Jesus tells a parable of two men at prayer in the temple, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stands by himself. As a member of a popular, influential, religious party, he takes his faith seriously. He’s a good guy, an exemplar and spokesman for Orthodox Judaism. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The Pharisee asks nothing of God; instead, he reels off some of the blessings of identity and achievement that set him apart from others.
The tax collector stands far off. He makes his living by collecting tolls, tariffs, and custom fees for Rome in a system rife with corruption. In the eyes of most ⎯ in his own eyes ⎯ he’s a bad guy. Prayer is an ordeal for him. He bows his head and beats his breast. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He asks everything of God. All he knows of himself is that he’s a sinner.
“I tell you, this man,” Jesus says of the tax collector, “went down to his home justified rather than the other . . . ” It’s a surprise ending to the parable, a reversal of expected outcomes.
You and I work to put our faith into practice. On some level, we know we cannot put ourselves right with God. That is God’s unfathomable work. Still we can get caught in the habit of keeping track of the good we do, the good as we see it. And the very blessings that flow from our faith may come to signify the divide between us and those whom we are not, and do not like.
Jesus warns that pride and self-sufficiency not only separate us from others, but separate us from God, as well. Love God; and your neighbor as your self, Jesus commands: Either, or is not an option. And, apart from God’s mercy, we can do neither.