Luke is very clear in the introduction to the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee that Jesus was speaking to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Many of the religious leaders of his day had fallen into the trap so familiar to the powerful of believing their own PR.
Sadly, we still see this tendency today in far too many religious gatherings. There’s a tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them” along any number of ideological fault lines. Convinced of the rightness of our position, we despise anyone who holds a different belief, even a different opinion, and insults fly in every direction. Basic human charity, to say nothing of Christian generosity, are forgotten in the name of some abstract principle.
Jesus was a master storyteller, and his parables often have small details on which the whole message hangs. In this case, if we’re overly impressed by the Pharisee’s carefully constructed rhetoric, we might miss that he “spoke this prayer to himself.”
Someone once said that God created man in his image and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since. A particularly pompous person might be referred to as “a self-made man who worships his creator.” And again, you may have heard the scathing remark, “She’s a legend in her own mind.” Our language is filled with aphorisms such as these because the tendency to exalt ourselves is part of the original sin that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden: “You will be like gods.”
The tax collector has no such illusions about himself. He knows that he’s a sinner, that he doesn’t truly belong in the great temple. And yet here he is, because he is drawn to the holiness of God’s presence. He’s not there to look around at who else is praying that day. He’s probably not even feeling resentful of the dirty looks he’s getting from the regular churchgoers. His prayer is focused entirely and exclusively on God’s mercy. And this is why, as Jesus tells us, that he goes home justified. He’s gotten outside of himself and his problems to a place where God can truly touch his heart and save his soul.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, never gets beyond the point of talking to himself, impressing himself with his own virtue, focused on his superior nature, his great talent for religious niceties, his particular spiritual giftedness. He knows how the prayers are to be said—but perhaps has forgotten why.
The poor, the sinners, the people who knew how much they needed salvation, responded quickly and profoundly to his message of the kingdom. It’s the professional religious types who decided that Jesus had nothing to say to them. Jesus’ parables throughout the Gospels seem to be designed to shake them out of their spiritual complacency.
Perhaps this is why these same Gospel stories still speak to us today. We need to be reminded again and again to be sure that we’re hearing the God of the prophets, the God of the Gospels, the God of mercy and peace and inclusion. If these stories shock us, then there’s a pretty good chance that when we thought we were praying, we were just speaking words to ourselves. Maybe it’s time to listen for a change.