(8) “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” So Jesus ended last week’s Gospel of startling contrasts. But those words work just as well for parable of equally startling contrasts which follows immediately afterward. Will he find faith on earth? Why yes he will … but not likely where one would expect!
(9-10) He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The scene begins innocently enough. We all know people who are a little too big for their breeches. We have all been looked down upon by others. Of course Jesus would know some too. And the story He chooses to tell … likewise nothing out of the ordinary. Two men going to the temple to pray. It happened every day. Morning and evening sacrifices were a popular time for personal prayer among the Jews. Can you imagine just how disinterested Jesus’ listeners are up to this point? Ho hum and so what?
And then just as they are ready to turn away, to continue their conversations, to tune Him out … He goes and makes it interesting. For it is not just any two men. One is a Pharisee, the other a Tax Collector. One a man on a Soap box, the other a dirty rotten sinner! Will we find faith here in this story? Why yes we will … but not likely where one would expect!
(11-12) The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. With an eye to the unwashed crowds around him this man of God offers up a grandiose Eucharistic prayer (all thanksgiving). Look closely and you will see not one petition in his prayer. Why? Because there wasn’t one thing he thought he needed! He is utterly thankful for just how great he is! For what this man has to say God didn’t really need to be there … Don’t get too hung up on the physical stance of the prayers – Out loud, eyes and arms up was simply good form and who would know the proper form better than a pharisee. And if others just happened to see and to hear, if they learned a thing or two along the way – all the better!
You see, he is a man who is very comfortable up on the soap box. Look at me, and learn is the content of the message. See what should be done, see how it is done. See what you should be like. His prayer is one part rejoicing in his own righteousness and one part contempt for the faults of others (ALL others … especially that tax collector). It is, in a word, precisely the kind of prayer that unbelievers are sure we Christians normally pray.
Consider then, the stark contrast offered by the second man. (13) But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! Far from standing on a proverbial soap box, this one is prostrate and grieving! He grieves and grovels on the ground over the death at work in his own flesh and heart. He is a dirty rotten sinner. They know it and he knows it. He remains at a distance from others, not to be better seen and heard but because he knows he is not worthy to be in company of others. He is not willing to dirty them by association. His prayers are nothing more than a plead for mercy. He seeks the benefit of the sacrifice going on in the temple – the atonement! He begs to be covered by the blood sacrificed for sin, he cries for a mercy he knows he hasn’t earned. (Who can earn mercy?)
And then comes the great surprise that made the listeners blink twice and check to see if their ears were clear. (14) I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
The great surprise in Jesus story is that both men got exactly what they most desired! The pharisee got to continue feeling good about the righteousness he had claimed for himself (whatever that was worth!), and the tax collector received God’s mercy, and the righteousness that comes from having his sins atoned for. The surprise is that the pharisee went back home to his godly lifestyle without having met God, and the tax collector went back to his detestable job, with God at his side!
And what are we to take from all this? “Thank God, we are not like that Pharisee!” … Right! Really? Have you ever begrudged what you give to the church, or what other’s don’t? Have you ever caught yourself thinking “If only they had been here to hear that one!” Have you ever thought of yourself as different (better) from anyone else in any way? Of course you have. It is precisely how much we tend to be like the pharisee that puts us squarely alongside the tax collector! Our soap boxes are usually smaller and easy to climb onto and off of, but they are still there. And that’s what makes us dirty rotten sinners. When we judge others (if even for a second, if only ever in our heart of hearts) we dare to judge Christ who welcomes and receives all sinners by His blood!
For this is what our parable is really all about … not how much we are like either one or the other … but how much Christ is! God, I thank you that I am not like other men, the pharisee prayed. Thank God that Jesus IS we proclaim! Born under the law, born to redeem those under the law our perfect Lord and Saviour didn’t think too highly of himself to become just like the extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like that tax collector. Not standing far off, He made Himself one of us so that His blood shed upon the cross might be that atoning sacrifice, that propitiation, that offering to pay for sin once and for all. For one and for all.
He could have come among us to stand on that soap box and tell us to clean up our act. He could have shown us how it is done and left it up to us to be more like Him. But that wouldn’t help you or me. So instead he gave a tithe of himself for our salvation. He gave 100%. He gave His very life. He set Himself apart from heaven, apart from His loving Father, apart from all that was rightly His, to suffer and die. To die the death we deserved. He came to be merciful to us – sinners.
And where that mercy is needed. Where that mercy is felt. Where that mercy is clung to and lived out – there the Son of Man will truly find faith when He comes again. Faith that receives everything it cries out for … mercy, forgiveness, and salvation. May this faith always be yours in Christ Jesus our Lord.