To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “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. 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.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
My three-year-old Anderson is very interested in superheroes and their villains. “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” may be his favorite question. It was confusing for him to see Darth Vader and hear that he was a bad guy that became a good guy. “Can they do that, Daddy?” Yes, they can, the bad guy can become a good guy.
When we see someone ride into town on a white horse with a white hat, we know that must be the good guy, and we know the image of the bad guy, too. In this parable that Jesus told, the listeners thought they knew where Jesus was going, but Jesus ended up surprising everyone with his point. The parable was not about who was the good guy or the bad guy. The parable was about the proper way to come before God in prayer.
What is the way to pray to God and know that it was pleasing to God? How do we really make a connection to God? This was one of the first questions of humanity. Remember that Cain and Abel had an argument in the book of Genesis that led to the first murder. The argument centered upon God favoring one sacrifice over another. The Psalms ask the question, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3) It is one of our big questions of life that this parable addresses.
Luke set up this parable by introducing who was hearing it: “To some who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.” Luke ends the parable referring to this big question of life: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” Justified by God….How are we justified by God? We learn so much from this simple parable about how to approach God.
The tax collector and the Pharisee were both public figures. A Pharisee kept the law and taught that salvation was found through following the law’s many prescriptions. Pharisees were the well respected keepers of tradition. They were models of piety and religious discipline. The tax collector was on the other side of the respectability scale. Tax collectors were akin to Nazi sympathizers during World War II. They had sold out to the Romans by accepting a tax franchise operation. Tax collectors could collect more from the people, on top of what the Romans prescribed, and they often did, giving them the reputation of being dishonest cheats. Some thought of the tax collectors as being guilty of perpetrating idolatry since the coins they collected had the image of Caesar who claimed to be a god.
The characters in the parable begin with a lot in common. In the parable of Jesus, both of these public figures ended up in the same temple for worship. They were both set apart from the people. Both of them gave prayers, and those prayers set them apart from each other. The Pharisee’s stance in prayer could be translated as “prayed to himself.” He looked up to heaven. He considered others and thanked God that he was not like those other people.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
The tax collector could not even look upward. He beat his chest and prayed in deep humility:
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We know this act of beating the chest happened during times of great mourning. There are no details about what is happening in the life of the tax collector before this prayer, but at the time of the prayer, he prayed for God’s mercy. It would have made perfect sense to the hearers if Jesus added a thunderbolt from heaven hitting the tax collector and turning him to dust. After all, he would be considered the bad guy in this story. Instead Jesus stated plainly that the tax collector was the one whose prayer was received by God. In that story, the tax collector took a step closer to God with that humble prayer. The Pharisee took a step back from God.
How did the crowd hearing this feel? Jesus had favored the traitor instead of the respected religious leader. What this means to you and me is that Jesus stated that God will hear the prayers of a humble heart. The prayers of the Pharisee began horizontally with comparisons to those standing around him. When he looked around he thought that he came out pretty good by comparison, and he didn’t mind telling everyone. The tax collector’s prayer went straight to God, one on one, without any comparison or self-righteousness. For that moment in prayer he opened himself to God’s grace and transformation. As we sang in our hymn just moments ago,
“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”
It is such good news that God loves showing mercy to his people. Exodus 34:6-7 states, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” When we come to God humbly, God hears our prayers just as he
heard the prayer of the tax collector. God never turns away the prayers of the humble in heart.
When we come to God in prayer we may feel we need to remind God that we somehow deserve God’s favor. The Apostle Paul wrote a lot about this tendency toward self righteousness and how he fought it in his life.
“…All the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant- it is dog dung. I have dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ – God’s righteousness.” (The Message translation, Philippians 3:8-9)
God wants to know who we really are and wants us to completely redeem our lives. We are able to find a quiet place and seek God in prayer. It is all right to do that- God wants us to be completely vulnerable and open to his transforming grace. There is a danger in learning that the Pharisee is actually the bad guy in this parable. Our first reaction may be, “God, thank you that I am not like that Pharisee in the parable!” That would be doing exactly what Jesus said we are not to do. We need to guard against self-righteousness. Jesus told this parable so anyone can learn to draw close to God, and that it is possible to connect to God regardless of where you are in your life. Even someone who feels as despised as that tax collector did can come to God with a heart completely filled with humility- and God receives that person. When we clean out the comparisons to other people and come to God of our own accord, true transformation is possible. What a joy to know that God accepts our prayers when we come to him with open hearts truly seeking his salvation! I don’t know how Jesus would have continued that parable, but I would like to think that the tax collector became a changed person after that prayer. God filled him with the freedom of humility to become something new. Yes, it is possible for the bad guy to become a good guy. Amen.