BIBLE READING: Luke 18:9-14
A Medieval monk was reported as saying that everyone who gets to heaven will be surprised by three things: First, they will be surprised to see many they did not think would be there; second, they will be surprised that some are not there whom they had expected to see; and third, they will be surprised that they themselves are there.
I awoke early one Saturday morning to the doorbell ringing. It was one of the women who came to the church. She nearly fell into my arms sobbing. When I got her into the light, I could see she had one of the largest black eyes I had ever had the misfortune to see. “Garry hit me!” she cried, in tones of shock and incomprehension. “He hit me, and threw me out of the house. What am I to do?”
With Margaret’s help I settled her down and started thinking, what was I to do? I didn’t have long to think before Garry was at the door. “Martin, I hit Brenda, I didn’t mean too, and now she’s gone. What am I to do?” The rest of the night was a bit of a mess.
I was angry at Garry, and helpless to rectify the situation. How could he do such a thing? After all, he was a new Christian and Christians didn’t do such things. Finally they left, Brenda to the Hospital, because her eye looked damaged, and Garry back home to their children.
Saturday afternoon I went to see Brenda in the Hospital. She told me that she and Garry had decided to explain her black eye as a motorbike accident, and she begged me not to tell the doctor anything about the previous night.
I went home in a quandary. What was I to do? Anyway Sunday morning soon came and I was leading worship, and who should troop in but Garry and his children. It just didn’t seem right - he needed to show more remorse and repentance - where was his backbone - why couldn’t everyone else see what I saw - a wife beater.
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."
Jesus told this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax man to those who “were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” Who is that?
“Two men went up to the temple to pray…”, they go up for the 3:00pm sacrifice, a regular service of worship. It’s a story about worship, about people who pray.
Two people go up to pray, to worship. Their posture is the first thing you notice. The Pharisee stood with himself. He stood by himself, presumably in some prominent position, yet alone, detached, not too close to “sinners”, the other worshippers. As was the custom, he was standing praying aloud, under his breath. Listen to his prayer:
First he lists the sins which he has not committed, then his good deeds. He not only avoids sins, he does good. Among his good deeds were those he was in no way expected to perform: voluntary fasting twice a week, no doubt interceding for others’ sins while he fasts. He tithes everything he buys so as to be sure he uses nothing which has not been previously tithed. He goes beyond the “second mile” in his giving. Nowhere is the Pharisee's piety or goodness condemned. Here we have a good man. a very good man.
Some have gone heavy on the Pharisee for his prayer, but I find nothing wrong with it. His prayer begins, “God, I thank you….” The man is thankful. He knows his virtues come as gifts from God. The tax collector over in the corner is far more wealthy than the Pharisee, but the Pharisee wouldn’t change places with him. Unlike our prayers, the Pharisee doesn't bother God with a long list of petitions. He asks for nothing for himself. He only wants to give thanks. He feels gratitude because he is so well off.
The stance and the prayer of the tax collector is equally revealing. As a tax collector he had ample opportunity to defraud. In contrast to the Pharisee, he stands “at a distance.” And why not? He, sinner that he is, flunky of the Roman overlords, no wonder he dares not even lift his eyes toward God. He can only bow his head, beat his breast. For him repentance, true repentance which the law demands, requires not only abandonment of his profession but restitution of his evil gains plus an added fifth. How can he know all whom he has cheated? He is hopeless. He doesn’t pray, he cries out, he raves - “God have mercy.”
The cheating tax collector claims nothing, but asks everything. Lacking anything to give God, he asks for a gift.
Then comes the surprising line. “I tell you that this man (this fraudulent tax collector), rather than the other (the Pharisee), went home justified (righteous, blessed with God’s pleasure) before God.”
Two men, says Jesus, went up to worship before the altar - one a good, bible believing, faith practising, liberally giving Pharisee. The other a bad, money grabbing, immoral tax collector. Two men went home. One, the tax collector was atoned for, forgiven, justified, blessed. The Pharisee was not.
The point? It can’t be “OK guys, lets get in there and be humble!” Such self-conscious posturing, such “humility” infects too much of our worship already. Besides, have you ever tried to be humble? Either you are humble or you aren’t! Pride takes many forms, doesn’t it? “God, I thank you that I don’t make a big deal of my religion and pray showy prayers, not like those religious fanatics.” God, I thank you that I know your spiritual blessing, not like those who resist you.” God, I thank you that I know my weaknesses and admit them, unlike those hypocrites.”
Like the Pharisee, it’s so easy for our best intentioned prayers of thanksgiving to slip into self-congratulation, just as even our best acts of charity can become points of pride, a subtle means of making ourselves look good.
Like the Pharisee, we don’t seek God’s mercy in such prayers - so we usually find none. We come with hands clenched and full, so it’s understandable why we go back home empty. The hard truth of prayer: you often get what you ask for. Like the Pharisee, we also don’t ask of God, so we get none.
The tax collector is not a good man. He is a sinful man. A man without merit. A man without hope. His breast-beating humility is not a virtue for us to copy - it is simply his realistic assessment of his own wretchedness. He is humble.
Neither man is the hero of the story. Both sin - though one sins knowingly and the other sins unknowingly, but both sin. Some sin by stealing and others sin by praying. “God, I thank you that I am not like others,” but both sin. Both come to worship that way.
I think that this is a parable about prayer, about Sunday worship. Jesus says, before any altar of God, in any service of worship, you find mainly two sorts of people - Pharisees and tax collectors. Few of us are one or the other all of the time. There are times when we enter to worship as good bible-believing, righteous Pharisees who ask nothing and get nothing. We are so pleased with ourselves, so competent, so well fixed. We go home with a gnawing emptiness because we were so full before we came. But there are also times in life when we enter this place to worship as tax collectors, needing everything, empty, lost, without hope and (surprise!) return home with more than we dared to ask.
In other words, sometimes we fail at prayer and sometimes we succeed. Sometimes what happens here on Sunday works for us, and sometimes it doesn’t. It is not for us to know when we will go back home “justified before God”. All we know (according to Luke’s preceding parable of the unrighteous judge) is that we are to keep at it. The gift of righteousness, atonement, justification is only God’s to give. Grace is a gift, grace is not grace if it is expected. Sometimes it is there for us and sometimes it is not.
Why? Jesus does not answer that one here. The gift is God’s to give out of his unfathomable mercy. Christians do not go back home righteous and justified because we have prayed correctly. or have done it all in the proper fashion, or have struck a sufficiently humble stance. If we have been justified, if we have been blessed, in our worship and prayer it is only as a gift of God’s love. His mercy is without bounds, extending to sinners of all kinds and their well-said or half-blurted out prayers. It is only through mercy that we ever return home from church any different than we came. Only through mercy for us sinners, only through mercy.
I wouldn’t have been caught dead coming into church, coming into God’s presence that Sunday morning If I had been Garry. I am too careful for that kind of hypocrisy in worship. It’s bad form. I would have kept my distance. I would have had too much pride to be sitting with my children in church, if my wife was in hospital because of my violence.
Two men went up to the temple to pray on Sunday morning, the first, a Uniting Church Minister, the second a wife-abusing drunk… “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”