TITLE: Not Like Other People SCRIPTURE: Luke 18:9-14
Today's Gospel lesson is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. This is the kind of scripture that preachers love to preach on. First of all, it's a story, and it's easier to get into a story than into Paul's epistles, for example. Secondly, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector comes out where we want it to come out. The Pharisee is a super-religious fellow, a holier-than-thou type whose self-righteousness offends us. Right away, we don't like him. His prayer went like this:
"God, I thank you that I am not like other people:
thieves, rogues, adulterers,
or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week;
I give a tenth of all my income" (vv. 11-12).
Now we don't have any reason to believe that he was exaggerating. Pharisees have gotten a lot of bad press, but they really were pretty good people. They prided themselves on keeping God's commandments -- on keeping them better than anyone, and they probably did just that.
That isn't such a bad thing, is it? Is it bad to be proud of keeping God's commandments? We are usually proud of lesser things.
-- I know of a man who was a college athlete. He is older now, and is proud that he still plays a mean game of tennis. I think that it's wonderful that he keeps in shape, but that doesn't seem as lofty as keeping God's commandments.
-- I know people who are proud of having done well in business or their profession. They have risen to the top, and they are proud of that. I think that it's wonderful that they have done well, but not as wonderful as trying to do what God wants.
-- I know people who are proud of their luxury cars or their luxury homes or their collections of this or that. Those are all lovely things, but not as lovely as devotion to God.
Nevertheless, when we hear this Pharisee pray, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people," we know something is wrong. We don't like the guy, and we know that Jesus doesn't like him either. We know that Jesus is going to give him his comeuppance. When Jesus does so, we stand on the sidelines cheering. We always enjoy seeing prideful people brought down a notch.
The other man in the parable is a tax-collector. To understand this parable, you have to understand that the Jews had even less use for a tax-collector than we do. Tax collectors in that day and age were working for the Roman government that was occupying Israel. They were working for the enemy. They had sold out their own people. They also had the reputation of being dishonest. If you owed $1000 in taxes, they would send you a bill for $1500 and pocket the difference. This tax collector was, undoubtedly, a low-life and a scoundrel.
When it came time to pray, the tax collector was too ashamed even to look to heaven. Instead, he beat his chest and prayed, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."
Now we know that the tax collector was a bad man, but there is something touching and spiritually healthy about asking for mercy. We know that God is merciful, so we feel that this man is on the right track. Also, we like rooting for the underdog, and this man is the spiritual underdog in this story. If we had to take sides, we would certainly support this man rather than the arrogant Pharisee.
In fact, whenever I read this parable, I find myself thinking, "Thank God I am not like this Pharisee. Thank God that I am like the tax collector. Thank God for giving me a bit of humility."
And then I realize how tricky this parable is. Once I say, "Thank God I am not like this Pharisee," I become like the Pharisee. It is this phrase, "Thank God that I am not like other people," that is the problem, and I find myself saying it -- at least to myself.
-- Thank God I am not like those drug addicts.
-- Thank God that I am not like people who break into people's homes and steal.
The list goes on and on, doesn't it! Each of us has a list of people whom we consider especially stupid or offensive. While we might not be so bold as to pray, "Thank God I am not like those people," that thought does, on occasion, occur to us.
So my relationship to this parable is much like the relationship of an insect to a pitcher plant. The pitcher plant looks innocent and delicious to insects, but it is a carnivore -- it feeds on insects. It looks attractive to insects, which land on its downward sloping leaves. But soon the insect finds itself sliding down the slippery leaves toward the deadly center where the plant's digestive juices are concentrated. Soon the insect has gone beyond the point of no return-- beyond the point where it can hope to extricate itself.
This parable looks harmless, too, until I suddenly find myself trapped by it. C.S. Lewis put it this way. He said:
"No sooner do we believe that God loves us
than there is an impulse to believe that He does so,
not because He is love,
but because we are intrinsically loveable."
That is what happened to the Pharisee. And that is what happened to me. And, I suspect, that is what happened to you at some point too.
"God, I thank you that I am not like that person." When have you said that? I think that this is one of those sins that plagues nearly everyone.
"God, I thank you that I am not like that person." This is everyone's sin. It is the sin of unreligious people. They pray:
"Thank God that I am not a hypocrite.
Thank God that I am not like those churchgoers.
I know, God, that I am not a very good man (or woman),
but at least I don't pretend to be better than I am.
Thank God that there is nothing two-faced about me."
But it is also the sin of religious people -- especially the sin of religious people -- church people -- good, God-fearing Christians -- good citizens -- people who pay their taxes and do their work. In other words, it is our sin when we pray:
"Thank God I am not like those lowlifes!
Thank God I am not like those sinners!
Thank God that I try to do the right thing.
I might not always succeed, God,
but my heart is in the right place."
This is certainly a problem for Christian fundamentalists. They find it so tempting to pray:
"God, I thank you that I am not like other people --
carousers, Biblically illiterate, doctrinally unsound.
I attend church every time the doors are open,
and I give generously of my time and money."
Oh, how we love to despise the fundamentalists! But this parable is no kinder to liberals. How tempting it is for liberals to pray:
"God, I thank you that I am not like other people --
like those fundamentalists,
caught up with all their rules and regulations.
Thank you, God, that I help the helpless.
Thank you, God, that I pressure the government to develop humane laws.
Thank you, God, that I am not like those fundys."
This parable plagues even the apathetic. How tempting it is for apathetic people to pray:
"Thank you, God, that I am not like other people --
Thank you, God, that I have learned to sit back
and wait for you to take care of things."
This parable is even a problem for sinners. The tax collector was a sinner, of course, but the parable doesn't let sinners off the hook. Donald Bloesch reminds us:
"The laxity of the Publican is just as repugnant to God
as the self-righteousness of the Pharisee.
In the parable it is not the Publican as such
but the REPENTANT Publican who is praised."
So this parable afflicts us all, and there is a terrible penalty associated with the Pharisee's pride. C.S. Lewis again has the words. He says:
"A proud person is always looking down on things and people;
and, of course, as long as you're looking down,
you can't see something that's above you."
Or, as Dwight L. Moody put it:
"God sends no one away empty,
except those who are full of themselves."
Or as Jesus put it:
"All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (v. 14).
The answer to the problem is simple. Jesus includes the answer in the parable. The answer is found in the tax collector's prayer. Too ashamed even to lift up his eyes to heaven, the tax collector prayed, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."
And that is all it took for him.
And that is all it takes for us.
"God, be merciful to me, a sinner." That is the prayer that saves. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Let it be our prayer.