He is not a bad guy once you get to know him. Though some people would tell you that, his actions rub them the wrong way. But, it is hard for him to change because, well, he is who he is. Many do not know that it was the circumstances in his life, many of which were out of his control, that put him in the position that he was in. There were times when he wanted to do things differently, times when he wondered if he should have made some different choices. At this point in the game it was too late. It is what it is. But, like I said, he’s not a bad guy once you get to know him, which may explain his prayer to God. “God, I am so glad that I am not like others, robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there.” He wants to make sure that God knows he is not such a bad guy, especially compared to others.
Compared to others, the Pharisee isn’t such a bad guy, but in this parable, he gets a bit of bad rap, which to our ears may seem a little unfair. Let’s face it, he is the kind of member that every pastor dreams of. He follows the law of God, probably knows it better than anyone else. He keeps up with his spiritual exercises. As a matter of fact, when it comes to spiritual exercises, he exceeds expectations. On top of all of that, he is a regular giver, 10% of all that he gets, and that is probably before taxes. He is the kind of member who would get a dinner at the end of the year to recognize all of the good work that he does. He is the kind of member that others would look up to, and aspire to emulate. But, in this story, he is definitely not the hero. It would not surprise me if many of us, after reading this parable, thought to ourselves, “I am so glad I am not like that Pharisee.” But, therein lies the problem. Jesus didn’t tell this parable so that we could look down upon the Pharisee, nor did he tell this parable so that we could look up to the tax collector. Jesus told this parable as a way to invite us to think deeper about our own relationship with God. For many of us in the church, the moment we start thinking about our relationship with God, is the moment we start comparing our relationship with God to the relationships that other people have with God. And, it goes both directions. Sometimes we look to people who we admire, perhaps someone who has faced great adversity and yet still held strong to her faith. We think, “I wish I had faith like that. I wish I could be as strong as she is.” Being inspired by another person’s faith is a good thing and might even be helpful to us, but sometimes, being inspired by another person’s faith becomes a stepping stone to thinking less of ourselves and less of our faith in God. I met a woman whose relationship with God was a little shaky, at least in her own estimation. She found herself facing a difficult situation. So, she went to a friend and said, “Will you pray to God for me. You have such strong faith. You and God are tight. I know that God will listen to you.” Sometimes we look to others and come to the conclusion that we just don’t measure up in the eyes of God. Of course, it does go the other way as well. There are times when we look at people who do not inspire us at all. Sometimes we look at another person and we think, “How can he act that way and call himself a Christian. I certainly would never do that.” To give you an example of what I mean, over the past few weeks, I have noticed an article making the rounds on Facebook. The title of the article is, “10 reasons why you are not a Christian if you vote for…”and then it gives the name of one of the candidates. Instead of being inspired by other people’s relationship with God, we look down on some as means to puff up our own egos. We come to the conclusion that they don’t measure up in the eyes of God the way that we do. The moment we start thinking about our relationship with God, is the moment we start comparing our relationship with God to the relationships that other people have with God. Back in the 1950’s, C.S. Lewis wrote a collection of children’s stories called the Chronicles of Narnia. The stories were written as an allegory for the Christian life, and the main character is a lion by the name of Aslan, who is a metaphor for Christ. In the third book, called The Horse and His Boy, Aslan has some interesting conversations with a couple of different people, one is a boy named Shasta and the other is a girl named Aravis. The conversations remind you of prayer and in both instances the boy and the girl start asking Aslan about other people that they know. Aslan’s response is the same both times. He says, “I am telling you your story, not someone else’s. I tell no one any story but his own.” Lewis captured a wonderful truth in that sentence. God does not play the comparison game with us. When we come to God in prayer, it is our life before God and no one else’s. Now, there are many things we do together as part of God’s larger family. We worship together, we study God’s word together, we encourage and support each other, we reach out and help others together, and yes, we do pray together. But, when it comes to our relationship with God, it is our relationship with God and no one else’s. Our relationship with God is our relationship with God. We cannot live out anyone else’s relationship with God and no one can live out our relationship with God.
So, God has no interest in comparing us to others, which is why, the moment we start comparing ourselves to others, we miss the point. This is true whether we see ourselves as not good enough compared to others, or we see ourselves as better than others. When we come to God in prayer, God is never going to say to us, “Why can’t you be like so and so? See how much good she does in my name. You could try a little harder to be like her.” If those thoughts ever pop into our minds as we are praying, we can be sure that those thoughts are not from God. Nor will God ever say to us, “I am so glad that I can count on you more than so and so. He makes promises but never really follows through. You are a model disciple. I wish more people could be like you.” If those thoughts ever pop into our minds as we are praying, we can be sure that those thoughts are not from God as well.
God does not play the comparison game with us, which means that God does not compare us even to ourselves, to our past. I am sure that we have all experienced those times when other people decide that it is their job in life to remind us of our past mistakes. It can be very frustrating and defeating when that happens. But God does not do that with us. God made it that very clear when speaking through the prophet Isaiah. God said, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” God will never say to us, “I haven’t forgotten when you did a couple of years ago. I am still holding that against you.” If those thoughts ever pop into our heads as we are praying, we can be sure that those thoughts did not come from God.
God does not remind us of our past mistakes. God also does not hold us to our past successes. When I was taking a class on spirituality a couple of years ago, our professor asked us, “When do you feel like your relationship with God was the most spiritual?” Most of us, myself included, decided that we were most spiritual in the past, during our college years. Unfortunately, we came to the conclusion that our spirituality had dropped off when we began doing ministry.” Yet, when we prayed to God, God never said to us, “You know, you used to pray more often. You used to read your Bible more often. Worship was a daily exercise for you.” If those thoughts ever pop into our heads as we are praying, we can be sure that those thoughts did not come from God. God does not hold up our past successes as a measuring stick to how we are living our lives today. God does not play the comparison game with us. God simply meets us where we are, not where we were, and walks with us to where we are going.
The tax collector went home that day justified before God. Does that mean he went home more loved by God than the Pharisee? Absolutely not. Does it mean that the Pharisee received less of God’s grace than the tax collector? Absolutely not. The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the tax collector understood where he stood before God. The Pharisee only understood where he stood before his peers. Our relationship with God is our relationship with God. Thanks be to God.