I recently read a story by Pastor JoAnn Post about her niece. This precocious 5-year old was asked to lead table grace at Christmas dinner. But instead of simply jumping into “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest…” as was the family tradition, the child decided to “go rogue.” With hands folded, head bowed and one eye scanning the table, she prayed: “Thank you, God, that Mom made mashed potatoes and made gravy. Thank you, God that there are enough rolls for me to have two. I don’t thank you, God, for beans. Amen.”
The child was, at the age of five, Pastor JoAnn writes, a tiny Pharisee in pigtails.
Our Gospel text for today is a parable about two very different men: a pharisee and a tax collector. Maybe a little background would be helpful: Pharisees were religious leaders whose job it was to follow God’s law, and to help make sure others did as well. They would often bump heads with Jesus, who kept wanting to “change things.” Pharisees didn’t do particularly well with change. But still, they often got thrown under the bus undeservedly…they were just trying to do their jobs.
Tax Collectors, on the other hand, were mostly Jewish people who worked for the Roman government. They would collect taxes from their Jewish sisters and brothers that would then go to help pay for the Roman army’s occupation of Israel. And tax collectors were allowed to charge an amount above and beyond the actual taxes and keep the difference. They were considered by the Jewish people to be traitors…collaborators, and thieves.
In the parable, Jesus sets these two characters, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in direct opposition to each other. And it seems like a pretty straight-forward comparison.
The Pharisee is pretty confident in himself. He is devoted to his life of faith and to his synagogue. He plants himself right smack-dab in the center of the temple where everyone could see him. He folded his hands, bowed his head, and began his prayer, one eye open and scanning the crowd. When we hear his prayer, we know instinctively that this probably should not be our prayer: “Dear God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector over here…” This prayer seems haughty, arrogant and more than just a little bit self-righteous.
The tax collector, on the other hand, stands at a distance from the Pharisee, over in the corner, out of sight…away from the center of the temple. His prayer is very different: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
This is the one, Jesus says, the tax collector, who returns home justified. And so, there you have it: The moral of the story: don’t be proud or arrogant like the Pharisee, but instead be humble like the tax collector.
Jesus is drawing an important distinction for us: The difference between being righteous and being justified. And it is, he implies, an important difference.
To be righteous is to follow all the rules. It is to live by the law. The pharisee is righteous. He goes to church every week…he gives 10% of his income to the church faithfully… he fasts twice a week… according to the law, he is righteous.
According to the Bible, and to Jewish tradition, to be righteous is to live in accord with the law of God. The better you are at keeping the law, the more righteous you are. Now, in our culture, we don’t use the phrase “righteous” too often. Instead of “righteous,” today, we might use the word “successful.”
- If you are good at investment banking, you are righteous according to the standards of Wall Street.
- If you are popular at school, we might say that you are socially righteous.
- And if you are a Vikings fan, like I am…each week we tune in to see if our beloved Purple will be righteous on the field, or not. (Please!)
The Pharisee has been very successful at keeping the faith. He is righteous.
But the tax collector is pretty much the opposite. He is a failure at keeping the law. He has nothing to boast about. No one would look at him and say he is successful. And he knows this. So, he sits in the back pew of the church…he doesn’t sing the hymns or pray the prayers. He just asks God for mercy.
And so in our parable, Jesus holds up these two men and says “yes, the Pharisee may be righteous…he may be successful. But the tax collector, he is justified, made right, by God.”
And the people to whom Jesus told this parable said “what? What did he say?”
To be righteous is to follow the rules, hoping that makes us “right with God.” But to be justified, is to be made right not by what we do, but by what God does.
When I was growing up, there may have been occasions…rare, few and far between, I am certain…when my actions were not in complete alignment with my parents wishes. (I know…hard to believe…) But occasionally I’d fight with one of my brothers, or I’d be unkind, or not be completely obedient at school….in those moments, in my parent’s eyes, I was neither successful, nor righteous. But you know what? My parents still loved me. Unconditionally. They loved me anyway. Don’t get me wrong…they let me know that at that moment, I was not being righteous in my behavior. They offered me…correction…but in their eyes, I was still loved; I was still justified.
The Pharisee followed all the rules and led a blameless life, and for that reason was righteous. The tax collector led a broken life but asks God for mercy…asks God to look at him and judge him not based on what he has done, but rather on who God is…compassionate, loving and merciful.
This is reformation weekend in the church. It is the weekend that we remember the history and tradition of being a part of a church that is always made new, and that God is always at work.
Our scripture today reminds us that our faith is ultimately not about what we do or how we perform. Instead, our faith is about the ongoing redemptive work of God through Jesus Christ, who every single day, justifies our hearts, justifies our church…every day, makes us new…reforms us…because we cannot do that on our own.
Essena O’Neil was a social media phenomenon. By the time Essena, a native of Australia, was eighteen, she had more than 200,000 followers on YouTube and a half million on Instagram. She was, in every possible way, successful, even righteous, across multiple social media platforms. And she’d monetized this. As a teenager, she was making a ton of money as a social media personality. And then one day. She quit. She just stopped. She just shut down all of her accounts and went offline.
When asked why she would turn her back on what was obvious success, she said that “Whatever I did, it was never enough.” I felt like my life was based on comparisons. “Without realizing it,” she wrote in her final Instagram post, “I’ve spent the majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status, and my physical appearance. Social media,” she continued, “especially how I use it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips…always ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated, self-absorbed judgment.” And so she stopped.
Success…righteousness…Essena discovered, is never enough. It’s never enough because it’s based solely on what we can achieve and has its roots in comparing ourselves to others. It is never enough. It does not justify.
Success and righteousness are never enough because no matter what we accomplish, no how matter how good we are, there is always more we could have done…always someone who’s done more or who will do more. And we never know when we are “righteous” enough.
Which means that the secret to being a Christian, and maybe even to being a human, is to recognize that it’s not about what we do or don’t do…it’s not about things we can put on a scale and measure. It is about simply receiving God’s acceptance, love and mercy.
Jesus reminds you that you are always in need. And the minute you recognize that, you can give up the hope of creating the “perfect life” for yourself. And you can give up this weird need we all have to compare ourselves to others, and instead, simply receive God’s love and acceptance, and remember that God meets you as you are.
Because when you do that, when you recognize your need, you discover that God has already called you righteous and holy, and beloved, and perfect. God has already justified you.
Two men went to the temple to pray, and one went home justified because he recognized his need.
We are all here, in God’s temple today to pray. How many of us will go home justified?
The answer, it turns out, is easy. All those who recognize their need. In the end, the justified are those who God loves and accepts and calls righteous and successful; not because of what they’ve done, but because God is loving, gracious and merciful.
Thanks be to God!