(08-08-17) Worship is not a competition - Micah 6.6-8; James 1.22-end; Luke 18.9-14
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The 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. 12I 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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Olympic Games are of such international significance that, in the last week, they have frequently eclipsed the prospect of open warfare in Northern Georgia. Every four years the eyes of almost the entire world turn to watch athletes competing in every conceivable discipline. We get to see, from the comfort of our homes, remarkable achievements as the best sportsmen and women in the world seek to go ‘faster, higher, stronger.’ I’ve heard it suggested that the talent on display would appear even more impressive if an ‘average’ person like you and I were allowed to compete alongside the Olympians. Running the 100m in 30 rather than 9.69 seconds; failing to clear a 1m high jump whilst the rest of the competitors sail over 2m and throwing the javelin 10m rather than approaching 90m.
There’s something special about people competing to be the best at something. So often it’s the threat of the competition that brings out the best performance. We compete at all manner of things; some more obviously than others. But, quite clearly, Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel reading that we are not meant to compete when it comes to matters of faith. In God’s sight, the Pharisee’s self-important claims about his own righteousness mean nothing. You could almost compare his bragging and boasting to a victory lap; making sure that everyone present knows just how impressive he is, just how good a person he is, how much he fasts, how much he gives in the temple.
Yet he had obviously never read the prophet Micah. Had he done so, he would have heard God’s declaration that it is in justice, mercy and humility that He takes delight. It is those things which He seeks in His creation and those are the acts which He sees as true worship of Him. The Pharisee acts in almost exactly the opposite way, whereas the tax-collector certainly has humility right. We know from the story of Zacchaeus that tax-collectors were often dishonest and ruthless in seeking personal gain, and that is possibly the suggestion here. So, although he may be lacking in justice, he knows the importance of mercy (as he pleads for it from God) and acts in true humility.
And the apostle James would have approved, too. Some years after Jesus was telling this story, as James wrote that we are to ‘be doers of the word, and not hearers only,’ he may even have had this tax-collector in mind. But even as ‘doers’, we are not to attempt to ‘out-do’ one another. That would be to miss the point of the doing. How can we compete in love for God whilst loving one another as we love ourselves? How can two people challenge each other for last place, which Jesus exhorts us to seek after? We cannot and should not, for it is our hearts which are tested as God seeks those who worship Him; for as we read in 1 Samuel, “[M]an looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”