I know this is hard for us to wrap our heads around, but apparently, back in Jesus’ day, people used to puff themselves up to appear better than they actually were.
Entirely unrelatable – amiright?
Entirely unrelatable unless, of course, you’re a social media user and take great pains to share with the world only the tidiest, most photogenic snippets of your life.
Entirely unrelatable unless, of course, you’ve sent out your resume any time in the past few years and you tried to make your work history sound a little more impressive than it actually is.
You were a “Vision Clearance Specialist” not a window washer.
A “Customer Happiness Hero” not a just another customer service representative.
A “Beverage Dissemination Officer” not a mere bartender.
A “Brand Warrior” not a lowly marking associate.
You were a “Meat Distribution Engineer” and not a deli-counter staffer at your local supermarket.
While we are indeed 2000 years and several continents removed from the boastful pharisee in this passage from Matthew Chapter 18, we get this guy. We get this guy on deep, deep level.
Because like it or not, we ARE this guy!
So this morning’s parable goes like this: there were two men in the temple praying.
The first man is a Pharisee. That is, he was a member of a reform movement within Judaism that emphasized the importance of being obedient to the Law of Moses in all things big and small.
And this Pharisee he pulls away from the crowd in the temple, separating himself presumably to stand a bit closer to the Holy of Holies where God’s presence was believed to reside. But also, no doubt, in order to be better seen and heard by the other worshippers around him.
From this prime position the pharisee says aloud a prayer.
He says: “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people – cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.”
No amen at the end. He just kinda drops his mic and saunters away.
Obviously, this prayer is all kinds of obnoxious. While technically it’s a prayer of thanksgiving, it’s actually all about the Pharisee himself. But what’s not obvious at first glance is how sneaky the Pharisee is being here.
While it’s true that the Law of Moses has a lot of rules there is NOTHING in there about needing to fast twice a week.
So even though it has nothing to do with leading a good and righteous life as spelled out in the scriptures that the pharisee claims to follow so scrupulously, he’s just kinda slipping that in there for extra credit.
In other words, he’s trying inflate his spiritual resume as to puff himself up before God and before his fellow worshippers.
Better than this says Jesus, is the Tax Collector – who did all kinds of messed up things in his day to day life – who simply stood up and said, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.“
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Luke 18:9-14 (New Living Translation)
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It’ a downright shame that this parable of Jesus is not considered a foundational text for our churches.
What it tells us is that what God wants of us isn’t moral perfection or an impressive spiritual resume. Rather, what God wants is for us us to be our honest, authentic selves. No more or no less.
But how often is it that we treat church like any other social gathering, where we take great pains to puff ourselves up and present to God and to each other, only the tidiest, most photogenic snippets of our lives.
We show up freshly showered, shaved, faces on looking like we just stepped out of a J. Crew catalog
We have polite little conversations with people not letting them see how much we’re struggling.
We share our prayer requests, yes we do. But we share only nice glossed over versions that don’t let on what a mess we really are.
But when that happens, a church has missed its point ENTIRELY. Out of anywhere on earth a CHURCH is supposed to be place where you can come as you are. As broken, as messy, and as as sinful as that may be.
That’s we we offer this welcome at the beginning of every service: “Whoever you are, wherever you , however you are, whatever you may done in the course of this week or the course of your life, you are welcome here.”
So come not as a “Vision Clearance Specialist” but as a window washer.
Come not as a “Beverage Dissemination Officer” but as a bartender.
Come not as “Meat Distribution Engineer” but as a deli-counter staffer.
Come not convinced of how holy you are in comparison to others but recognizing that you, like all of us, are just another sinner in need of God’s mercy.
May it be so!