Today, Jesus tells us about two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector. It seems like the Pharisee is a real jerk. His prayer is all about himself. “Thank God I’m not like the rest of humanity.” The second guy, a tax collector, someone despised by his fellow Jews stands off in a corner and asks God for forgiveness. And he needs it. Tax collectors made their living by over-charging their fellow Jews. Then they’d send what was really owed to Rome and keep the rest for themselves. They weren’t the most popular guys in town. But, that was then.
Admit it, you’re happy to hear Jesus say that the tax collector will go home justified while the Pharisee won’t. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” But is that all there is to this story?
Remember, Jesus is the Son of God. He’s the one who will come back to judge us all. It’s His right, in fact it’s His job, to judge each of us, including the two men in the story. What about us? Are we supposed to judge one another? I don’t think so. Yet, but by telling us this parable, it almost seems like He’s encouraging us to pass judgment on the Pharisee too. But if we judge the Pharisee to be bad, aren’t we just as wrong as he is? Isn’t part of Jesus’ message that He gets to judge but we don’t?
The first reading, from the book of Sirach says “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” We know that’s true. He loves all of us equally. So, even if the Pharisee went home unjustified by his self-centered prayer, he didn’t go home unloved. God loves him just as much as the tax collector. And, both men did come to the temple, after all.
It’s kind of like all these pumpkins in front of the altar. They’re there to signify the fall season. It’s harvest time. Time to collect the fruit of the vine and begin to lay up our supplies for the cold winter months.
But they’re also a visible sign of one of the lessons in today’s readings. They’re all pumpkins (except for the gourd), but they’re all very different. There are big ones and little ones, pretty ones and not-so-pretty ones. They’re not all the traditional pumpkin-orange color. But, we know that inside there’s a pumpkin pie just waiting to be let out. They look different on the outside, but on the inside they’re all the same……..unless one of them has gone bad. One of our pumpkins might be rotten on the inside.
But, you and I can’t tell that by looking. Like you and me, the rottenness, (in people it’s called sin), is on the inside. The one who looks the best may actually be the worst ……… Person or pumpkin.
Sometimes you can see it. Someone who publicly supports abortion isn’t hiding their sinfulness on the inside. That’s obvious. But most sin is more subtle than that and it’s hard for us to see. Sometimes even the sinner himself doesn’t see it.
Like the Pharisee. Based on his culture, his upbringing, the actions of his fellow Pharisees, he thought he was righteous. In fact he thought he was so righteous that he was better than everyone else.
It’s the same with us. We may all look different, but we’re all people. We may be big or small, pretty or not-so-pretty. We may even be different colors, but in God’s eyes we’re all the same. He loves us and He wants us to be all that we can be.
So, when Jesus points out the problem with the Pharisee’s prayer, He’s not inviting us to pass judgment. On the contrary, He’s using him as an example for us. Don’t be self-righteous. Don’t put yourself above others. Don’t brag about your faithfulness.
As people of faith, we’re still all fallible human beings. For many of us our greatest fault is seeing that splinter in someone else’s eyes and ignoring the plank in our own. Sometimes that splinter that we think we see is just a reflection of our own plank.
The bottom line is that we’re not going to get into heaven by comparing ourselves to others. That’s just an invitation for us to find fault in our neighbors. It’s a whole lot easier to take them down than it is to build ourselves up. What God wants us to do is to be the best WE can be. We should be comparing where we are in our spiritual life versus where we know we should be. When we realize that we’re coming up short, that’s when we say to God “Be merciful to me, a sinner” and really mean it.