In today's gospel lesson, we are told a parable about two men: a Pharisee and a tax collector.
We are told that Jesus relates this story for those who are confident of their own righteousness and who looked down on everyone else. We all know those people -- the ones who believe their moral perfection makes them better than anyone else.
The people in our lives who look around and compare themselves to their neighbors, finding fault in anyone but themselves and absolutely certain that they are at least one step ahead of those in their company.
The people who seem to communicate a message that goes like this: sure I make mistakes on occasion, but they're small and relatively insignificant compared to the mistakes that people like them make; at least I'm not so depraved as those people.
And so here we have two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector.
Pharisees were well respected in their day. They were the religious leaders and teachers of the Law. The Pharisees were the elite in Jewish society, primarily concerned with purity, tithing, and keeping the law. They were often wealthy, complacent and satisfied with systems of injustice that kept them in power at the expense of others.
The Pharisees' focus on outward purity and justification speaks to a hypocrisy as they miss the importance of humility, confronting systems of injustice, sharing their food with the hungry, offering shelter to the poor, clothing the naked, and they use tithing as an excuse to ignore the needs of others.
In this parable, the Pharisee seeks to prove his humility by proclaiming that he fasts twice a week -- an activity that is seen to honor God and the intent of which is humility; and he gives a tenth of all he earns.
The purpose of the tithe as established in Deuteronomy 26:12 is to provide for the needs of the priests, the strangers, the orphans, and the poor -- with the exception of the temple priests, these were people the Pharisees staunchly ignored as being beneath them and unworthy of note or care.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is a member of a lower social caste, considered "unclean" by the purity loving Pharisees.
Roman taxation was a system rife with economic abuses. Fraud was common in assessing the value of property and goods. This inflation of value led to higher commissions. The tax collectors were getting rich via the unjust taxation of the poor.
What is more, those who collected taxes for Rome in Jerusalem were themselves Jewish individuals. They were seen as being in collusion with Rome, an empire that is oppressing the Jews.
Tax collectors were often grouped with robbers and sinners. They are despised and looked down upon.
Yet, in our parable, it is the tax collector whom Jesus holds up as having been justified before God.
The tax collector is proved just and right. He is validated by Jesus. He is the one who will be exalted.
Because whereas the Pharisee sought to justify himself through his good and humble deeds, which he shared freely in self-righteous comparison to the others, the tax collector demonstrated true humility.
The tax collector stood a distance, demonstrating his reverence for God and acknowledging his unworthiness in the presence of a just and holy God.
The tax collector bowed his head, a posture which declares: I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you because my sins are higher than my head and my guilt has reached the heavens.
The tax collector beat his breast, in shame and humiliation, demonstrating contrition for his sinful acts.
Freely he begs, "God, have mercy on me," as he declares himself "a sinner!"
God declares it these on whom He will look with favor: those who have a humble and contrite heart, who tremble at God's word.
Though the Pharisees are the teachers of the Law, those who have studied the scriptures, it is the tax collector who seems to truly understand what they mean:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
In his earnest attempt to justify himself and prove his righteousness, the Pharisee has committed a sin, he has missed the mark. He loses sight of the truth: it is God alone who justifies us.
The tax collector gets this. The tax collector understands.
Despised though he is, considered unclean, reviled by his own community, the tax collector is in the more favored position. He is the one on whom God has mercy. He is the one whom God shows favor. He is the one declared righteous and justified.
It is easy to read this story and point fingers at the Pharisee, to look around our own lives and declare, "Oh, I know who those people are, the ones who think they're better than everyone else!"
Perhaps we think we are not like them. But how often do we approach God in a spirit of contrition, genuinely mourning our sins? How often do we bow our heads, beat our breasts and declare, "God have mercy on me, a sinner?"
Are we not more often guilty of pointing out the sins of others, seeking to justify our own misdeeds as "not that bad"; seeking to justify our own lives because "at least we haven't made choices like those people," whomever they may be?
I know that far too often, I act more like a Pharisee than a tax collector. Far too often, I want to justify myself. It is a hard truth to accept that what justifies us in the eyes of God is not our righteousness or piety, but rather our humility, our repentance, and our willingness to acknowledge our failures and own our brokenness.
Today, I want to repent of this. Today, I want to seek God's justification instead of my own. Today, I want God's justification only.
Today, I commit myself to living in a way that seeks the honor and favor of God, rather than the honor and favor of humans.
If you find yourself, even on occasion, declaring your own righteousness like the Pharisee, I hope you'll join me and find restoration and new life in God who exalts the humble and declares that His people will never be put to shame.