The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Every word from his mouth is true. A Pharisee is not like other men. They interpret and teach the Law and the prophets. Someone has to teach the Jews who they are, Whose they are, and how they live under God. The Pharisees are that someone. They go above and beyond the Law and the prophets in order to make sure they please God.
The tax collector, on the other hand, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Again, everything the tax collector says is true. The big difference between a Pharisee and a tax collector is that a tax collector’s life is not a life you should emulate. Tax collectors lie, cheat, steal, and have a good time doing it. They are a fraud’s fraud. They take extra not only for Caesar, but also for themselves. You gotta earn a living somehow. Might as well be on the backs of the taxpayers.
If Jesus’ parable stopped there, then everything is right where it should be. Jesus tells a “just so” story. You have a perfect plot featuring the perfect characters. The point of the parable is to be like the Pharisee and not like the tax collector. The Pharisee has no sin to confess. He’s also kind enough to name names of all those dirty sinners out there. The tax collector can confess his sins all day, but you know he’s going out of the temple to sin again.
So who is the liar here? If the parable stops at what happens in the temple, your answer might be “the tax collector, duh!” Then comes the twist.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. It can’t be! The Pharisee, the upright Bible expert, the shining star of faith and life, is unjustified. The tax collector, the lowlife, thieving, conniving, scum of the earth goes home justified. What just happened here?
The twist is about humility and exaltation, yes. What’s also underneath the twist is the condition of the conscience. One man knows who he is and where he stands before God. The other thinks he knows who he is and where he stands before God. One is secure in his “old time religion”. The other is secure in being a man dead to sin before God Almighty, Who loves to raise dead people from the depths of sin to the heights of everlasting life.
You’re not going to get far with God when you go to Him in prayer and, as it were, show him your “I love me wall”. Everyone has an “I love me wall” or a “brag wall”. That’s the place in your home where you hang the things that show just how important or how loved you are. There’s nothing wrong with an “I love me wall” when it comes to showing family and friends how much you love them. There’s nothing wrong with displaying the blessings Almighty God has bestowed upon you.
There is something wrong, however, when your “brag wall” becomes your ticket to Paradise. “Jesus and…” is not the way of salvation. Worse yet is to stand before God and tell him who you aren’t, thinking He’ll smile, wink, and say, “I know. It’s all good.” Everything that comes out of your mouth may be true, but those words display a conscience curved in on itself. Your conscience is curved in on itself, too. The words may not be as blatant as the Pharisee’s words, but you’ll still stand before God and show Him the “brag wall”. You don’t need absolution. You want to be justified believing everything is kinda alright between you and Jesus.
Everything is not kinda alright. Take a lesson from the tax collector. Yes, he’ll probably leave the temple and resume his five-finger discounts from taxpayers. Yes, he’ll probably lie about it to everyone. Yes, he’ll be back next week, Lord willing, saying and doing the same thing. The big difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee is that he doesn’t need to bring his “brag wall” into the conversation. He knows it won’t do him any good to lay out all the positives before God. Saying God, be merciful to me, a sinner is to speak the truth. God’s grace only works on those dead enough to receive it. Beggars live with a dead hand exposed to a gracious God Who provides for them. What does a beggar have that God wants? Nothing. God gives to the beggar from His gracious love for the beggar.
Consider Saint Paul in today’s Epistle. What gives Paul the right to be a preacher of the Gospel? The guy was the most zealous Pharisee who ever lived. He persecuted Christians. He was the guy the Pharisees brought in to particular places to smoke out Gospel preachers and get them in trouble, even death. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. God’s grace shouldn’t be in vain to the Pharisee praying in the temple, but the Pharisee refuses grace because he’s got his “I love me wall” in the way. The tax collector, on the other hand, is who he is, and God’s grace is not in vain. He’s dead enough to be raised because God loves to give life to dead people.
The Collect today is spot on. God is always more ready to hear than we to pray. God gives mores that we either desire or deserve. We are bold to ask: “Pour down upon us the abundance of Your mercy, forgiving those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things that we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Christ, our Lord.” Week after week you walk in and out of those doors knowing you’ll do the same thing that you did last week, maybe even more than last week. Yet here is Jesus, ready to hear, ready to forgive, ready to give, and ready to raise the dead. Here is Jesus, the Righteous One Who justifies you with His perfect life and perfect shedding of blood for your sake.
Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.