In our gospel story, the tax collector went home justified. Sure, he has been extorting people, shaking them down for the Roman overlords and some profit for himself. Sure, he is considered a traitor and an outcast from Jewish life – someone whose life is “breaking bad.” But he has reached a moment of conversion, right? He is about to get right with God; get justified. Here is the one moment, a moment when all the trappings of life are torn away, he finally sees himself in humble relationship to God: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And the tax collector went home justified.
The early 20th century evangelist, Billy Sunday is reported to have said once that the best thing that could happen to any person would be to reach this same moment, be justified, to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, walk out of the revival tent, be hit by a truck, and killed instantly. There would be backsliding, no withering under the scorching sun of modern life, and no chance to move from this one moment. Allelulia!! Can I get an “Amen!”
I am sure most of us think that Pharisee had better avoid that truck. But wait a moment…. he is praying, fasting, and giving generously to the poor. He is doing what the Law demands, what God requires. He is doing what all the prophets demanded. He is grateful! How is he the “bad guy” in this parable?
I think we would all respond that it is what lurks in his heart that is troublesome: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity — greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.” You can hear the contempt, the judgment, and his condescension toward others that forms his self-justification. And therein lies the problem: self-justification. Only God justifies.
Well, thanks be to God, that we are not trapped in the models of self-justification. You would never hear us talk (or think) in such a way that we fall into a habit of trying to prove or justify ourselves. “Thank you God that I am not like people – greedy, insensitive, who don’t believe what I believe; Thank you, God that I am not like them. Thank you, Lord that through your grace and my hard work…” It is at this point we begin our litany of gratitude laced with attitude:
- Our alma mater (I graduated from this prestigious school… how about you?);
- money, car, vacations, etc. (am I living the good life or what?);
- family (My kids did this and that; she got a 4 zillion on her SAT);
- sports (I work out 90 times a week….);
- politics (My vote is enlightened and reasoned; yours is ideological and thoughtless),
- work and position (I work at X; so…what do you do?).
- zip code (“Where do you live?”)
Ouch! Maybe there are parts of our life that are a lot more like the Pharisee’s life than we care to admit. Maybe we are well short of the finish line and we cannot yet claim with St. Paul: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” Maybe we need that simple moment of recognition when we put aside all our works of righteousness and attempts at self-justification and quietly pray: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Then we too can go home justified – maybe run into the Billy Sunday truck of salvation! Beyond self-justification and now justified by God.
Hopefully you avoid the truck. And a year later come back to the Temple. Maybe you’ll see that Pharisee has made some changes in his life – has learned humility, compassion, and more…
But…. but what if a year from now you saw that same tax collector extorting people, shaking them down for the Roman overlords and some profit for himself. It would be as if that prior moment of change, of redemption, of salvation got suspended in the gospel parable like an ancient insect forever suspended in amber. Nice to look at, but…. if his life hasn’t changed and he is just stuck in permanent penitence… what good is that? If this is just a repeat performance without change – are we looking at self-loathing?
I want to shake both, saying to the tax collector –“Yes, you have a moment of humility”; to the Pharisee, “Yes, you know some degree of gratitude” – and then remind them of the words of St. Paul: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” I want to say to them, “Hey, it ain’t over. Life isn’t over. Get going from this suspended moment and trust that you are called to more. Accept God’s grace and move beyond pride, remorse, and confession of sins. Move beyond self-justification and loathing. Move into life and be blessed; be a blessing to others. Be fully grateful and truly humble! And change! God’s grace is there for you to change, to be whole, to be complete! Grace is not pixie dust to instantly change; Grace is fuel for the race.
Neither true gratitude or humility is ever suspended in the amber of one moment. True virtue allows the power of God to work through us unencumbered by the arrogance that assumes that we are to be placed above others. Past the one moment we confess our sins and think so little of ourselves. Knowing ourselves, imperfect for sure, but made in the image of God and loved by God. Called to race this life.
Grace to fuel true gratitude and humility so that they move and breathe and have life. Grace to change. Grace to compete well, continue to compete now and a year from now, finish the race, and all the while keep the faith.