Luke 18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’
13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
2 Timothy 4:6 For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
I’ve heard another version of that first scripture, and it goes like this: Two people, one a church leader and the other a drug dealer, went into the church to pray. The church leader prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, welfare cheats, pornographers, or even like this drug dealer. I go to worship every Sunday, I give a tenth of my salary and my time to the church and I spend two weeks of my vacation every summer building homes for the poor.” But the drug dealer, sitting way back in the sanctuary, would not even look up from the pew, but sat wringing his hands, saying, God, forgive me, I am nothing but a sinner.” I tell you the drug dealer went home justified rather than the church leader; for all who hold themselves up will fall, and those who admit their shortcomings will be lifted up.
Either way, this is one of those parables we’ve got all figured out, right? It’s black and white. We all know people who seem self-righteous and work out their relationships in an us-them kind of way. These people are obnoxious and we can be thankful we aren’t like that. And we can all connect with somebody who feels so low they have no choice but to ask forgiveness of God, and everyone, and start over. Isn’t that interesting, that it’s easier to connect with, to empathize with, the guy with personal failures, who feels so low about himself?
When the apostle Paul wrote the words in that second passage, he was probably in prison in Rome, and he might have heard that he would be executed soon. I don’t know about you, but if I were him, I would be feeling pretty low.
But he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, (vv. 7-8)
Fought the good fight. Finished the race. Kept the faith. Paul used athletic metaphors like those more than once in his writing– it’s thought that he might have been an athlete himself at some point in his life. He traveled quite a bit around ancient Greece and must have known about the Olympic Games, maybe even been a fan. At the beginning of those games, athletes took an oath in front of the crowd that they would give their best effort and compete fairly (the same oath that Olympic athletes take today). He talks about a crown at the end of the race. Do you know your Olympic history? The winner of a race gets a crown made of olive branches. But Paul doesn’t mention anything about winning the fight or winning the race — just competing, and completing – to the best of his ability.
Is that good enough? How do you identify a Christian winner? Are they busy doing good things? This Christian faith thing can be a lot of work – you should be able to know when you’re a success. Paul has… Fought the good fight. Finished the race. Kept the faith. Is that enough?
Let’s go for another perspective; let’s ask that Pharisee in the gospel story, what success is all about. Pharisees have a bad name in the gospels; they seem to be working against Jesus most of the time. The word Pharisee is even feels kind of bad when you say it – like a cat hissing. But it’s important to understand the tradition and motivation behind Pharisees. The word “Pharisee” means “separated.” Pharisees were a minority leadership group in Jesus’ time, and they were the conservative “party.” They observed the law – the Torah – to a fault, because they saw their world on the decline. People were losing their Jewish identity to the Gentiles (non-Jews) creeping in from all sides, and the Pharisees were determined to make sure Israel stayed pure. They had narrow minds because they saw their survival at stake.
Only by separating themselves from those who did not follow or honor God’s law, the Torah, could the people of God be saved. Pharisees were spiritually different and spiritually superior to all who were not Jewish. This Pharisee in the Temple has worked hard and sacrificed a lot to be able to point at the tax collector and say, “Thank God I am not like him.”
This is a guy with principles.
On the other hand… first-century Jews hated all tax collectors. But in that time and place, tax collectors made their living by collecting taxes not for the Jewish community, but for Rome. And while this would have been enough to make him unpopular on its own, the tax collector was also seen as a kind of traitor and parasite. The Romans gave him no salary; he earned his living by charging more than the Romans wanted and keeping the profits.
In the Temple, in the presence of God, he feels like a worm. And who hasn’t felt like this? I wonder sometimes, if this is the reason many people stay away from God. They made a mistake; they feel they can’t be forgiven. They wander into a situation that eventually controls them, they feel helpless, and too ashamed to ask for forgiveness. But the person who understands that God forgives anything is the one who is able to come together with God, experience God’s forgiveness. They can know God’s power to change them and move on.
Which one do we want to be? The answer might not be as easy as you think. Do you want to be the Pharisee with the clean record and lousy personal skills – or the tax collector with is head in his hands? The truth is, at the same time, we are both Pharisee and tax collector, or as Martin Luther put it, both saint and sinner together. There’s a version of the “Serenity Prayer” that goes like this: God, give me the grace to accept when I am wrong, and make me easy to live with when I’m right.
One of the keys to understanding meaning of the parable lies in whom these two people were praying to. The tax collector, out of his emptiness, prayed to God; the Pharisee prayed with himself. The Pharisee’s goodness was based on comparing himself with the tax collector – he’s left God out of his picture. Making judgments about the people praying next to you always keeps God at a distance. Making judgments about others keeps God from helping you work on your issues. The tax collector recognized his sin because he knew he was in the presence of God. And with God, the tax collector is fighting the good fight. He is running the race. He understands that he cannot clean up his life on his own – that’s God’s job. He can see the crown that God has for him.
So, in the end, this was not about who has done a better job of living a religious life. It was about was about understanding your need for God, about being with God, about seeing past your circumstances, whatever they might be, so that God can make you whole. It was only about faith. What does God want? Jesus explains it like this
Luke 18:15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
I have most often heard that passage connected to baptisms. But it was a story about children told for adults. It was told for you, so that you can remember, when the time comes that your world has become small, when the things you have mean nothing, when your achievements are a memory, when your religious habits don’t seem to work anymore – that time when you are kneeling before God like a child because you finally understand that what God wanted all along was a simple “I love you.” And that was all that was necessary. All God wanted was your trust, your faith.
When you come to church, whom are you praying to? Who are you looking for? Is your mind looking around the room, or is your soul talking to God? Are you open enough to let God find ways to speak to you? Think of what God could do with a group of people who are listening.
The crown is given to those who fight the good fight, finish the race and keep the faith. Lets do it together. God has heard your cry for forgiveness and is filling you with his own Spirit. You are healed. Now let’s find real, practical ways to make a difference in the lives of others through the love of Christ.
Sometimes, God, like that Pharisee, we wander through life unhappy with ourselves, unhappy with everyone else, never knowing or remembering that the missing piece in our lives is you. O God, you are open to us; you’ve been trying to have a relationship with us since before we even knew you existed. Through your Spirit, help us be more open to a deeper relationship with you. Forgive us, teach us, heal us, change our attitudes and lifestyles. Help us see the ones praying next to us. Show us how to share, how to give ourselves away. Help us see others as the friends we haven’t met yet. Use our faith as the tool that reworks our lives to reflect our relationship with a God who loves with no strings attached. We pray with faith in the power of the resurrection of Jesus. Amen.