Two fish are swimming along and suddenly they swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other fish and says ‘Dam! You have probably heard the story about the two men who walked into a bar…You’d think at least one of them would have ducked.
In our Gospel lesson for today the parable Jesus tells starts like one of those old jokes doesn’t it? Two fish were swimming or two men walked into a bar—but instead it is two men walked into the Temple. It is not that great of a joke is it? But then again it is not supposed to be funny.
The two men, the Pharisee and the tax collector, are known stereotypes of the day. The Pharisee is a man who has dedicated himself to God’s service. Please note this. Everything the man says about himself is true. For instance, when he says, “I thank you that I am not like other men,” indeed he wasn’t like other men. He had a standard of morality that was far above the standard of that day. When he said, “I fast twice a week;” it happens to be literally true. The Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday of every week. When he says, “I give tithes of all I possess,” he means he tithes on the gross and not on the net. He went beyond the Law of Moses. Generally all the Pharisees did that. And when he says, “I am not a crook,” he really isn’t a crook. When he says, “I am not like this filthy tax collector,” he’s really not like that guy. When he says, “I do not commit adultery,” he really doesn’t commit adultery. He is faithful to his wife. When he says, “I am honest, I am faithful, I am zealous for my religion,” he means it and every word of it is true.
On the other hand we have the tax collector. We don’t in our day get how bad these guys really were. Do you remember in France and in Norway when the Nazi’s overthrew the French government and Norwegian government? There were people in those countries who sold out to the Nazis, who helped the Nazis and they were given money and position and power. And they betrayed many of their fellow country-men. These were the Quislings, the Benedict Arnolds, these people were traitors and were despised and feared. They were nasty people, dishonest and treacherous; they were really the scum of that society in the same way people in our society who are involved with human trafficking are bad; in the same way that drug dealers are bad. These are the kind of people who make money for themselves by exploiting those around them. This is why the tax collectors were feared, hated and despised—there was good reason to fear, hate and despise them.
So we need to understand what Jesus is setting up. In Jesus’s day there were those two types of men—it is no idle comparison; it is no joke—these two men are worlds apart in their behavior. We have two men praying. Notice that the Pharisee’s prayer has no request or confession. He doesn’t need anything from God. He has it all together. If anything it is a prayer of thanksgiving. When we look at the tax collector’s prayer we note that it is simple. He says, “Be merciful to me a sinner.” This is the Baptist’s equivalent to the sinner’s prayer. Apparently he is preparing to change his ways. He is going to repent and turn back to God rather like Zacchaeus and Matthew did. And the punchline in this not-funny joke is that Jesus says the bad guy goes away justified, not the good guy. The guy who is really a scum gets forgiveness. Why? Is this fair? The guy who is a really good man in how he behaves—he leaves the temple condemned? How can this be?
Jesus said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It is interesting that Jesus uses for his protagonist a person who is nastier than practically everyone. Probably no one in that crowd listening to Jesus was as bad as a tax collector, In the same way, probably no one here in church today is as bad as he was. And that is part of the point isn’t it? This very bad guy, whose behavior is much worse than anyone here, this fellow, goes away from the presence of God justified. He has asked for mercy; he is turning from his evil ways and repenting. And he leaves the Temple forgiven for his bad and evil behavior. But the Pharisee does not. Why? It is because of his heart.
We are told he exalts himself. As far as he is concerned God is lucky to have him on his team. And it is this arrogance, this pride in himself that God hates. His behavior is like having a beautiful frame for a painting, but if the painting that the frame surrounds is bad, even though the frame may be beautiful it is of no value either. A picture frame cannot make a picture beautiful. It is the same with the pride in a person’s heart.
Pride is the problem when we compare ourselves with those around us. We tend to compare ourselves with those we look better than. However according to Scripture all of us are in need of God’s mercy and help. Think in terms of an ocean liner going down in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from land. The Pharisee is like one who can swim very well, free-style, butterfly, side-stroke, back-stroke, and so on. The tax collector is like one who can barely dog paddle. One can swim much better than the other, but the point is they both need help, right? It doesn’t really matter if one guy can swim faster and farther than the other guy because neither can swim hundreds of miles to land. Both will drown. Both are in desperate need of being saved. It is the same for us, isn’t it? All of us, whether we are trying really hard to live righteously or if we are just now realizing our need of God and beginning to turn our lives around like the tax collector, all of us need God’s mercy. All us equally need to approach God in humility.
Scripture teaches us not to compare ourselves to others but to compare ourselves to God’s standards. Jesus said to love others as he, Jesus, loved us. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians to live like he did just like he lived like Christ. So when we look around to see how we measure up, we are not to look at the person next to us or the people in our society. That puts the standard too low. We are to aim high! We are to try to love like Jesus loved; we are to try serve God with our whole hearts like Paul and the saints did. In this way there is no artificial comparison with those around us. We all are in need of God’s mercy.
Two guys walk into a church. The first guy looks around and thinks “I’m better than he or she is—the other bows his or her head and says, “Oh God I need your help.” No joke, let’s be the 2nd guy. Amen