When I was young I used to wonder whether Jesus had a sense of humor and if so, what would have made him laugh. Well, now that I’m older, and I think this story shows that, Jesus must have had a great sense of humor, and that he really loved the absurd.
Now, maybe this story doesn’t seem particularly funny to you at first, but let’s put it into contemporary terms. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of their time, and were very highly thought of. So, let’s imagine me as the Pharisee. I come in here and I say, “Let us pray.” And then I say, “God, I am so thankful to you that I’m so much better than all these other people here. I mean, just look at them, God. I’m better than him, I’m better than her, I’m better than him, I’m—well, I’m just plain better than all of them. You know, just think about it, God—I go on hospital visits, I read the Bible every day, I pray several times a day, I give a tremendous sermon every week. When it comes down to it, it just doesn’t get any better than me, does it, God? So I just thank you for making me so holy. Amen.”
Now, obviously I’d never do that, and I don’t think the Pharisees really did it. Jesus was clearly exaggerating in this story. His audience would have thought this image of the Pharisee praying this way was funny.
Jesus was exaggerating to make a point. And his point was just what our passage says: that we’re not to trust that we are righteous and so regard others with contempt.
None of us would ever pray like in my example, but still, we are prone to start feeling pretty righteous sometimes. There are people right here that we tend to look down on, that we “regard with contempt”, as our scripture says. There are times when we watch the news, and we see certain people and we think “Well, I’m a lot better than he or she is.” Or, when we see certain groups of people and think “The group of people I belong to is a lot better than that group.” We all have people, or groups of people, that we look down on, that we regard with contempt. We feel like we’re more righteous than they are. We wouldn’t come out and say it quite that way, but I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, we know that’s true.
The thing is that God does not look at things the way we do. God does not compare us with each other. God does not look at us and say, “he’s better than she is, and she’s better than he is, and this group is better than that group.” That’s just not the way God works. God looks at each one of us individually, and when God looks at us individually, what God sees in each one of us is a sinner. God doesn’t say, well, you’re kind of a sinner, but you’re not as bad a sinner as this other person, so it’s okay. God looks at each one of us and sees someone in need of repentance and forgiveness.
But we’re not always like the Pharisee, are we? Part of the genius of Jesus’ stories is the way we can identify with so many characters at so many times. Yes, we’re like the Pharisee sometimes, but there are also times when we’re like the tax collector.
While we certainly can feel self-righteous sometimes, there are other times when we know exactly who we are, and we know exactly what we are. Sometimes, we feel like we’re totally worthless. We feel like no one understands us, like there’s no one who cares. We know we need forgiveness, but we don’t even feel like we can go to the Lord and ask for it. We feel like we aren’t worthy of God’s love, or God’s forgiveness. We feel so unworthy that we don’t even know if we can come to the Lord at all, because we don’t know if God would want anything to do with us.
And yet, we do come. Just like the tax collector, we come. We come, not because we think we deserve to, but because we just plain run out of anywhere else to go. We know there’s no one on earth we can turn to, so we turn to God. We don’t come because we think we deserve it, we don’t come because we think we have any right to. We come because we’ve run out of any other options. We don’t even necessarily expect anything to happen, but we come anyway, because we don’t have any other choice.
Like the tax collector, we come humbly, on our knees. We come not asking for love or forgiveness, because we know we don’t deserve it. We come asking for mercy.
We ask for mercy, because mercy is the one thing God gives that has nothing to do with us. Mercy, by definition, is not something we earn. Mercy, by definition, is God giving us the opposite of what we deserve. Mercy is God being kind to us when we don’t deserve kindness. Mercy is God showing love to us even when we’re unlovable. Mercy is God granting forgiveness to us when we’ve done things that don’t seem forgivable.
The tax collector knew he didn’t deserve anything from God. That’s why he asked for mercy. And look what Jesus says. Jesus says that God gave him more than what he asked for. God exalted this tax collector. God raised this tax collector higher than he’d ever been, because he had come to God admitting who he truly was.
Two people. One of them highly respected, the other despised. One of them believed what everyone said he was, the other knew what he really was.
We know which one we’re supposed to be like. Now, we just have to do it.