Our approach to God
The parable we are presented with today gives us the picture of two people who have come to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee is one of a group in the society who has dedicated himself to be ultra pure and righteous. His whole life is lived in perfect obedience to God. Of course, we know that such a thing is impossible for any human. Even those we recognize as saints knew that they were not perfect in all things. But despite his imperfections – which are well known to Jesus – the Pharisee considers himself to be a person whose prayers will ever be heard and answered by God. In his mind God hears only those who uphold the law in its entirety.
And so, the Pharisee has come to the Temple to pray. For him it is part of his perfect obedience to God. He also would want to show others his perfect obedience by his display of public prayer. But as much as he has come to pray in the Temple and seek for God to hear his prayers, we find him casting his eyes around to see not only who is noticing his presence but to judge the heart and the worthiness of anyone else who may have come to pray. His gaze falls on a man whom he recognizes as a tax collector. Tax collectors were even less liked in that day as they were independent businessmen hired by the state. Most of the tax collectors would exact more in tax than the state required as this was the only way they could earn a living wage. Of course, we know well the story of Zacchaeus who had taken such liberties to an extreme.
Seeing this man in prayer, the Pharisee could not resist the opportunity to compare his perfect life of obedience to this scum of the earth. “Thank God that I am not like that man,” declares the Pharisee. Sound familiar? The Pharisee saw a man whom he had no use for; a man for whom he believed God had no use for. In his heart he believed that this man’s prayers to God were useless because God cannot hear the prayers of sinners – or so the Pharisee believed. To his mind anyone who disobeyed the law of God in any way did not deserve to even come to God. The Pharisee could not imagine that God would have nothing to do with such a person. He was the kind of person that God desired. He fasted twice a week, he gave tithes of all he received, he prayed regularly, he watched everything he did and everything he said. He was the perfect man of God. He expected nothing less than to be blessed and loved by God.
He believed that he was perfect and had no need to ever ask forgiveness for himself or to forgive others. Makes you wonder what he was praying! The Pharisee had no difficulty judging the tax collector and determining whether God could or should even be able or willing to listen.
The tax collector, however, had not come to the Temple out of a sense of duty; he had no grand illusions about his life or his righteous standing with God. He came with no expectation that God would even hear his prayer or decide to answer him. But he came to a public place, to a holy place to offer his prayer; knowing that he was not a well-respected member of the society and that others would no doubt question his presence. But this does not deter him from being there. Yet he looks at no one – not even God. He is afraid to lift his eyes to heaven and beats his breast as a sign of repentance and mourning for his life. He is there not for anyone’s benefit except his own. He knows he is a sinner and he asks not for forgiveness but for mercy. He comes to God with a burden and he lays his burden at the feet of God. And when he leaves, he goes with no assurance that he has been forgiven but with the hope that God indeed will be merciful to him. And from what we know of God, we believe that God would answer his prayer and he would find God to be full of grace and mercy toward him who came in all humility and honesty before God.
Whether or not the story Jesus tells was based on two individuals known to Jesus, it would certainly have resonated with the people who were listening. I am sure that many of them had experienced the judgment that the Pharisees would have made about any who were less than perfect in their eyes; and I am sure that many of them either knew of someone or had the experience themselves of believing themselves to be beyond the love, mercy and forgiveness of God. The one trusted more in his ability to live the life of God perfectly of his own strength while the other had no aspirations of ever being perfect. The one congratulated himself on being a person who could do no wrong while the other felt remorse for his life choices and came seeking not to be justified but rather seeking for a little mercy and understanding.
And who does Jesus declare to be right with God? Not the one who believed in his own ability to be perfect and prove to God that he was but the tax collector who was troubled in his spirit and understood he was less than perfect in so many ways.
Often we have been guilty in the church of believing that we are living lives that are more ethical. We have been guilty of making judgments about who is able to be part of our churches and have alienated and isolated people for whom the message of our faith is so vital. We long for a perfect community full of perfect people – our kind of perfect people. But that is not what Jesus saw when he walked on the earth and that is not what God sees in the world today. Even among those called by Jesus to be the inner circle, there were those whose lives were less than perfect, even traitorous.
As a community one of the first things we do is to be led in prayer for the confession of our sins. We do this because no matter how well we believe we are doing in following the will and way of God, we all fall short and need God’s forgiveness and God’s wisdom and God’s presence to guide us. In the assurance of pardon, we find words designed not to single any one of us out but rather an assurance that is meant for all of us.
There, but for the grace of God, go I. We often use that old saying when we find ourselves faced with a situation like that of the Pharisee. But the saying is not meant to enable us to make judgments about others but is meant to help us focus on how God’s presence in our life has made a difference to the direction of our life. We are then given an opportunity to share that presence of God by seeking to be a community of faith that opens the door and allows those who are seeking for God’s grace and mercy to find it. We need to ever remember that if the grace of God is good enough for us, it is good enough for all.
We who are here in this place today have chosen to seek for God. We have come here to worship God; we have come here to express our love for God and our desire to believe that God’s mercy and forgiveness are available to us all. May we never forget to be humble about our life with God for it is not of our own doing that we have this relationship with God; it is of God – God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy and God’s forgiveness. To God be the glory now and forever. AMEN.