Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
The Pharisee in this parable gets a bit of a bad rap. He and other Pharisees are often the antagonists in Jesus’ stories. They appear as the butt of the joke so frequently in the New Testament, that it’s easy to forget how prominent, well-respected, and good they were in his society. With this parable especially, the point is not that this Pharisee is a terrible person.
He actually comes across as about the best kind of person you can imagine in 1st century Jewish society. This Pharisee fasts twice per week. This was traditional in his culture, but only for the most stringent and dedicated of the Pharisees. It was not required, even for teachers like himself, but he did it anyway. He tithes to the Temple to support the work of the priests. And he tithes not just 10% of everything he makes each month; he tithes 10% of all that he owns! This man goes above and beyond the call to follow the Law; he disciplines himself so as to grow in love and faithfulness to the Lord God. He is a truly devout man.
Nonetheless, there is a reason we don’t pray like this Pharisee prays. For all that we can say to laud him and his actions, Jesus is right. This Pharisee gets it wrong in his prayers by placing himself over his neighbor.
It’s not that we never think like he does. All of us do at one time or another. It’s a natural human tendency to play the comparison game. At times in our sinfulness and in our pride, we all look at ourselves as better than the next guy. This is especially easy when you are as well-trained, well-disciplined, and well-respected as the Pharisee was.
But surprisingly, he is not the hero. As the story concludes, he is not the one “justified” or “made right” with God. He has exalted himself above his neighbor, and that is a greater offense than anything the tax collector has done. The point he misses is that, for all his efforts to do right, he is not perfect. When compared to the glory, majesty, love, and splendor of God, he just doesn’t cut it. He falls short.
And even though the tax collector sins dramatically in every area of his life, the tax collector gets that he isn’t perfect and admits as much to God. The Pharisee might come closer to perfection than the tax collector, but he isn’t there. You wouldn’t be able to tell from his attitude or from his prayer.
So the Pharisee falls into the sin of pride that afflicts us all. He fails to recognize the life-transforming grace of God that extends to every, single one of us. He fails to see that even he needs God’s grace, that even he is a sinner in need of redemption and mercy, no matter what he thinks of other people in the Temple with him.
Without harping too much on the Pharisee’s mistake, this is the reason we don’t pray like he does. We don’t only pray the things we want or feel, because the Church knows that we often want or feel things that are bad for us. We don’t thank God for making “us” better than “them”. We don’t thank God that somebody else’s house got wrecked and mine got spared. We don’t come to God assuming that we have it all together. We don’t act like God is privileged to have our prayer and service.
Instead, when we gather for Common Prayer, we pray the prayers of the Bible and the prayers of the whole Church.
We ask God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts” (BCP, 355).
We “confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone” (BCP, 360).
We recognize that “we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” (BCP, 360), and we ask God for mercy and forgiveness.
We acknowledge that we human beings have all “fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death” (BCP, 362).
We recognize in our prayers that the only way for us to be healed and reconciled was that “in your mercy, you sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all” (BCP, 362).
We have a Savior and Lord who teaches us to say: “[Father,] Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (BCP, 364).
If you come to Morning Prayer at 7:30 or pray it on your own during the week, you’ll learn even more prayers of humility and thanksgiving that remind us of our true position before God:
“Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid” (“Canticle 9 [Isaiah 12:2-6],” BCP, 86).
“You, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, and in me you will show forth your goodness. Unworthy as I am, you will save me” (“Canticle 14 [Prayer of Manasseh 1-2, 4, 6-7, 11-15],” BCP, 91).
“Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and lovingkindness to us and to all whom you have made” (“The General Thanksgiving,” BCP, 101).
The Common Prayers that share as a church tell a different story than the rest of the world. We aren’t self-sufficient, independent people. We cannot pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It’s not in our fallen human nature to be fully able to help ourselves. Instead, we rely on the grace and mercy of God.
The word “unworthy” comes up pretty often in our Prayer Book. It’s not to discourage us or make us feel bad. Rather, we call ourselves “unworthy” because it’s very easy for us to think that we earn our salvation and our love from God. That’s the Pharisee’s mistake. He thinks he is privileged before God because of his dutiful obedience to the Law.
But the truth is: No matter how pious you are or how often you come to church or how much money you give away, nothing we can ever do makes God love us more. We don’t deserve any of these wonderful gifts. We’re all sinners and we are all perfectly loved by our Creator. That is both the joy and the scandal of the Gospel. Amen.