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  • Rev. Diane Curtis

In the Sight of God

Luke 18:9-14

New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man 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.”

Identity is a common issue today. In a world where identity theft and email scams are rampant, many worry about who knows who they are. One’s identity, who they are, is defined in a variety of ways. In high school, kids are deemed to be a part of a group – jocks, popular kids, geeks, and outcasts are a few. In the work world, one’s identity is defined by position – upper management, middle management, administration, and worker are some of the categories. Others identify themselves by the letters after their name, often listed on a business card. For instance, if I included the various degrees I have, my business card would say:

Rev. Diane Curtis, AA, BS, MS, MDiv

Sometimes we hide our identity. At Halloween, kids and adults dress up as a favorite character – cowboy/girl, Mickey Mouse, Spiderman, a Pumpkin, a Ghost, and even a Lego block. In the reality show, The Masked Singer, celebrities dress up in costumes and sing while the panel tries to figure out who is behind the mask.

At times, often at the holiday season, many put on “masks” so that others won’t see the real person behind them. In the spirit of the season, one acts cheerful, grateful, and happy to spend time with others even if those are the last things they want to do. They wear an ugly Christmas sweater, laughing along with everyone else about how awful it looks all the while feeling ugly inside. Of course, there are others who don’t need to mask who they are because they truly are generous, caring, grateful, and loving individuals.

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is about identity. Who are you? There are many ways to answer this question in this text. The obvious way of identifying a Pharisee is to consider who he was supposed to be: a model citizen and community leader who follows the law, maintains purity, worships regularly, lives a life of prayer, and tithes 10%.

A tax collector, on the other hand, had a reputation of cheating people, not being community minded. He lived on the wrong side of the tracks for whom religion was not a priority. He was considered by others as a known sinner.

Based on these assumptions of identity, it is easy to see which man was considered the important and upstanding citizen by those listening to Jesus (the introduction to the parable describes them as those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt). We might envision these listeners as the audience at a melodrama, cheering and booing as someone on stage held up a card directing that reaction. These listeners clearly identified themselves with the Pharisee. Others in the crowd saw this situation as the norm of their culture. They looked up to these important leaders while recognizing that this was just as it was. Pharisees were those who were puffed up and who pushed others down.

Let’s consider another viewpoint as recorded in the gospels and based on the observations of the writers or reporters. A Pharisee was one who was more concerned with keeping the law than living it. He tended to be judgmental with a me first attitude. Wealth and possessions were a priority. He was one who told God to look at him as the example of a faithful man.

The tax collector, on the other hand, was humble. He was one we would consider as one of the lost – the sheep who wandered off from the herd. He knew he was a sinner. He might fit the description of one described in the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5: poor in spirit, one who mourns, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, seeking mercy, pure in heart, and wanting to be a peacemaker. What we think Jesus expected of him. Regardless, the tax collector would not be described as an example of one living a faithful life.

Another way of considering the parable is to think of the Pharisee and tax collector as two sides of the same coin. They were the same inside who expressed who they were in different ways. Both knew they were not always honest, that they could be judgmental. Both men wrestled with failure and rejection. Each had experiences of joy and sadness and could be giving or not. Both were sinners.

Each man expressed their internal doubts in different ways. Why the difference? Could it be due to their upbringings? The Pharisee was prepped for his profession from early childhood. He had the finest tutors, a privileged social standing from the upper class, was born into money, and had the finest of everything. What many would call an “easy life.”

The tax collector was born into poverty. Members of the lower class, his family had to work hard just to have food, clothes, and a place to live. He would never become a leader in society or be expected to amount to much. He did whatever it took to be “successful,” and have more than his family did, even if that meant choosing a lucrative but dishonest profession.

The Pharisee had doubts about meeting the lofty expectations place on him and being successful. The tax collector had doubts that he could overcome who he was brought up to be and to become successful anyway. Both men dealt with similar fears, doubts, and anxieties.

The parable teaches how each managed the internal view of self. The Pharisee presents himself as his peers expected. He tried to be who he was brought up to be. But his inside view didn’t match the outside expression of himself. The tax collector had no aspirations that he was more than he was expected to be. He was honest with himself even if not with others. This man acknowledged his sinfulness. That is what he was commended for – his internal view of himself matched his outside expression of that view.

Jesus says the tax collector went home justified because he acknowledged who he was on the inside not to impress anyone, but in asking God for mercy. The Pharisee was not justified because he didn’t admit his own failings, only judged another’s.

Jesus ends his teaching with this phrase: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Both the Pharisee and the tax collector will encounter difficulties in life. Both will make poor decisions. Both are sinners. Their different actions represent each’s answer to the question do they see themselves as they really are.

Jesus’ summation, that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted, applies to both men and to all people, including us. This summation points to the underlying theme of the parable: forgiveness. God’s forgiveness.

Remember the example of the two sides of the same coin? The different images of two men with similar internal struggles and tension. They are also two men who are forgiven. It is in acknowledging our need for forgiveness and in accepting it that we humble ourselves and are exalted in God’s eyes. We can be those others look up to not as someone more important but as an example to follow of living a more Christ-like life.

It is in understanding who we are as a child of God and in accepting that God really does love us that makes us justified and exalted. Maybe not in the eyes of people, but in the eyes of God. Isn’t that the most important?


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