Your Daily Lenten Devotional
March 7, 2012
Into the Wilderness
Whom do you trust?
Pharisee and Tax Collector
The story is told of a nobleman in Victorian England who commissioned a portrait photographer to take his picture. The man suffered no lack of self-esteem, coupled with an overly optimistic view of his attractiveness. The photographer brought his equipment to the gentleman’s home and proceeded to set it up in the parlor. All along the noble felt no qualms about offering unsolicited advice to the photographer about his preparations. ‘When all was ready at last for the photograph to be done, the noble announced: “Young man, mind you to do me justice with that camera of yours.” With hardly a pause the photographer responded, “Sir, your need for my camera’s work is not justice but mercy.”
Jesus tells a story to a group that suffers no lack of religious self-esteem. Two individuals pray at the Temple: a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee comes to the Temple, not so much imploring God’s acceptance as declaring his fitness for it. The prayer of the Pharisee thus becomes not a baring of his soul but a review of his resume. Grace is not really needed, much less asked for, since the Pharisee mentions ample evidence for his standing with God being obvious to everyone—including God. “`God, I thank you that I am not like other[s].”‘ This Pharisee is not like the extortioners, the unjust, the adulterers, to use the words of the parable. To put a more contemporary spin on it, this Pharisee is not like the ones who spend all their time in the bars or the welfare cheats or the Aryan Nations wingnuts.
The prayer of the Pharisee, in ancient or modern dress, requires no divine presence. It only needs an audience of those who share the same disdains and the same upright behavior for the sake of self-congratulation.
The second prayer partner in the Temple is a tax collector, a traitorous parasite who exploits his own people by collecting the taxes of a foreign occupier. He stands back in a corner where he won’t upset anyone with his presence. Scarcely daring to raise his eyes off the floor and with a gesture of despair, all he can pray is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
According to Jesus, the tax collector—not the Pharisee—returns home justified in God’s sight. As Jesus saw the matter, everyone who sets himself or herself up will be taken down a few notches, while those who humble themselves will be exalted. “A person’s pride will bring humiliation, but one who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Prow 29:23).
Justification looms large in the parable’s close as the most definitive distinguishing point between these two individuals. What separates them at the end are not the obvious variances in lifestyle, piety, and social stature (or the lack thereof). One returns justified; one does not. And the one who does catches us off guard and unprepared for the choices God makes…
…By comparing ourselves to others, particularly in ways that stack the deck in our favor, our prayers and spiritual posturing may reveal that we trust more in ourselves than in God. Or it may reveal a diversion on our part to avoid facing our own brokenness and fears. Either way, as long as we can find someone worse off (in our estimation) morally, spiritually, or politically, we risk seducing our-selves into thinking we stand justified in God’s sight. Haven’t we just proved that? But justification does not come down to showing how fortunate God must be to have friends like us. Justification turns on whom we trust. To trust in self is self-justification. To trust in God, even when the trust comes from a lowlife like this tax collector, opens us to God’s justification. It is a scandalous parable, and the name of the scandal is grace.
May I see myself as you see me, O God, that I may trust my true self to you. Wholly. May I see others as you see them, O God, that I may accept them as you accept me. Graciously. Amen.
In your journal reflect on places of your life where you have difficulty trusting: trusting other persons, trusting God. As you are able, identify sources or causes of that difficulty. Pray about those matters that hold you back from trust, especially those that might have to do with a reluctance to share your true self or admit to weaknesses. Imagine the hands of God cupped open. Place yourself in that space held up by God. Entrust yourself to God.
Parables and Passion: Jesus’ Stories for the Days of Lent
Retail Price: $15.00
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Parables and Passion offers a disciplined encounter with the parables of Jesus in the season of Lent. The book allows reflection on one parable each day arranged around relevant themes. The Prologue offers a reading for Ash Wednesday, and the Epilogue provides readings for the final days of Holy Week.
Used with the kind permission of our friends at Upper Room Books.