TEXT: Luke 18:9-14
“The Pharisee … was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’… But the tax collector … was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:11-13)
How many of you were alive in the 1960s? Do you remember this brief verse?
I’m Muhammad Ali, I’m Muhammad Ali;
I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Muhammad Ali, in his prime, continually proclaimed that he was “the greatest.” And he was. Ali was without doubt one of the greatest boxers of the 20th century. Even until his death at age 74 in 2016—even as he battled Parkinson’s Disease, which robbed him of his power of speech—he was still instantly recognizable, even to generations too young to have seen him in the ring.
It’s safe to say that very few of us will ever reach the zenith of recognition in our fields the way Muhammad Ali did in his.
In fact, if any of us were asked how many times we have boasted about our own greatness—or boldly made a prediction about an outcome in which we played a major role—very few of us would admit to having done so.
However, even though we may not have achieved a world-class ranking—and very few of us have ever been the head of our class—most of us at one time or another have wanted to be noticed. We have wanted to be recognized, no matter how small our achievement might be.
Spouses want assurances from their partners that somehow they have made a difference in the other person’s life through the many thankless tasks they accomplish daily. Small children live for praise from their teachers, their parents, their grandparents.
Employees look for recognition from their employers—for a pat on the back, for words of appreciation. And, truth to tell, that is often what strikes are really all about. Recognition, not money. But for some reason, it’s always the money that gets talked about. I suppose that’s because, in our society, money is the ultimate symbol of value—even of personal value, even of our feelings of self-worth.
But the money is ultimately unsatisfying, if the raise in pay is not accompanied by genuine appreciation, by sincere words of praise. Lack of recognition for a job well done cannot be made up for by a bump into a higher tax bracket.
In the same way, material prosperity cannot erase the pain of a loveless marriage. And the hurt inside a child who knows she is not really cared for cannot be bought off by an abundance of expensive gifts. Money really can’t buy you love.
Maybe the need for recognition and approval—and love—is our best-kept secret. It’s a secret that’s connected to our own feelings of inadequacy, to our own belief that we have not measured up to the expectations of others—or of ourselves.
Perhaps that is why we need to hear the words of today’s gospel text. For when all is said and done, we believe we have not lived up to God’s expectations, either. Consider the Pharisee in Jesus’ story. Surprisingly enough, living up to God’s expectations was not a problem for him. He thought he had it made. After all, wasn’t that the purpose of the Law? To help him meet God’s expectations? Rigorously—and religiously—he believed he had done that, and more.
The Pharisees, you understand, were not bad people. They were the good religious folk of their place and time, and they tried to do the best they knew. They attended worship regularly. They contributed to the upkeep of the Temple. They advocated taking care of the poor and the widowed and the fatherless. We would call them “pillars of the community.”
Well, let’s face it—when you’re a pillar of the community, it’s easy to end up with a rather large ego. It can happen to anyone.
If you’ve donated a lot of time and money to the church, maybe it’s natural to start thinking you own the place—that your opinion should carry more weight than anyone else’s. And if you really believe you’ve lived a moral and upright life, maybe you can’t help thinking—even secretly—that God likes to point you out to the angels as a good example.
Well, Jesus knew how people were. He still knows how we are. And so, for the Pharisees in his audience—then and now—he included a tax collector in his story.
A tax collector for the Romans, you see, was a Jew who made his living by ripping off his countrymen—by charging more tax than was required, and then keeping the difference. That was how it worked. But of course, the tax collectors were hated by their fellow Jews. They were considered traitors of the worst kind.
But I digress. Let’s get back to the story.
Picture the scene. The Pharisee is in the front pew, expecting to be noticed. The tax collector is hiding in the back pew, hoping he won’t be noticed.
The Pharisee contrasts his life to the life of the wretched tax collector, and thanks God for making him the wonderful, religious, successful, modest guy that he is!
Now, the tax collector might very well have accumulated as much money as the Pharisee had—or even more! But his wealth hadn’t helped his self-esteem. The tax collector knew his own shortcomings all too well—and they weighed upon his heart. And so he said this simple prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)
Jesus then finished the story by saying: “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
Now, this story becomes good news for us because it allows us to examine ourselves honestly, and from the perspective of faith. It is true that we are not—nor will we ever be—the people that God would have us be. And yet, that is precisely why God gives us his Child, Jesus Christ.
God gives Jesus to us because, left to our own devices, we could never gain the recognition nor the approval from God that we so desperately desire. The gift of Jesus lifts from our shoulders the burden of our need to please God, to gain God’s favor.
The arrival of Jesus into our lives helps us admit that we are not—nor will we ever be—on the same level as God. Jesus’ presence in our lives makes us humbly aware of the great lengths God will go to in order to rescue us.
Jesus then becomes for us proof positive that God’s compassion is great, God’s mercy is wide, and that God’s covenant love for us is resolute, steadfast, and eternal.
As we hear this good news, we discover that humility is not a quality that we generate from within ourselves. Rather, humility comes about in our lives as we are confronted by the gospel and recognize the enormity of its power at work in our lives.
In fact, when we are faced with the magnitude of such grace, then we respond like the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For even before the prayer comes from our lips, God has demonstrated his mercy, and we rejoice because the mercy that comes from God never ends.
We should praise our Creator for so great a salvation. Thanks be to God. Amen.