Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”Luke 18:14
Two people go to church to pray. One goes home in a right relationship with God. The other does not. Why? That is the question at the heart of the parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading (Luke 18:9-14). And don’t we all want to go home today in a right relationship with God? So this parable is worth spending time with today.
It is a parable that is designed to teach us about worship and prayer. In fact, it is the only parable that Jesus tells that takes place in a house of worship, in the temple. When you think about it, most of his parables take place in the fields, or in houses, or along the road. This one, and only this one, takes place in the temple. So, it teaches us about worship and prayer.
But it also shows us what it means to be justified, to be made right with God. We Lutherans will often sum up the gospel by saying that we are justified by grace through faith. And this parable teaches us just what that means. So, this simple little story about two men at the temple can teach us a lot, about worship, about prayer, and about the very heart of the gospel: Being made right with God. All that is to say that it really is worth our time today.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Jesus begins this parable by saying, “Two men went up to the temple to pray. One a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector.”
So we have two men, both of the same community, and both praying at the same time, in the same place. But they are very different people. One is a Pharisee, a group that is known to be dedicated to their religion. Respected in their community; known for their study of God’s Word, and for their diligence in living out God’s commandments. The other is a tax collector, a group that is among the least respected in their community, considered traitors to their people.
We know where Jesus is going with this parable, But if we didn’t, and we were calculating odds on who it is that leaves the temple justified that day,
we would guess the Pharisee. And we would, of course, be wrong. It is the tax collector who goes home justified that day, in a right relationship with God, not the Pharisee.
So, the question that this story tempts us to ask is, how can we be more like the tax collector? But here is the tricky part of this parable. Because when we ask what we have to do to be the one who goes home justified, we are really asking the question that the Pharisees asked. This parable seems to be teaching us what to do to be justified before God, but it’s not. It’s really teaching us that it is not what we do that puts us in a right relationship with God. It is our attitude before God. It is who we are in the presence of God. It is our humility before God.
When we go back to the setting of this parable, we find out that Jesus is telling it to those: “who trusted in themselves, that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Now, I am pretty sure that none of us here would say that we trust in ourselves to be righteous. But under the surface of what Jesus is saying, I think, is that we all can be tempted to think that we can be good enough without God’s help. We all have some control issues, going back to Adam and Eve in the garden. The Pharisee that Jesus describes in this parable is a little exaggerated, perhaps, but it’s really just to show us where that attitude leads. It leads to a prayer that we would never say aloud, but that we might say in our hearts: “God, I thank you that I am not like those people,” whoever those people are. “I do all of these things for you, God, like fasting, and tithing, not like some people.”
That is essentially his prayer, but is that even a prayer? It kind of makes me think of a young person trying to convince someone to go out with them because, “hey, I have a nice car, and a great job, and I work out every day, so you’d be lucky to go out on a date with me.” Does that ever work? I hope not! That is certainly not how love works. You don’t get someone to love you by listing your accomplishments. So why would that work with God? And aren’t we thankful that’s not how it works with God. Because we can’t impress God with our brains or with our money or with our looks. God gave us our brains and our looks. And as for money, God owns the whole planet! God doesn’t care about how smart we are, or how wealthy we are. God really doesn’t even care about how well we are living our life right now.
The truth is that God already loves us more than we can possibly imagine. And all that God really wants is to be let in. God just wants us to open our hearts and accept his love. That’s what God truly wants. That is what will send us home today justified, in a right relationship with God: A heart, open to God. Emptied of pride, and filled with God’s love.
David’s Prayer: Psalm 51
There is a wonderful illustration of this in the Old Testament, in the story of David. David was a great man, and a great king, but not perfect, by any means. And he committed a very serious sin when he committed adultery. But then David did something very significant. He turned back to God in humility, asking for forgiveness. And since David was a poet, who composed many of our Psalms, he wrote a beautiful prayer, asking God for this forgiveness, which we know of as Psalm 51.
“Have mercy on me, O God,” David prays in this psalm, “and cleanse me from my sin.” (Which, by the way, sounds a lot like a prayer of the tax collector in today’s parable.) But David goes on in this Psalm to tell God that when he has put a new and right spirit within him, (Once he has been justified, we might way, in the language of today’s parable), he will teach others God’s ways, so that other sinners would return to God. And with that in mind, David prays in this Psalm:
“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Such a beautiful Psalm. It is the prayer of a broken man, really. But a man who is broken before God, and that makes all the difference. David has a broken spirit. He has a broken heart. But he brings that broken spirit and that broken heart to God. He lets God in. He lets God forgive him and create a clean heart within him. That’s what God wants: To be let in. And it is through our brokenness, through the cracks, that God so often gets in.
“The cracks are how the light gets in,” as Leonard Cohen put it. They are how God gets in. And once God is in, he can heal our broken hearts, and restore within us the joy of salvation. But God will never force his way in.
Healing Our Broken Hearts
In my role as a pastor, I have been privileged to have many people share their pain with me, their brokenness, their cracks. It has led me to believe that the only people who don’t have broken hearts are simply hiding their cracks, their brokenness. No one gets through this life completely untouched by suffering and tragedy.
But we can be tempted to hide from it. The Pharisee in this parable is hiding from it. He is comparing himself to others who seem less worthy of God’s love. He is making himself feel better by doing that. Isn’t that what we do with gossip, and reality shows, and social media, and the like? We look at other people’s problems, and focus on them, to avoid dealing with our own stuff. When we see people struggling with their issues, we sometimes can’t help but be thankful that we are not like them. But when we do that, we are once again being the Pharisee in today’s parable.
God doesn’t want us to compare ourselves to other people, and make ourselves feel better by focusing on their issues. God wants us to be real with him. And to open our hearts to him. When we do that, we are giving God something that he can actually work with. When we hide our broken heart; when we try to prove ourselves to God; when we compare ourselves to other people; this really doesn’t give God much to work with.
But when we bring our broken spirits, our broken hearts to God; when we beat our breast, as the tax collector did in this parable, barely daring to look to heaven, and beg for God’s mercy; then we are giving God something He can work with. We are letting God in, and that is where the healing takes place. And that healing, and that love, and that mercy, is what will send us home in a right relationship with God. And maybe even in a right relationship with ourselves. That openness is what will send us home justified, in other words. Right with God, right with ourselves, now ready to share that same grace and mercy with the world that we have been given.
And isn’t that exactly what our world needs right now? Our world doesn’t need more Pharisees, justifying themselves, comparing themselves, judging others, hiding their brokenness and pain. Our world needs people who know they are broken, and who bring it to God, and who go home with clean hearts, and with new and right spirits.
Our world needs people who have found joy in their salvation again, as David prays in Psalm 51. Our world needs us to bring our humble, contrite hearts to God; and to be healed; and then to go and heal our hurting world. And that is really what this parable is all about. It is all about having our broken hearts healed, by letting God in. And then, in return, healing our broken world.
To the glory of God. Amen.