Sometimes when we tell a story there are good guys and bad guys and it helps to understand the story if we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.
So Jesus told this story about two men.
First we have the Pharisee. He’s standing on the huge wide steps of the shimmering shining golden temple in Jerusalem. Crowds of people are streaming up the steps walking past him going into worship and there he stands, praying. You remember the Pharisees. They’re the religious leaders whom we have talked about a lot recently. They were threatened by Jesus and they harassed him and looked for ways to discredit him and harm him. And we are sometimes very hard on the Pharisees for that and for other things. But the other truth is that they were well respected religious leaders in Jerusalem. This Pharisee is well dressed and speaks well and has had a very good education. He is given the best seats at banquets and people greet him politely when they see him in the streets and they defer to him as soon as they see him. He washes his hands in just the right way before he eats. He knows the Bible by heart, and he often recites it. He’s a legal expert, that Pharisee. He knows all the laws and he interprets all the laws and keeps all the laws and helps other people do the same. In fact sometimes he even goes one step beyond what the laws requires. People ask him all sorts of questions about how to please God and he always knows the answers immediately. He’s the one who’s holding the faith and passing it on to the next generation as the generations of Pharisees before him have done. He’s the reason we have the Bible today and know the Bible. And all of that is very good. We are grateful for his deep faith and his example to all of us. We admire him for the way he keeps all the laws. He’s a good guy for sure.
And the tax collector is at the temple, too, and he’s praying, too, but he’s standing where nobody can see him - way out of the way of all the people coming up the steps. You remember tax collectors. We’ve talked about them a bit these last few weeks also. Many of them were Jews who were hired by the Roman government to collect outrageously high taxes from the Jewish people – that went straight all the way to Rome. And they often cheated and stole and overcharged innocent people. By a lot. And there was not a thing they could do about it. So people all over the country were being pulled downward into poverty by these tax collectors. And consider that the entire Old Testament is full of very harsh criticism for people who are dishonest and cheat other people. Nobody liked these tax collectors and everybody was suspicious of them – with good reason. A man like that must certainly be a bad guy.
Even if we didn’t know these two guys, it would be easy to tell them apart just by looking at them. One is standing there with his chest thrown out and his arms wide open and his face to heaven, loudly telling God how wonderful he is. And how he doesn’t do any of the awful things that other people do, and how he keeps all the laws perfectly, and how he fasts on Mondays and Thursdays and how he even gives a tenth of his income to God. He probably even gives a tenth of the spices in his kitchen. He’s the picture of perfection and the picture of confidence, and the picture of a pious man, and nobody around him would argue with that. He surely must be the good guy in the story.
And by contrast, the tax collector is over in the corner, out of sight, with his head down and clenching his fists in anguish on his chest and hardly daring to mumble his prayer to God. And what he’s saying is, “God, have pity on me. I’m a sinful man.” He doesn’t have to describe in detail how sinful he is because he knows it and God knows it and so does everybody else. And everybody would surely agree that he must be the bad guy.
Except that it’s the topsy-turvy, upside down kingdom of God, again. That we talk so much about in this congregation. Where everything is the opposite of what you would expect. And where the heroes of the story are the least likely people.
And Jesus says, “Those who make themselves great will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be made great.” And then who is the good guy and who’s the bad guy?
The good person, in Jesus’ eye is the one who says humbly. “I know who I am. I know all about my sorry little self. I know that I’m sometimes deceitful and sometimes cruel and sometimes I’m very selfish. At times I can be lazy and overbearing and I shade the truth when it suits me. I don’t get along all that well with my parents and my siblings and I preen too much in front of the mirror. I have real regrets about my marriage and sometimes I feel as though I have failed as a parent. I’m sometimes very stingy in my gift to the church and I’m selfish with others. So forgive me, God. Look at me all bundled up in a ball like this, and forgive me.”
Believe it or not, that’s the kind of honesty that God rewards. And God has not much use at all for people who prance around as though they’re perfect and announce their perfection to God and to the whole world.
This is the first Sunday in Lent, and Lent is a time for honesty in front of God. This is the time to look deep into ourselves and see ourselves clearly for who we are and admit that to God.
I am looking at a congregation full of very respectable people. You dress nicely and you speak nicely and you live in nice homes. You are well educated and many of you have been in one church or another for your whole lifetimes. You know the Bible. You study the Bible. You can answer questions about the Bible. You sit in adult discussion groups and have conversations about our Christian faith. You come to worship pretty much every Sunday and you are intent on passing on your faith to the next generation. More than that, you have a real heart for people in this neighborhood who are in need and you are involved in a very long list of local mission programs and you give generously to them and to this church. I honor you for all that. More that that, I love you for that. I love spending time with you and I’m very proud to be your part time temporary pastor. Sometimes when I’m with you I find myself smiling inside to myself. I hear what you say and I see what you do and watch you at work with each other and I smile to myself at how good it all is. And other times I can’t help myself and I grin widely at you and about you and you can see it.
But there’s more. What is required of us who think well of ourselves is that we should stand like that tax collector and be honest with ourselves in front of God.
And then we confess that we are really quite selfish. We confess that we only do what’s good because it makes us feel better, or to show off in front of others. We confess that sometimes even when we try to do good, we get it wrong and what we do becomes hurtful. And the truth is that we are seldom as sure of ourselves as we pretend to be. We are quite good at comparing ourselves with all the people we know who do bad things and we feel pretty good about ourselves by comparison. And in our own houses where nobody can see us we are sometimes mean and cruel. We hold onto old hurts. We refuse to forgive and we are judgmental. We are angry and make secret plans to get revenge. We refuse to recycle because we think it’s too much work. We are full of pride when really we have no reason to be.
And we stand in some corner, out of sight, with our heads down and clenching our fists in anguish on our chests and hardly daring to mumble our prayer to God. And we say, “God, have pity on me. I’m a sinful person.”
And if we are listening hard, we hear Jesus say to us, “Those who make themselves great will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be made great.”