Its ironic. Its frustrating. More on that later. I’ve heard people excuse their negative behavior by saying, “I am not a saint after all.” Well, if you are a follower of Christ, you are indeed a saint. You are set apart; not for common use; holy. Now, here is the ironic and frustrating part: the very thing that sets us apart can be the very thing that sets us apart. Am I making sense? Every follower of Jesus is intended to be set apart and dedicated to God. That makes us different than non set apart people; people who do not believe in God nor care about his definition of right and wrong. But if we allow that difference to set us apart or above those other people, we are missing something very important; something integral to our faith.
Luke 18:9-14 is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Luke tells us that he spoke this parable to people who relied on themselves because they were righteous and treated the rest with contempt. The rest who didn’t live up to their standard of righteousness. And there is nothing in the text that questions their righteousness. They were doing right things. They were serving God. And most likely they were doing this because they loved God and the holiness of God. The problem was that they relied on themselves because of this righteousness, and this self-reliance lead to a contemptuous glance at everyone else – as if they were looking at something that oozed out from behind a rock.
In Jesus fashion, he tells a story to illustrate their attitude. Two men went up to the temple. No matter where you come from you are going up to the presence of God. I think there is a message here. One was a Pharisee and the other one was a tax collector. The original hearers most likely automatically formulated opinions with the mention of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisees were the epitome of righteous observers. The tax collector was an example of degradation. I mean could you sink lower than a tax collector? Public prayer took place at dawn and at 3:00 pm in the temple. But the temple was also available for private prayer throughout the day. We are not told whether this is a specified time for prayer or not. What is important is that they are both there at the same time.
The Pharisee stood, or, positioned himself to pray concerning himself. The wording is difficult. The word for “stood” can refer to the fact that many Jewish people prayed standing. But it can also mean to place oneself. It seems likely that this Pharisee made it known that he was going to pray. He may even viewed this as an opportunity to teach the common rabble about prayer. His prayer is addressed to God so there is no hint of him praying to himself. The prayer is concerning himself. There is nothing to worry over here yet. And thanking God for your blessings is not wrong. But notice that his attitude is that these gifts make him stand apart from all others. He is not like the rest of the people; the common and impious folk. They are all of them violent robbers, unjust unbelievers, adulterers, or even the tax collector who presented a good illustration of what a non-Pharisee might look like. And what sets him apart from the rabble? He fast twice a week (later sources make Monday and Thursday the days of fasting among pious Pharisees). This is way above what God asked for. They were commanded to fast as part of the Day of Atonement observances. According to Ezekiel they also fasted four other times; on the fourth, fifth, seventh, and tenth month of the year. And his tithing was also more than required.
The tax collector also stood, but he positioned himself far away. We are not really told what he stood far away from. Was it the pious Pharisee? Was it people in general? It seems likely that he positioned himself away from people. He was too ashamed to lift his eyes toward heaven. He beat his chest in abject humility and cried out, “God, redeem me, the sinner.” The word “have mercy” usually has the meaning of atonement or expiation. What he seeks is atonement. Instead of comparing himself to the rest, he sees himself before a holy God and knows he stands unclean. Jesus tells his audience that this dreaded tax collector went down (when you leave the presence of God you always go down) justified.
It is a question of how you position yourself before God. Do you position yourself before God exalting yourself because of your righteousness? Even as you thank God are you bragging about how much better you are than the rest of mankind? Or, do you position yourself before the Almighty with a painful awareness of your sin and his holiness? When you look at God and know that your only chance at being justified is a gift, you will view those around you, not with suspicion, but as fellow strugglers. Peace.