I once came across a blog in which a woman who shared her experiences of being a kindergarten teacher for an extremely conservative church run elementary school. She described each of the children in her class and gave them cute little names. There was H20 who always had to wash his hands after EVERYTHING. There was Diva who always needed to be the center of attention and there was Christian. She was the little girl who always volunteered to pray and whose every first answer was Jesus, God or sins. At one point she describes prayer time. Every day they circled up to pray and each child was asked to pray. Many of the kids would pray for their parents, their siblings, their animals or someone they knew who was ill. Christian’s prayer went something like this:
“God help H2O he is making funny faces during writing time. I don’t like that. I asks him to stop. He said he woulds but he still does it. God that is lying and you hates liars. Can you tell him that you hates liars? Then he will stop lying and stop making the faces. I alsos don’t like his shoes, get him new ones. The ones have holes in them and I can sees his socks and they are brown. Amen.”
She would do this with each of the kids in her class, cataloguing for God all the things they did wrong and what she did not like about them. In many ways her very childish prayer was very similar to the Pharisee’s prayer in this passage.
He is thankful that he lives right and acts right and by all measuring mechanisms he knows, is right with God. This little girl knows what a “good little girl” looks like and acts like. I am sure someone has told her that “good little girls” respect other people when they ask things of them. Good little girls don’t lie and lying is telling someone something that is not true. Telling someone you will do something and not doing it is lying. And I am sure her mother, in good faith, told her that “good girls” dress nicely and wear clean clothes. She is working hard to live the way a “good girl” should. She is struggling to be good and live good and look good and she wants God to see that others are not trying as hard as she is and that others are failing where she does not. She feels secure in knowing that she is living and being the “good girl” God wants her to be. But we can all see that on some very fundamental level, she is missing what it means to be a “good girl, “ not to mention what it means to pray.
So we Jesus tells us about the Pharisee. We have heard enough Bible stories to know from the moment we hear about this Pharisee that he is not going to be our hero. Also, I think you have heard enough of my sermons, over the years to know that I am going to tell you, the Pharisees are the good, Bible believing Church going, holiness folk of their day, which means whenever see a Pharisee in the gospels, we should be asking ourselves, “How is this person like us? How am I like this Pharisee?”
Since we know that we are going to need to identify with this praying Pharisee, let us begin by looking at what he did right. Like most people, although he does get things pretty wrong, he does not get it all wrong. This man desires to live right to live out God’s laws in his life. He is clearly working, striving, struggling to live right, to do the right things, to be the person he believes God is call in him to be. He is thankful that is able to live the way God has called him to live. The working and the striving are commendable. Not only that, he knows he can’t do this on his own, and thanks God for being able to live right. Because a part from the grace of God we cannot live right in our own strength. It is because of God that anyone is able to live right, to live out God’s holiness in this world. It is in God’s strength that we are able to be who God calls any of us to be.
Thanking God for his ability to be the person he believes God wants him to be is not where this Pharisee goes wrong. Where he goes wrong is when he compares himself to those around him. Comparing ourselves to other rarely if ever goes right, but it goes especially goes wrong when we do so, to make ourselves feel better than those around us. This man looks around sees the tax collector, who has also come to pray, and sees him as someone he deems to be less than himself and uses that man to make himself fee superior. The Pharisee looks at his life, his effort to live right, his struggle to be the person of God he knows God desires for him to be and not only sees himself as worthy but sees himself as more than worthy, as worthier.
Meanwhile there is another man, who has also come to pray, a tax collector. The tax collector is standing off to the side. Where the Pharisee in his self-assured boldness had placed himself front and center, so he can be sure to be seen, the tax-collector has found a quiet place off to the side, where he might not be noticed and might even go unseen. As he prays he won’t even lift his eyes toward heaven. He knows he has not been who God has called him to be. He knows he has failed and takes on a posture of humility and contrition. He knows just as clearly as the Pharisee does where he stands when it comes to living according Gods laws, statues and commands and due to his understanding of his own sinful actions does not approach God with any kind of confidence. When he prays, he asks God to be merciful, because he knows he is a sinner. His prayer is short and sweet and to the point. He knows he has failed at being the person God has called him to be and asks for God’s mercy.
Each of these men comes to God in prayer. The purpose of the Pharisee’s prayer to thank God for what a great guy he is and in some ways to make sure God know how great he is; to make sure God has noticed that he is working hard to do all the right things and be the kind of person believes needs to be. He also wants to make sure God realizes that he is doing it better than those around him. He is surrounded by people who are failing to live right, who lives do not exemplify God’s character, people who are clearly not doing what is required of them in God’s law and is doing better than all of them.
Meanwhile the purpose of the tax collector’s prayer is to ask God for mercy, for forgiveness. He is letting God know that he knows who he is. He knows what he has done and what he has failed to do and he is coming before God with nothing and asking for nothing more than mercy.
Both finish their prayers and they walk away. Then Jesus tells us about the state of their beings when they walk away. The tax collector was not right with God when he entered the sanctuary. He was a sinner. He had failed at being who God called him to be. He knows this and he asked for mercy and forgiveness. He prayed a sinner’s prayer, and walked away a righteous man. The Pharisee on the other can into the temple, having lived a righteous life, he strove in all things to do what was required of him, like us (more times than we would like to say), he clearly does somethings he should not have done. The two greatest commandments are to love God with all of who you are and to love your neighbor. We can only conclude, if this is the way he is willing to talk to God about his “neighbor” in prayer, and fails so miserably here in the sanctuary of God, at loving his neighbor, that he is not so good at all the other times, in all the other places. He walks away unjustified, unforgiven. He did not see that he was in need of God’s forgiveness, and mercy. He does not ask for it and therefore does not receive it. He prayed a righteous person’s prayer walks away a sinner.
I already told us that we are more like this Pharisee than we would like to admit. We can tell ourselves we would never do what this man did. We never pray like that. We don’t think about others like that. But, Jesus tells us a story about a “good”, “God fearing” person, who is working and striving to all the right things and that is who I, would like to think I am. So I am pretty sure he is talking about me, and my guess is that this is true of you as well, so Jesus must be talk to you to. We are doing it. We are living it. We are here in God’s sanctuary on a Sunday morning. We are God’s chosen, the people of God, the Church, we are the Pharisees.
As “good Christians” is so easy to get caught up in WHO we are. What we are doing. We strive, we struggle, we work, we read our Bibles, we pray, we give to the poor, we donate to Hope’s Cradle, we volunteer at church and in our communities, we participate in all the serving activities of this congregation with a faithful heart seeking for God to shape and change us. But we do not really allow God to shape and change us. Because we are not willing to see HOW God needs to shape and change us.
This Pharisee obviously struggles with pride, seeing himself as better than others. He sees his own righteous struggle, and all he can see is how he has succeeded in doing all the things he sees as the things God would want him to do. He is doing all the things a good Christian does. He sees his life and he knows how he measures up. He is good with God. He is living right, being right, and doing right. He is righteous. He is “a good girl” like the sweet dear kindergarten prayers I told you about and he just like that little girl is painfully aware how those around him are not “good girls.”
This passage is about more than just pride. Although I do suspect many of us could use a little less of it at times, esp. when it comes to our own righteousness. We are good “Christians” we know this passage. We know its admonitions to not look down on others, so what do we do? We add that to the list of things to “not” do so we can be good Christians. Always speak kindly of others. Check. Never look down on others, even when they are not as good at following Jesus as we are. Check. Never think more highly of our selves because we are good, holy, sanctified Nazarenes, who love God and everyone around us just like we should, unlike those Baptists and especially not like those Methodists (God help them as their denominations struggles right now). Check.
Some Christians make humility a cloak they wear with pride. This is bigger than pride. This is knowing we are always in need of God’s mercy. Always knowing where we stand with God, and that we are always at God’s mercy. God is merciful and God will forgive, but we have to know we need it; we have to know that God is offering it to us, even us. Even when we are doing it all right, we still stand before God receiving God’s amazing, beautiful mercy. We are receiving mercy, constantly, always; it is being poured down upon us at all times. We all need it and we all receive it, if we are willing to ask; willing to admit our need of it; willing, even in our righteousness, to humble ourselves before God.
So here is the thing. This is what is hard for us good holy, sanctified Nazarenes who are not supposed to believe that we sin in thought word and deed every day. We Nazarenes know that God has called us to live holy lives of Christian love and perfection. We know that God does not call us to an untenable life. But that God enables us; empowers us to be holy; to love fully and to be the people God is calling us to be. But even in our holiness, we too approach God humbly knowing that we live in the constant flow of God’s mercy. We are not righteous because of our great effort. We are not righteous because we have struggled and strived for holy perfection. We are the people God has called us to be because of the grace and mercy of God.
We all come into God’s presence knowing we need to pray, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” We all need to remember, we are living in God’s mercy, we are swimming in it. We all need it; we all rely on it so that we can be the holy people God is calling us to be. So we can be the loving people God wants us to be; so we can be the holy people God expects us to be.