For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (St. Luke 18:14).
One of the geniuses of the modern era is our incredible ability to miss the point of what God is telling us. We all share a, dare I say, supernatural gift for subverting the true meaning of Jesus’ words to make them less sharp and convicting upon our rebellious souls. A common takeaway from today’s parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector goes something like this, “Thank God I am not as religious as that Pharisee, with his following of God’s law and tithing; I don’t worry about those things, so I must be like the justified tax collector.” In a strange upside-down twist only fallen human beings could come up with, our lack of religiosity can become an even more impenetrable mark of self-righteousness than the boastful scrupulousness of the Pharisee. “At least I’m not a hypocrite,” is the battle cry of modern man, as if not being a hypocrite was the same as being holy, as if not being a hypocrite could save anything or anyone. We could, in fact, be the most “authentic” person in the world and still be just another confused and scared child pretending as if we can decide who and what we are, pretending as if we were our own creator. Worse, if we can’t just decide who or what we are, we certainly can’t stand outside of ourselves and judge the rightness of our actions; we can’t accurately judge ourselves any more than a defendant in a criminal case can dispassionately judge his own innocence or guilt. Here lies the ultimate source of the Pharisee’s blindness and the well-spring of our modern systems of self-justification: it is far easier to make a list of accomplishments than to face our failures; it is far easier to pretend we are righteous than to face we are fallen. But, the question remains, what are the consequences of a life lived in denial of both our illness and the only cure?
Our Archbishop likes to joke that he would love a church full of Pharisees. Think of it, a church filled with people worrying about following God’s law all day certainly beats our culture’s alternative—a people sitting around worrying about all the laws and rules and responsibilities with which our liberated age has burdened us. Sure, this hypothetical congregation would be vicious and puffed up, but at least they would be vicious and puffed up about God rather than whatever transitory nonsense our cultural handlers want us to be excited about today. In our fallen reality, we tend to get the worst of both worlds: people puffed up about following the laws of modern righteousness—a vast ever-changing list of commandments, never leading to true justice or a living peace. Let’s put our cards on the table, we can all bring forward a solemn catalog of accomplishments equivalent to the list our friend the Pharisee brings forward today. It might sound something like, “I pay my taxes; I keep a tidy lawn; I vote for the right political party; I go to church; I recycle; I don’t cheat on my spouse; I’m nice; I’m respectable, etc.” We probably say this little prayer all the time without even thinking about it; a prayer designed to settle our consciences and mark us as one of the “good people.” It’s a prayer that doesn’t ask for forgiveness because, if the cure will hurt us, we would rather pretend we don’t need to be healed than to be actually healed.
Jesus is telling us today to forget that prayer forever, to purge our prayer life of this “unprayer”, and instead trust in the mercy and power of God over everything else. We are to pray as Hannah prayed in the 1st Book of Samuel: “My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God. Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed… (1 Sam. 2:1-4). The Pharisee is wrong to compare himself to the tax collector, just as we are wrong to compare ourselves to our neighbors or our enemies. The only comparison which matters is between our actions and the actions of God, our love and the love of God, our righteousness and the righteousness of God. When this comparison is made— between what we are and what we were made to be—all men are found wanting, all of our accomplishments in modern secular righteousness fall to the ground as ultimately worthless as the sacrifices of Cain.
So, what makes the prayer of the tax collector so much greater? What makes his sacrifice one worthy of praise? As we read in Psalm 51, “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise (Psalm 51:17). The tax collector knows who he is; he is a traitor. He knows he has betrayed his people by siding with the Romans to be the occupier’s dishonest bagman, but more importantly, while standing in the temple during one of the two daily “Tamid” services, the traitor hears the prayer of the priest over the blood of an animal slaughtered for the sins of the people, and in that moment he knows he needs, what we have translated here as “mercy.” He does indeed need mercy, but the Greek word which stands behind “mercy” is the same as the one we translate as propitiation: the satisfaction of God’s justice and wrath against sin. In that moment, head down—beating his hands against his chest—the tax collector is crushed by the enormity of the forgiveness he needs; he is broken by the reality of the great chasm his rebellion has placed between him and the God of all living things. This utter humility is what our Anglican prayers of confession are trying to capture when we kneel before the Lord and call ourselves “miserable offenders,” when we confess that the burden of our sins is intolerable, when we sigh and admit “there is no health in us.” These are not empty words, but a Holy Spirit inspired reality check of the dire state within which all humans reside.
The only other option is to live in vanity and pride, to scowl with contempt at the man on his knees while we try and keep the ever-rising tide back with a bucket. One could look rather heroic attempting such a feat; after all, in our world, the man of action is always more highly celebrated than the man of prayer and fasting and sacrifice. Our disordered world celebrates the “doers” more than the “prayers” because, for the damned, the only blind hope which can animate life is that we can save ourselves. This blind faith can actually be portrayed as quite beautiful and romantic, particularly since so many talented people have channeled fallen humanity’s never-realized hope into countless books and movies and songs. These two views of our status couldn’t be starker: Google Maps gives me directions to wherever I want to go; Jesus tells me to stop and ask for mercy; my culture tells me I deserve everything; my Lord tells me to stop killing myself; my heart tells me to trust in my accomplishments because I’m a good person; the Living God tells me I don’t even know what good is yet.
The position of the modern Pharisee, the position of all those who trust in their accomplishments to save them, is proven insane, again and again, by humanity’s one unconquerable foe: death. It’s actually quite unfair to compare modern Westerners with a Pharisee because at least he believed in a resurrection to come, at least he believed in a time of reckoning wherein humanity would be judged for all we have done to ourselves and the earth; he rightly knew that the answer to the world’s brokenness wasn’t going to come from one more great empire or one more technological breakthrough. Do we? Would anyone know by how we live?
As you leave today, remember today’s epistle, where St. Paul, a Pharisee of Pharisees, was changed forever when he and hundreds of others saw a publicly executed man resurrected and transformed into the living fulfillment of God’s promise to His creation. This empirical evidence of God’s triumphant love changes everything about human life. The resurrection of the Son of Man transforms our transitory lives of desperate activity into joyous celebrations of grace and mercy and love. St. Paul can live and work, no longer to save himself, but to abundantly live in the grace of the God who has already saved him. We can live and work harder than any man, not to fulfill the crushing requirements of modern righteousness, but so that our very labor in the fallen fields of this world is a witness to the divine grace working within us. On the day Christ was raised from the grave, skepticism died, cynicism died, pride died.The options before us are no longer “trust in the world and see what happens” or “trust in God and see what happen;” no, now that Jesus has conquered death our only option is to seek our share in His exaltation: to live a life of purposeful suffering, mindful holiness and humble service, so that we too can rise from our knees today justified, sharing in the vindication of God the Son, so we too can rise from our graves glorified and ready to live in everlasting joy.