There was once a man who actually had neither regard for his neighbors, or God; and most of those who lived or worked with him understood this. Once he was struck with conscience in such a way that he came into the church threw himself on the altar crying. He sobbed, “O God, have mercy on me, be merciful to me, for I am the greatest of all sinners.”
From some mysterious height, a voice whispered, “Pride my son. Pride. The greatest of all sinners?”
The Pharisee and the tax collector we meet in the Gospel today are sharing the same room, sharing the same space before God. They are standing in the temple at the same time. Jesus is pointing out that although they stand near one another, there is actually a significant chasm between them.
I think of them as two sides of the same coin; two sides of the soul that knows a relationship with God is something inevitable in life.
The Pharisee is meant to be the “good” person; full of good deeds, full of noble intentions, filled to the brim within a life of virtue signaling, he can look with favor upon himself and disfavor upon others.
The tax collector is the Benedict Arnold of his fellow kinsmen and fellow Jews; a collaborator. The tax collector is the proverbial man at the end of his rope, and knows that he lacks something that his life is not giving him.
In the words of Will Willimon, “He has nothing, claims nothing, and yet seeks everything. The tax collector is not acting humble – he is already humiliated.” And why is the tax collector humiliated? Because he is making a living by financially squeezing his fellow Jews so that he might remain valuable to the Roman oppressors.
Each is recognizable within the world in which they live; however, Jesus is drawing back the veil of how these two opposites might be weighed in the heavenly balance.
We are seeing the “left-handedness,” the counter-intuitive power of God and Jesus’s message when these two stand beneath God’s gaze.
It’s as though Jesus is asking the disciples to take a bet. “When I flip this two-sided coin as to who is closer to God at this moment, who do you think will win? Heads or Tails? Pharisee or Tax Collector?”
I believe the distance between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector lay in the difference between where they place their sense of certainty.
The Pharisee is having a conversation with God full of certainty; the certainty of his own righteousness, his own goodness, and the lesser virtue of others; while the tax collector is having a conversation with God about the certainty of his own unworthiness and his own need.
Although the Pharisee is pursuing a pure life, a “good” life, by actively aiming his life in a godly direction, it is clear that his aim is bent, that his aim has been for himself. The sad irony is that the closer the Pharisee believes his ship is drawing toward God’s country, he will actually find that God’s country is farther away from him.
Ironically, the tax collector’s certainty of his own unworthiness and need of forgiveness, a life absent the virtue-building and virtue-signaling of the Pharisee, will place his ship on the shore of God’s country.
The tears of the tax collector are a much surer path to God that the catalogue of virtues being compiled by the Pharisee.
Because Jesus loves his friends, He is telling them a truth about themselves, and giving a warning about where we might place our certainty.
Be certain with yourselves, and with God, in the ways of the repentant and those who are honest with themselves and with God; rather than being certain in the ways of the Pharisee. Lay your certainty with your need for repentance and forgiveness.
“Father Alston – why do we kneel down and confess our sins in church?” I remember his little angelic face. I don’t know where the words came from, but I remember saying, ““You know, I think it’s because we are not always sure that what we are trying to do is the right thing – the thing for God.
We take a moment and take a knee to say, “Lord, I am sorry. I am sorry that I am not being the person that you want me to be in my life; sometimes I am content to please myself, rather than please you.””
Regardless of who we are when we enter this room, our Temple – a Pharisee, a Tax Collector, a spectator, or a disciple – Jesus is showing us the place from which we will make our truest beginning. It is not that we are the “greatest” of anything – either saint or sinner – but rather that we recognize that without honesty and humility before God, we will remain nothing, but ourselves.
The truth is that we are often both sides of this very coin; and the promise of Christ is that if we will simply say, “Lord, I am sorry that I have not been the person that I wanted to be for you – even when I am trying to do good my selfishness often gets in the way – please forgive me and help me,” then we can leave this place knowing that we understand and accept the Savior’s invitation.
The promise is not that we become “enough” for God because we are making ourselves godly, or great; the promise is that we become “enough” for God as we discover that our deepest purpose, our deepest need, lay in recognizing and accepting his love. And the sign over that door into that country is always marked: humility.
Some tears in fact lead to joy.