He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “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.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 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: 9-14.
Sometime today, a priest will mark my forehead with ashes and remind me that I came from the dust, and that I’ll return there. Those ashes mark the beginning of the Holy Season of Lent. I hope to use this time to reflect on the complex nature of sin, the Lenten practices which might heal us, and the holy custom of reconciliation with God.
If we view Lent as simply an occaision on which we give up something we enjoy (sweets, red wine, or our double mocha macchiato), I think we have barely scratched the surface. Lent serves as a time for putting down our arms and making peace with the God who calls us back to Him. During this season, we drink the bitter medicine that will hopefully heal our wounds and lead us closer to the Lord of Heaven.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find two men praying in the temple: a Pharisee and a tax collector (who you’ll sometimes see called a publican). In first century Palestine, good Jews despised the tax collectors or at least saw them as deeply flawed and unclean. In the first place, tax collectors collaborated with the pagan Roman empire occupying their holy homeland. Further, most of them could not survive on their income as collectors, and had to cheat people in order to make their living.
On the other hand, the Pharisees were devout, prayerful men who tried to live according to the law of Moses. The Pharisee in this parable has even gone beyond the Mosaic law, fasting twice a week rather than once. His prayer, however, reveals that he has become mired in the spiritual quicksand of self-admiration. He believes he can rely on his own righteous behavior to justify himself before God.
Jesus contrasts this sense of spiritual self-sufficiency with the humility of the tax collector, who knows that he is a sinner and asks for God’s mercy. He can rely on nothing other than God’s grace. In one of Jesus’ classic inversions, the tax collector is sanctified. The Pharisee has fastidiously done all the right things (fasting and tithing), but has somehow missed the point. Like many of us, the Pharisee believes he has actually done God a favor by being so moral. The tax collector approaches God with a contrite heart, knowing that he’s let God down once again.
This parable offers us the first step in that process: rigorous self-examination and coming to terms with our failures. We need to resist our instinctive compulsion to see and present ourselves as righteous (or perhaps guilty of only minor infractions) while we view others as the real sinners, or perhaps see others as the real source of our sin. As we take a hard look at our lives, some of what we see may make us wince; some of it may make us want to turn away. That’s the very stuff we need to work on, because those are the weak spots where our separation from the Holy begins.
Often, when we look at what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do, we may consider our situation rather hopeless. Our sins constantly separate us from God, and despite our good efforts, we cannot avoid them. Like the Pharisee, we’re lost in self-deception, self-aggrandisement and our myopic respect for our virtues. I don’t think the Pharisee was a particularly evil man; rather, his pride blinded him to his own situation. His self-absorption prevented any real self-understanding.
We pray a fairly desperate prayer in my church: “We have no power within ourselves to help ourselves.” Our only refuge looks like the most dangerous place for us, standing naked before God who sees all, and who somehow finds a way in impossible situations. This all begins with a good, hard look at our lives, the things we’ve done, and the ways we’ve distanced ourselves from God. Jesus thought so, anyway.
I wish you a good and holy Lent,
James R. Dennis
© 2012 James R. Dennis