03 November 2013

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The gospel reading last week was from Luke 18: the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus tells of how a Pharisee is praying in the temple, thanking God for how he is not like the sinners and naming all that he has done well. The tax collector, on the other hand, merely asks for God's grace on him as a sinner.

The meaning seems obvious: pray like the tax collector and not the Pharisee.

But who actually prays like the Pharisee? I doubt any of us have ever heard anyone publicly praying like that, although perhaps churches who are convinced they are the only true church might do this. At the same time, I know that I have looked down on others, thinking I am better than them. And then I "christianize" my pride by adding thankfulness to it! Being able to recognize that side of the Pharisee in myself is startlingly, but, I pray, also healthy.

And it's not like I list all the good I do. But sometimes I do have the sense that I should earn certain things. Perhaps my strongest memory of that is after I returned from teaching in Ukraine. I had spent 2 years of my life in the middle of nowhere, living with language and cultural difficulties, working crazy long weeks, receiving and being able to attain very few material extra's. They were wonderful years, and I am deeply thankful for having been able to dedicate so much energy to living out my Christian life and being a witness to others. At the same time, they were hard years, and I felt that, since I had given so much to God, I deserved some good things back. And what did I believe I deserved most? A husband. I was conveniently at a place where there were significant single males (seminary), so God didn't even need to work that hard. It took me almost six months to recognize how I'd sub-consciously made this deal with God and how, because of that, I was rather angry at Him.

And the tax-collector? How many of us simply say we're sorry, whether it be to God or others? It feels so much better to give an excuse, blame someone or something else, or to justify ourselves.

It surprised me, after spending some time dwelling on this parable, how much I had to learn from it. The obvious meaning of praying with humility is a lot less easy to do in reality, especially when I stop trying to list all the good I do and start realizing how imperfect I actually am.

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