St Mark’s, West Frankfort—Luke 18:9-14
In a few minutes, we’re all going to confess our sins—no, not our specific individual sins, but the fact of our sinfulness, the fact that we are a community of sinners. Both corporately and individually, we have rebelled against God and done what He doesn’t want us to do and failed to do what He does want us to do. In our words and in our actions, we consistently fall short of the glory of God. We make a collective confession of this sort routinely, more or less at every celebration of the Eucharist outside of festival seasons. Of course, there are also occasions, both formal and informal, for private confession of specific sins. This is a spiritual discipline that enables us to face our lives with a clear conscience, over and over again, on an as-needed basis.
Now, when we think of “sins,” we understandably think of bad things. We think of entering an intersection a split second after a yellow light has turned red. We think of losing our temper with a co-worker, or gossiping about a neighbor. We think about lying to our spouse about why we were home late from work, about not being quite straight with the IRS when we fill out our income tax forms, about downloading pirated music and movies from the internet. We think about insider trading and acts of race-based hatred and extortion and murder-for-hire. We think about the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, greed, and sloth.
The first of these—Pride—deserves some special attention. There’s a reason it’s at the head of the list. Pride is, in fact, the root and source, not only of the other six “deadly” sins, but, through them, pride is the root and source of all sin. What makes the whole thing particularly confusing is that sinful pride is not an altogether different thing from what we might call “good” pride—as in taking pride in a job well done, being proud of your children for their accomplishments, having enough pride to bathe and wear clean clothes and mow the lawn in front of your house. Sinful pride flows from the same source, but becomes lethally corrupted—distorted and disfigured—along the way. The sin of pride is grounded not in our desire for evil, but in our desire for good. The incubator of pride is virtue itself—virtue that is undisciplined by humility. Sinful pride stems from the good things we do, even our practice of Christian religion.
Today, Jesus tells us a very compelling parable to dissuade us from trusting in ourselves and despising others. There are two characters—a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now, as Christians who have read the gospels and heard them talked about countless times, you and I are conditioned to regard Pharisees as pretty suspect characters—judgmental and full of arrogance. And tax collectors are in the class of people that Jesus preferred to hang out with; he had a reputation for that. So, with our Christian eyes and ears, we’re likely to label the tax collector in this parable as the “good guy” and the Pharisee as the “bad guy.”
But if we’re going to understand it as Jesus’ original hearers did, we’ve got to put on different glasses. To an ordinary Jew in first century Palestine, a Pharisee would have been presumed to be a model of virtuous and godly living. It would have been simply assumed that the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was upright in his relationship with God and with his fellow human beings. And it would have been likewise simply assumed that the tax collector was a scoundrel—dishonest, conniving, and a traitor to his people. Only when we look at these characters in the light of their native surroundings, then, can we grasp the full power of what Jesus is doing in this brief vignette.
Jesus is standing contemporary Jewish social morality on its head, because, by the end of the parable, it is clearly the Pharisee who fails in his effort to be in a right relation with God, and the tax collector who succeeds. All the religious observances that the Pharisee enumerates in his prayer are good and worthwhile, not vain and empty. Moreover, there is no reason to suspect that he was lying. There is, on the other hand, every reason to believe that he was speaking the truth, that he was, in fact, scrupulous in his prayer and fasting and almsgiving, and that he engaged in those activities with pure intentions. So it is a rather stunning reversal of roles that Jesus is laying on us here.
So where does the Pharisee go wrong? Apparently, he was highly advantaged to begin with. One commentator has remarked that “The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble. As a result, his religion drove him away from the tax-collector rather than toward him.” The Pharisee’s major mistake—in other words, the principal component of his own sinful pride—was to compare his health to the tax-collector’s sickness. That was, of course, unfair. He was ignoring both the tax collector’s virtues, such as they might have been, and his own shortcomings. From our perspective, of course, this is pretty easy to see. It becomes more difficult, however, the closer we get to our own situation. It becomes tempting—and, let’s face it, a great deal more fun, at times!—to confess other people’s sins instead of our own, to talk to the doctor about our neighbors’ symptoms, rather than focusing on what’s ailing us. Of course, when we do this, we are indulging in the sin of gossip, at the very least. And, more importantly, we are falling into the trap that the Pharisee fell into.
The example that Jesus commends, of course, is that of the tax collector. In our culture, the social equivalent might be a drug dealer or a hedge fund manager or the worst example of an ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer or an internet spammer or somebody who calls you every day about your car’s extended warranty. Did any of those ring your bell? That’s the one who Jesus says left the temple right with God. And what was his prayer? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” No attempt at spin control or any other form of self-justification. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man simply humbled himself before God. His humility was transparent, and his humility was unpresumptuous. And in that state, he was the furthest a person can get from the sin of pride. Transparent humility before God protects us from the deadly sin of pride. If we are humble, we cannot be proud. And if we are not proud, it is all the more difficult to be angry or lustful or envious or gluttonous or greedy or lazy. Humility is like a vaccine that offers us immunity from the grip of the deadly sins.
So, let us continue to abound in good works, but have that mind, as we saw in a parable three weeks ago, that we are only doing our duty, and are unworthy servants. Let us continue to abound in good works, but at the same time see ourselves not as the righteous Pharisee, but as the sinful tax collector. Our Eastern Orthodox friends have an element of their spirituality that we could do worse than to adapt and adopt. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and you will recognize the gist of it: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is usually said as a sort of Christian mantra, over and over, repeatedly—much in the way that the Hail Mary is used in the western tradition. How our lives might change if enough of us made this prayer part of our daily converse with God. Amen.