What do I mean by that? Luke gives a quick preface to this parable: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable..."
Haven't we occupied, at one time or another, both roles?
Today, the Pharisee mode is in full swing:
I walk out of the door of my nice house, climb into my nice car and buzz down the road, to my nice office. On my way to work, I see some guy standing out in front of a stoplight with the cardboard sign of woe: homeless, moneyless, out-of-work-less and I think (in my heart, of course), "Clueless. I am not giving you dime one. Why can't you be like me and get a job?"
I drive to work. I walk into the office and notice my fellow worker's desk: all askew with sticky notes multiplying on monitors like mold in a cabin shower. I say (in my heart, of course) "Why can't she be like me? My desk is organized. That's why she can never find anything and is always asking me for things."
I head to lunch and notice the heavily-tatted young woman behind the counter. I order my food and notice that she moves at a glacial speed to fill my order. I'm thinking (in my heart, of course) "You're going nowhere sister, with all those tats. Why didn't you spend your money on education, so you don't have to work such a dead-end job? I bet you have screaming kids and your take-home pay won't even take you home."
So...We have our Pharisee mode. We feel so better. We feel so blessed. We go forth with a critical heart for those who don't measure up to our standards; we have contempt and wish those folks could just be like us. Then their problems would go away and they could be, well, like us.
We don't just have a standard; heck, we are the standard.
Some days, the Tax Collector is us:
I walk out of my apartment, and head for the stoplight. It's degrading but with all of the money I owe the court, begging seems to work. Yeah, I get a lot of flak--jeers, sneers and an occasionally rock or bottle thrown my way. But I do get an occasional smile. If you had asked me two years ago if I'd be standing by a stoplight, begging for money, I would have laughed. A lot can happen in two years. Yeah, I get it. I should get a job, right, lady, sneering at me in her nice car?
Or: I sit down at my desk, with my husband's angry words still ringing in my ears. I forgot about picking up the kids at Grandma's last night. The boss always has some last minute must-do he places on my desk, causing me to walk out each day a little later. The sticky notes are numerous because my work gets broadsided by my boss. Trying to find a new job would take too much time. With my husband's job always on the brink of being outsourced, I have to work this job. Options dwindle while the sticky notes pile up. Why must my co-worker stare at me every time she passes by my desk?
Or: We drop the toddlers off at Mom's; am I pregnant again? I was careful this time. I can't afford to lose this burger job. I am so tired today; Ben was up all night screaming, and Toby seemed to be feverish. I hate this job; I hate being away from the boys. Am I pregnant again? Nate and I were careful...Why is that customer sneering at me? I know I'm slow...
So, let's hear from our two in Jesus' parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 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 18:10-13)
The Pharisee looked around, and measured his goodness by himself. He wasn't a robber, an evildoer, an adulterer, or even like that tax collector over there. He may have gone to the temple to pray, but it turned quickly into a Personal Praise Session, with whom he loves the most at the center. I love the little detail Jesus throws in: the Pharisee stands by himself. He doesn't brush elbows with the average Joes standing in the temple.
He stands by himself, and for himself.
The Pharisee is in his nice world, all sparkly and good. He doesn't know or even care to know the stories of his fellow human beings. He is the standard, and everyone needs to man-up and be like him. He rolls out his righteous deeds as if God needs to be reminded. He probably is not praying quietly; I am sure his "prayer" is a rather loud recitation of his goodness.
Notice the brevity of his prayer. No thanking God for His blessings, His love or for His provision. You might, in the movie version of this, hear "I Did It My Way" playing in the background. He mentions God once, and himself four times. This ratio shows his heart.
The tax collector stood "at a distance." Hmmm...Was he close enough to hear the Pharisee's prayer? Or did the Pharisee pray loud enough to for the tax collector to hear him?
Either way, the Pharisee's words would have reinforced what the tax collector already knows: he is a loser. He isn't even worth the powder to blow himself up with.
The tax collector will not look up to heaven. His heart is weighed down with the burden of his own inadequacy. He knows, according to everyone's scornful looks--with the Pharisee happily weighing in--that he is a loser. He rolls this out to God by saying he desperately needs His mercy, for he is a "sinner."
He mentions God once and mentions himself twice. God can work with this kind of ratio.
Why? Because God wants us to humbly acknowledge our need for Him.
Jesus puts a coda on this parable by saying that "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Some days we are the Pharisee, comfy and cozy in our superiority, and seeing God as a divine Master Card, all too willing to meet our needs because of our goodness.
Some days we are the tax collector, so weighed down in our shame and blame that we dare not look up to heaven.
While the tax collector is certainly closer to God in admitting his need, he is also forgetting one important fact: He is a child of the King. "For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God…" (Rom. 8:14-16)
The tax collector can be akin to the Prodigal Son. He can return home with a repentant heart, and the Father is eagerly awaiting him. But, what if he just stands there, humble but unwilling to embrace the Father? Jesus points out that humility swings wide the gates of Heaven. His humility "justified" or made him right with God. Now what?
God wants our fellowship, so with humility comes community. God wants us to join Him in His work on this planet. Standing there, beating our breasts and crying out that we are sinners is a start, not a finish. He wants to justify us to set us free to do what He has commissioned us to do: win the tax collectors and Pharisees to the Kingdom of God.
The Pharisee is equally a child of the King.
He is akin to the Prodigal Son's older brother. He is so focused on doing good for God, that he has forgotten God and is angry that he needs to remind Him of his works.
Both are equally precious to God. Both can work for the Kingdom.
One needs to humble himself and realize his works should come from his love for God. Pride must be put aside. He needs to bow before God, asking for God's forgiveness. He must now walk as the son that he is.
One needs to realize how deeply God loves him. He needs to rise up and accept God's forgiveness. He must now walk as the son that he is.
The coldness of this world needs the light of His love.
My pride and my abasement will slam a bushel over His light in me.
I must seek His forgiveness and walk as His child.
He died to make this possible.
My "goodness" and my sin were equally nailed to His cross.
He, because of the cross, offers me a crown.