“As long as you are proud you cannot know God.A proud man is always looking down on thing and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” (C.S.Lewis).
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
13 ‘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.”
14 ‘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.’” (Luke 18: 9-14)
This is a cunning little story. It almost forces y0u to hear it at the simplest level, because anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of the New Testament knows that a Pharisee is likely to be cast as a self-righteous hypocrite who stands in opposition to Jesus. You’re left with the assumption that the moral of this story is to be humble.
Yes! Let’s be humble! Not like those darn Pharisees who are NOT humble! “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”
So Jesus manages to turn us on ourselves. How on earth can you be proud of being humble? How can I avoid the kind of self-congratulatory hug that the parable itself would seem to condemn?
First, consider this: everything the Pharisee says is true and accurate.
He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous (see Luke 15:7). So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people…”, but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that he misses the true nature of his blessing. He stands among those “…who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” He trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really all about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusion. He stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.
Here is the contrast. The Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate.
He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.
And all this takes place at the Temple, where the very geography indicated “insiders” and “outsiders,” and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood. But something was about to shift: when Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple was torn in two (Luke 23:45), symbolically erasing all divisions of humanity before God.
And here, God justifies not the one favored by Temple law, but rather the one standing outside the Temple gate, and aware only of his utter need.
It’s a cunning story, a trap. Its real intention is to force you to come clean about yourself!
As soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble we are doomed.
“If the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody. And this is because the most powerful things happen when the church surrenders its desire to convert people and convince them to join. It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the “un” and “non”, they work against Jesus’ teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor, and our neighbor can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, “God shows no favoritism.” So we don’t either.” (Rob Bell)
Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side.
It’s not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.
At the end of this story, the Pharisee will leave the Temple and return to his home righteous. This hasn’t changed; he was righteous when he came up and righteous as he goes back down.
The tax collector, however, will leave the Temple and go back down to his home justified, that is, accounted righteous by the Holy One of Israel. How has this happened? The tax collector makes neither sacrifice nor restitution. On what basis, then, is he named as righteous? On the basis of God’s say so! “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness“!
So here I am, Lord, with nothing to brag about and nothing to claim. I come not for reward but for mercy. And I want to put my constructs of “insiders” and “outsiders” away from me and stand here aware only of my need.
Acknowledging your cross. Receiving your grace. Giving thanks for your love.
PS. So who CAN I look down on?