A wise and godly man once observed: “Pride is the dandelion of the soul. Its root goes deep; only a little left behind sprouts again. Its seeds lodge in the tiniest encouraging cracks. And it flourishes in good soil. The danger of pride is that it feeds on goodness.” Perhaps no parable illustrates this as well as that which Yeshua taught about the Pharisee and the tax-collector.
“Two men went up into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax-collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to Heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:10-14).”
Talk about a contrast! You couldn’t ask for two more different types in First-Century Israel: on the one hand we have a Pharisee, an ultra-orthodox, devoutly religious Jewish man, and on the other a tax-collector, a secular materialist Jewish man who confiscated money from fellow Jews to pay to Caesar. The one considered patriotic and pious, the other considered godless and a traitor.
I. The Pharisee
The word ‘Pharisee’ is from the Hebrew parash – separate or distinct. This group of religious leaders and teachers were known for their piety, highly esteemed by some, and resented by others. We tend to view Pharisees rather one-dimensionally through the lens of the New Covenant writers; after all, Messiah had harsh criticism for the hypocrites among them. But it would be a mistake to think that all Pharisees were bad. But there’s no question about the attitude of this one. He was glad he wasn’t like other people; glad to be a ‘separated one’. Let’s consider the content of his prayer:
God, I thank You that I am not like other people…”
What was he really saying? “I’m better than other people.” He goes on to list certain kinds of sinful people he regards as beneath him: “Swindlers, unjust, adulterers…” You can almost hear him saying, “I don’t cheat in my business; I don’t discriminate against people, and I’ve never cheated on my wife.” Those are the things he doesn’t do, and we could all agree that it’s good he doesn’t do them. Then he notices who’s standing just a short way away from him, and adds:
“…or even like this tax-collector.”
The ‘loathsome’ tax-collector represented everything the Pharisee hated; greed, selfish ambition, indifference to the plight of his own people; disloyalty. Few people were as hated in Israel at that time as tax collectors. If you want a modern-day comparison, think about how you felt about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl – the army deserter and Islamic sympathizer who walked away from his post during his shift (leaving his fellow soldiers unguarded as they slept) and surrendered himself to Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Or, if it works for you, just think about IRS agents. The tax-collector capped the list of everything the Pharisee was glad not to be. And now the Pharisee goes on to list positive things that he does do:
“I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get…”
Well, he already had me beat with the weekly fasting. I don’t fast much… at all. And I dare say he was more faithful and deliberate in his giving than most people. But what was he really saying? “I deserve to have God’s approval; I’ve earned it.” And that’s precisely the problem with his thinking. But now let’s consider the tax-collector.
II. The Tax-collector
Yeshua says, But the tax-collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to Heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
In contrast to the Pharisee, who felt comfortable in the familiar courts of the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple), the tax-collector was clearly out of his element – uncomfortable and distressed. And do you know why? It’s because he wasn’t comparing himself with other people. In the presence of the holy and just God he was confronted with his own moral failure, his sinfulness.
And you know what? His response was appropriate – a response very much like that of the prophet Isaiah, who himself cried out when he beheld Adonai, “Woe is me – I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”
I think if we were to be really honest with ourselves and with the Lord, we would be inclined to do and say the very same thing. “God, please have mercy on me, the sinner!” But too often we fall into the trap of comparing our achievements with those of others, and the tandem pitfall of determining our worth on the basis of the good we have done, instead of understanding that our intrinsic worth comes from being in a New Covenant relationship with the God of Israel through His Messiah, Yeshua.
Nothing good ever comes of measuring yourself against others. First of all, your ‘moral diagnostic tool,’ as it were, is intrinsically miscalibrated, fatally flawed from the moment of Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden. You and I have broken ‘good-o-meters’. Secondly, it’s God Himself, not that guy over there or that woman over there, who is the standard of what constitutes righteousness. Can I be honest? We are likely to be overly generous in our self-assessment whenever we look to any earthly standard. And that doesn’t lead to repentance. Finally, when you compare yourself to other people, inevitably you will resent some whom you see as better than you, and inevitably disdain others whom you see as worse than you.
Think about every time we recite Avinu Malkaynu. Do we really mean it when we say, “chonaynu va’anaynu, kee ayn banu ma’asim – be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no merits” or deep down are we keeping a running list of the good things we have done, hoping they’ll outweigh the bad, and against which we gauge ourselves compared to others?
The bad news, which is an essential component of the Good News, is this: we are sinful and have no righteousness of our own. Our tz’daka doesn’t even come close to measuring up. Unless you fancy yourself more righteous than righteous prophet Isaiah, you don’t stand a chance of surviving in God’s presence on the basis of your own alleged ‘goodness’. That’s uncomfortable to hear, I know, but it’s the truth. What we need to learn from this parable, particularly on Yom Kippur, is that we come to God with an appeal, not an invoice. We need His mercy, because we have no merit.
III. Yeshua’s message to us
Listen to what Yeshua said in conclusion: I tell you, this man (the tax-collector) went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The scary truth is that even honest businessmen and faithful husbands can be far from the Kingdom. This Pharisee wasn’t a thief, a swindler, an adulterer, and he faithfully tithed and regularly fasted, and yet Yeshua said he left the Temple still in his sin. Why? Because he was trusting in his own accomplishments. He felt that God owed him something for all the good works he had done and all the sins from which he had refrained. The key difference between the Pharisee and the tax-collector was one of attitude. The one came before Adonai in pride, the other in humility. The one felt he’d earned justification, the other felt hopelessly indebted and unable to pay, and pleaded for mercy.
The thing that’s unnerving about this parable is how we think it’s for someone else. How quick we are to see the obvious pride in the heart of the Pharisee, and how slow to see it in ourselves. I’ve been dangerously close to thinking, “God, I thank You that I am not like that Pharisee.” Oops!
And so Peter, the great Emissary of Messiah Yeshua, wrote: All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another; for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time.
Let me conclude this morning with a story of the tragic death of a young bullfighter.
“Pali, this bull has killed me!” So said Jose’ Cubero, one of Spain’s most brilliant matadors, before he lost consciousness and died. Only 21 years old, he had been enjoying a spectacular career. However, in this l985 bullfight, Jose’ made a tragic mistake. He thrust his sword a final time into a bleeding, delirious bull, which then collapsed. Considering the struggle finished, Jose’ turned to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. The bull, however, was not dead. It rose and lunged at the unsuspecting matador, its horn piercing his back and puncturing his heart.
Recalling this story, Christian author Craig Brian Larson had this to say: “Just when we think we’ve finished off pride, just when we turn to accept the congratulations of the crowd, pride stabs us in the back. We should never consider pride dead until we are.” May God give us the grace to humble ourselves, not only during Yom Kippur, not only in 5779, but for the rest of our lives.