God, I thank you that I am not like those conservative Episcopalians who walked away refusing to acknowledge gospel hospitality, love, and inclusiveness.
God, I thank you that I am not like the agenda-driven liberal Episcopalians who neither understand nor respect the holy scriptures.
God, I thank you that I am not like the democrats who are driving this country into another failure of socialism.
God, I thank you that I am not like the republicans who only care about themselves and war.
God, I thank you that I study and work hard to have a good life and that I am not like those who leech off of welfare.
God, I thank you that I am a Christian and not like those godless Muslims.
God, I thank you that I am not like….
Now fill in the blank with whatever it might be for you. You may not pray like the Pharisee, but have you ever expressed those opinions in conversation? Have you ever kept those thoughts to yourself in silent self-righteousness?
The one thing we cannot say is,
“God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisee.”
And if we do say that, then our own words become evidence that that is who we are. But that is not who we want to be. We want to be the justified tax collector because we have come to believe that Pharisees are narrow, legalistic hypocrites. To hold that belief sort of sounds like a Pharisee, doesn’t it?
Jesus’ parable sets a trap for us. It is not a trap to catch and condemn us; it is not a trap to separate tax collectors and Pharisees. Rather, it is a trap that stops us and brings us face-to-face with the reality of our life and relationship with God.
We know from historical records that when a Pharisee went into the temple, he would often separate himself from the others there, who he considered to be “unclean”. He was trying to impress God with his personal righteousness by separating himself from the “sinners”. It also seems that the Pharisee was praying to himself. It’s unclear whether his prayer was actually heard by others in the temple or not. But there is little doubt that he was putting on a demonstration for others that He thinks will also impress God.
On the other hand, the tax collector came to be impressed by God. He stood far off, not because he didn’t want to defile himself, but because he feared he might defile others. He understood that he was unworthy to even be in God’s presence. He came, not to impress God or others with his righteousness, but to beg for God’s mercy.
This parable is quite straightforward and simple; it seems to me that we could make a few observations for us to consider, and then spend the rest of our time following the example of the tax collector and taking some time to be impressed by God.
Another important question to ask ourselves is:
Why did we come to church this morning?
There are two reasons people come to church:
- To impress God
- To be impressed by God
It’s not too hard to figure out which of the two came for each of those reasons. Obviously the Pharisee came to impress God.
Look at this prayer that the Pharisee prayed; he’s not praying to God, he’s praying to himself. The Pharisees considered themselves worthy of God’s grace based on their religious performance. They thought they earned the right to demean others and make demands. And this prayer shows this self-righteous attitude.
In Luke 18:11 the Pharisee is demeaning others so that he can elevate himself. Even going so far as to point out a particular person around him, the tax collector. He thinks he’s better than him. In his prayer, he reports all the wonderful things he has done:
fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets.
He’s showing off, bragging.
The Old Testament Law only required a fast once a year. But the Pharisee fasted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. But really, this is just a ploy to attract attention to himself. These were the days the market convened and many people came to town. He was just showing off. And the Pharisee is proud of his religious piousness. His entire prayer centers around how great he is and how terrible everyone else is, especially the tax collector.
These kinds of people have an “I” problem. Five times this Pharisee uses the pronoun “I”. He suffered from two problems: inflation and deflation. He had an inflated view of who he was and a deflated view of who God was. C.S. Lewis wisely said,
“A proud man is always looking down on things and people; but as long as you are looking down you can’t see anything that is above you.”
Ironically, both men got what they prayed for. The tax collector humbly asked for mercy, and he received it. The Pharisee asked for nothing because he thought that he already had it all, and he received nothing.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector shows us whose prayers God respects. It’s not those who appear righteous and exalt themselves, but rather those who humble themselves.
We like to point the finger at the Pharisee, but the reality is we probably have a little of his attitude in our hearts as well. This parable should cause us to pause and reflect,
who are we more like?
We have a tendency to think higher of ourselves than we ought. We see ourselves through rose-colored glasses. But the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector forces us to take off those glasses and see who we really are.
So, who are you more like? The Pharisee and his pride or the tax collector and his humility?
The Pharisee’s prayer is all about himself. His pride oozes out of his prayer. It’s plain to see that the only one he cares about is himself.
And he gets exactly what he asks for. NOTHING.
Look at your prayers.
Who are they about?
Who are they to?
Maybe they aren’t as obviously prideful as the Pharisee’s obnoxious prayer, but what are they centered around?
I find that my prayers drift towards myself if I’m not careful. I naturally head towards pride.
How about for you? Is there pride seeping into your prayers?
The Tax Collector’s Humility
The tax collector understood his unworthiness. He understood that on his own he had no hope.
The irony of the story is the Pharisee was just like the tax collector. While he might look good on the outside, he needed mercy too. But he couldn’t get past his pride to see his need.
We all need God’s mercy and grace. But unless we humble ourselves, we will never see it OR receive it.
Rather than justifying our actions and comparing ourselves to others, we need to come to God with humility. And when we do that, God will not just forgive us, he will justify us.
So, who do you relate to? The meaning of Luke 18:9-14 asks us this question. We are told
“God justifies the humble.”
Spend some time this week thinking about how you can take the tax collector’s posture and rid yourself of the Pharisee’s pride.
If we wish to be right before God, we must be humble.
But, how do we become humble?
Remember who you are.
You are only a small dot in the universe.
If we are humble, God will justify us.
The Pharisee left the temple the same as when he entered. In fact, I think we could even make the case that he was worse off than when he arrived. He had once again missed out on God’s offer of mercy and grace because he didn’t think he needed it. He was so wrapped up in his own self-righteousness that he couldn’t understand the need for humility that would actually bring him closer to God.
The tax collector, on the other hand, went away a changed man. Even though he wasn’t particularly religious and certainly not as well-educated in the Scriptures as the Pharisee, he knew enough about God to recognize his unworthiness compared to God. And that led him to mourn and have great sorrow, a fact that is demonstrated not only by the words of his prayer, but also by the action of beating his chest. And that sorrow resulted in him leaving the temple a changed man, one who Jesus said was “justified.”
So let me ask you again the same question I asked earlier:
Why did you come to church today?
Did you come here as an act of religiosity in which you are trying to impress God and earn His approval and favor?
Or are you here today because you want to be impressed by God and allow Him to send you away changed?
If we’re completely honest, I think most of us would admit that we probably have some mixed motives. I think most of us are here today do want to focus on God and let Him reveal Himself to us and let us see ourselves as we really are, and remember just how much we need Him.
But at the same time, I can’t help but think that all of us have some Pharisaic tendencies as well. And so we can be tempted to look around at others and congratulate ourselves on just how righteous we are compared to others. But when we do that, the problem is this holds God at a distance and we leave there the same as when we arrived. But I’m convinced that God never wants that to happen when we come to church.
We need to take some time to be impressed by God. Take some time to consider who God is and what he has done for us. Take some time to pray to God as you reflect on Him. And as you do, pray like the tax collector, keeping your focus on Him and begging for His mercy and asking Him to change you.
Hopefully that’s why you came to church today.
The way we approach God, even in what may appear to be the simplest way, was a point made by Pastor D. L. Moody when he shared the touching story about a young boy brought up in an English almshouse many years ago.
This child did not know how to read or write, except he had learned the A, B, C’s. One day a man of God came to the almshouse and told the little children that if they prayed to God in their trouble, God would help them.
One day, out in the field looking after the sheep, this boy had a hard time. Then he remembered what the preacher had said and decided to ask God to help him. Several years later, the young lad found work as an apprentice to a farmer.
Someone walking by the hedge surrounding the field heard a voice. As they peered over the hedge to see who it was, they saw the little boy on his knees, saying, “A, B, C, D,” and so on. The man asked, “My boy, what are you doing?” The young child looked up and said, “I’m praying.”
“Why, that is not praying — it is only saying the alphabet,” the man told the child.
The little lad looked up at the man and replied that he did not know just how to pray the right words. Then he said a man once came to his almshouse and told the children that if they would call upon God, He would help them. So he continued, “If I name over the letters of the alphabet, God will take them and put them together into a prayer and give me what I need.” As Pastor Moody stated: “The little fellow was really praying.”
It’s really just a matter of how we position ourselves before God. Do we stand on our doings, our works? Or on His mercy, His righteousness? The people who know how they stand before God and the Pharisee might look a lot alike in worship. Both are smiling, both are generous. But if you sneak close enough, you can hear the difference in the prayers they mutter. There is
“Thank you God for not making me like them!”
and then there is
“Thank you God for enabling me to do what I couldn’t have done on my own!”
The Apostle Peter thought he was so strong, so smart, so full of faith in God, that he would never fall into sin. But Jesus told him that he would deny him three times. Peter is a great example of the passage from Proverbs that says,
“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)
Do you have pride inside of you? It takes different forms. For some of you, the pride inside of you says,
“I am too smart, too strong, to do something bad, like that person over there. I would never fall into sin like that. Never.”
And then you end up doing something really dumb, like the Apostle Peter. Do we have any prideful people walking around the building today? I think we do.
For others of us, pride looks a little different. Someone gets into trouble, and you say to yourself,
“I’m glad I’m not like that person. That person is bad and needs to be punished. But I’m good. God is way happier with me than he is with that person.”
Do we have any Pharisees walking around the building today? I think we do.
“I don’t need to go to church. I already have a strong faith.”
Do you know who has pride? The teachers. The students. The parents. The musicians. Everybody in this room. If you don’t think you have pride, that’s a sign that you have pride.
You hypocrites! (Matthew 23:27)
Isaiah was right when he prophesied this about us. I like what the Message Translation of this verse says:
“First pride—then the crash—the bigger the ego, the harder the fall.” (Isaiah 2:11)
None of us measures up to God’s righteousness. Yet, if we confess our unworthiness, he is willing to forgive. Are we willing to admit it?
How do we pray: like the minister of a wealthy congregation:
“Dear God, I am so grateful for who I am and what I have. I am so grateful that I get to work at a great church and that I don’t have problems other people have. I am so grateful that, like so many people, I have never had a drink. I’ve never smoked. I’ve never used profanity. I have been faithful to my wife and a good father to my children. I always go to church and faithfully pay my tithes. I am just thankful I am not like so many people living such terrible lifestyles. I am so grateful I have never been like them and never will be.”
Or on the other side of town, in a rough urban neighborhood where half the homes were empty, dilapidated, and boarded up. The area was very unsafe. The house was dark because there was no electricity, and it smelled of sweat, urine, and vomit. Used syringes were scattered across the floor. In the upstairs room, a lone chair sits against the wall, and a man sits in front of the coffee table where a line of cocaine has been sprinkled and scraped. He can feel the addiction gripping his heart as he drops to his knees to begin another ritual of snorting that line of cocaine into his nostrils when all of a sudden, a flood of conviction breaks through the dam of his heart. Instead of reaching for the syringe, he looks up to heaven and says,
“Oh God, no other person on this planet is more worthless and less worthy to talk to you than I am. I have made terrible choices, and I am suffering the consequences of them. I am getting what I deserve. God, I am asking you now, ‘Would you please have mercy on me?’”
Which is your prayer?
In the last verse of this parable, Jesus tells us:
“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 18:14)
Delivered at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH; 23 October 2022
 Michael K. Marsh. Interrupting the Silence
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, “The Great Sin”, 1952
 Dorothy Valcárcel, Transformation Garden