The gospel reading for this Sunday is taken from Luke 18:9-14. It reads as follows:
Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of the own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The singer Sara Barailles currently has a song out entitled, “King of Anything” and in the song (video found below) she shares an experience that probably most of us have also had to endure. The struggle of trying to have a conversation with someone who is so thoroughly convinced of their own righteousness that you cannot really get anywhere. There is a great line in the song that epitomizes this struggle, “…you got the talking down, just not the listening…”
It is this type of stilted conversation, I propose, that is occurring between the Pharisee and God in the gospel passage and guess what … it is not God who is the one convinced of his own righteousness. The gospel also has a great line which clearly demonstates the inner life and attitude of the Pharisee, “… (the Pharisee) spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God…'”. The Pharisee is praying to and worshipping himself and not God! He is caught up in his own delusion. Because of this he does not even allow God the littlest crack by which to enter into his heart and therefore, despite taking “up his position”, he remains far from God and from the truth of faith and what it is about.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is honest. His prayer is addressed to God. He humbles himself and in this humbling he opens his heart to God and he has an honest conversation with the Almighty. It is the tax collector, our Lord tells us, who goes home justified – righteous in God’s eyes.
There is much that we and our current culture that values yelling and the art of the stilted conversation can learn from the attitude of the tax collector. I recently heard someone define dialogue (and honest conversation, I would add) as the willingness to find the truth present in the other person’s point of view and the willingness to move beyond self-absorbed individualism. Truth be told, I think that there are many in our world who, when they are praying to God, are in fact really worshipping themselves … and you do not even have to believe in God in order to do this. We need to learn the honesty and the humility of the tax collector.
We can remain little kings of our own little kingdoms, or little pharisees convinced of our own righteousness worshipping ourselves or we can be honest. It is only when we are honest and humble that we truly find our way to God and truly find our way to one another.