Humility and How I Perfected It

How they prayed

It is very interesting that the tax collector in Jesus’ story came to the Temple to pray, as such men were not allowed near the Temple. Of course Jesus’ story could be fiction, as if I were to speak of Osama bin Laden coming to church this morning. If he did, he would be arrested before he was allowed to sit on a pew. Maybe Jesus meant the figure simply to represent the worst part of society.

But if so, this is the only parable he taught which was not true to life. All the others use events and people exactly as they were–a sower planting his seeds, a mustard seed growing, a man robbed on the way to Jericho. It seems more likely that this was one of the very rare tax collectors who paid the price necessary to be restored to his community and culture. Even if he did not exist in reality, he must have paid such a price to be realistic in Jesus’ story.

We think of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who paid back all he had stolen with an additional gift of repentance. We know that Matthew left his booth and profession, and that he was eventually permitted into the Temple precincts as a result. This man would have done the same thing to be in the Temple.

He would have left his booth, abandoning his trade. He would thus have forsaken the protection of the Roman soldiers, exposing himself to abuse or worse. He would have encountered great difficulty securing another job. He would have paid back what he had taken, impoverishing himself. He would have done all the things required by his society to return to good standing; thus he was able to come into the Temple to pray. That fact will be important to us in a moment.

The two men prayed exactly as their society would have expected them to.

The Pharisee “prayed about himself,” not about God. Note all the “I”s which follow. Some of the Pharisees really prayed like this. We have several of their recorded prayers, in which they thank God that they are not women, slaves, Gentiles, or tax-collectors. Jesus is quoting a prayer his audience all heard prayed.

Though the Law required fasting only on the Day of Atonement, he fasts twice a week. Their tradition was to fast on Monday and Thursday, as these were market days in the city and more people would see them fasting.

And he “gave a tenth of all I get.” The Law required the tithe only of produce from the land or vocation, but he tithed on all he bought or received from others as well. Jesus described the Pharisees as tithing even the spices they put on their food (Matthew 23:23).

If you were a Pharisee, you would set aside a tenth of the salt you put on your lunch today so you could donate it to the church later, or a tenth of the gas you put in your car tomorrow (a valuable commodity). If I were a Pharisee, I would give the church a tenth of our house (you can have the garage–it will never be finished). A more specific, zealous, sacrificially religious man you will never meet.

By contrast, “the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner'” (v. 13).

Prayers were offered in the Court of Women so both genders could participate. The Pharisee stood as close to the Temple itself as he could get, where everyone could see and hear him. The tax collector stood as far to the back as he could get, so no one would see or hear him.

He “would not even look up to heaven,” though this was the usual Jewish posture in prayer (cf. Mark 6:41; 7:34). He “beat his breast,” a Jewish sign of grief and sorrow, used to express great loss. The Pharisee would have done this if he had lost his wife or child; the tax collector did this because he had in some sense lost his soul.

And he prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the Greek he said, “on me, the sinner.” He deserved punishment, but was asking for grace and mercy instead. Jesus’ hearers would have all been nodding their heads in agreement that this was exactly how such a sinner should have prayed.

Now comes the twist: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14a).” If you were Catholic and I told you a story in which God heard Osama bin Laden but not Pope Benedict or John Paul II, and I was serious, you’d be just as shocked. Here is Jesus’ reason: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14b). “Everyone,” with no exceptions by the Son of God.

Which are you?

Here’s the point: when we compare ourselves with others, our pride pushes us from God. When we compare ourselves to God, our humility pulls us to him. There is no third choice. The closer we get to God, the further away we realize we are.

You may be able to relate to the Pharisee today, having done nothing significantly wrong. Like most of you, I have never murdered, or cheated on my taxes, or stolen from others. I have not committed adultery, or embezzled, or been arrested (except for a bogus illegal turn ticket I got two years ago, which I have completely forgotten).

You can say the same: you go to church and Sunday school; you taught at VBS; you will be a sponsor at Youth Camp or Fish Camp; you serve on the finance committee or usher on Sunday morning or sing in the choir. You can say of your neighbors sleeping in today, “I am not like other men.” But are you like God?