Earlier this week I was reading Luke 18:9-14 and thinking about the point of Jesus’ story about the tax collector and the Pharisee. Whenever Pharisees crop up in the Bible, I try to listen hard to what Jesus is telling my self-righteous religious self.*
In the story, the tax-collector, the guy working for the Roman occupying forces, is the one who knows who he is. Because of this, he can admit to God that he is a sinner, and he is therefore able to beg God for forgiveness. The Pharisee, Mr. Religious pants, does not know himself. This makes him think that he is not like other people. I notice this in myself. I find myself having interior conversations that are dangerously close to how this Pharisee talks out loud.
I like the way Luke describes those of us who think like this. We are called those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Ouch. This hits pretty close to home. There are many times when I find myself saying, “I can’t BELIEVE so-and-so did THAT! I would NEVER do THAT.” Sometimes, the thought itself is actually quite true. That is not where the lie is.
The lie is that there is a dirty satisfaction in thinking like this. I feel righteous when I say things like this to myself. The thing that I would “never do” becomes a foundation, a base for me to stand on and tell myself that I am not like other people. The Pharisee in us looks out at “theives, rogues, adulterers,” mean people, fibbing politicians, fair-weather friends and whoever else and sees sinners. This inner Pharisee sees the sins of others with perfect clarity, and can see that what “those people” do is against God’s will. But eyes that can only see the sins of others have a hard time looking inward.
Jesus, in his great mercy and goodness, wants to set the Pharisee free. He gives him and me (and you!) a way out of this pattern of pretending, of false self-satisfaction. He gives us an example of how to be before God. Like a rotten old tax-collector. Jesus gives us permission to bring our whole selves to the Father and confess that we suck, out loud, that we make rotten decisions in life and then live them out. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” is what our model cries out. That is not a sentence that we utter in shame and in self-disgust. It is a sentence we can utter in freedom and out of hope that God prefers our honesty over our self-righteous bullshit.
I’ve had a rough week over here in the burbs. Ex-wife stuff has been keeping me up at nights and my work has been taking me away from time with the kids and my husband. I am sick to death of not being in ministry, of not having a bigger circle of concern. The tiny-ness of my circle makes me crazy. The day-to-day stress of being a step-family has led me to have some fantastically dark thoughts about others and about myself. This scripture is my comfort this week.
I can come to the Father without shame or self-disgust and tell Him the truth about my thoughts and my life. I can say, God, I thank you that I am like other people – with my sin and dark thoughts. And I thank you, God, that you treat me like you treat other people – with ridiculous amounts of mercy and forgiveness.
Because what does Jesus tell the people “who trusted in themselves” about the tax collector? The tax collector “went home justified.” And then, just to drive the point home, he says, “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
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*In my old Bible study, we were going to have T-shirts made that said, “Pharisaic Bitches From Hell.” We realized that as much as we wanted to be good and follow Jesus, we kept acting like Pharisees at least half of the time. The “from hell” part wasn’t maybe the best theology, but we thought it was funny. Actually, I still think it’s funny. But I also still laugh when someone farts.