
In a time of great trial Joan of Arc was asked the following question: “Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?”
It was a question designed to trap her into saying something condemning.
Her humble response left her questioners in shock. She replied, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”
She did not say, “At least I’m not like you.”
Joan of Arc understood something a lot of Christians tend to miss: No one is beyond God’s mercy and nothing we do can save us.
Paul confirms this in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
My prayer for all my brothers and sisters in Christ reading is that you continue to seek humility in all things and that God may bless you in your humility.
After all, it is only he who humbles himself who will be exalted.