“God, I thank you that I’m not like those other people. Like that tax collector. What a lout. In cahoots with them. Immoral. Unjust. So wrong. And he has the gall to show up here at your place of prayer? He’s not really one of us. More like a Jew in Name Only.
I live the way you want all of us to live; I do what you want all of us to do. I serve you. I fast. I even give 10% of my income to the temple. I follow the rules.
I’ve got a good life. Not like that guy. Not like all those greedy, crooked, adulterous people. I can see nothing good about them. I am nothing like them.
Thank you, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.
“O God… (hit chest 3x) be merciful to me … (hit chest 3x), a sinner!” (hit chest 3x)
God, I know what you must think of me, what that Pharisee thinks of me, what everyone thinks of me, what I think of myself.. I admit it – I’ve sold out. I feel terrible. But, I had to find a way to take care of my family. I know I’m part of an unjust system that hurts my people. But, I need that money. I know what I’m doing is wrong. I don’t know if I can stop. Those in charge have said as much… if I turn my backs on them, they may go after my wife and kids. How did I ever get in this position? I’m in too deep. I’m scared.
O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. I am so sorry. Truly sorry. (pause)
You forgive me? You have not abandoned me? You will help ME? After all I’ve done wrong, you are still with me?
Thank you, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.
The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector challenges our conventional wisdom about how our relationship with God actually works. How is it that the person who seems to be doing everything right, the Pharisee, is actually not close with God; and the person who seems to be doing everything wrong, is? And walks home right with God?
The key is right here. (pointing to the heart) The key is found in our hearts.
The Pharisee has closed his heart not only to the tax collector, but to lots of other people, and even to God. His attention is focused outside himself on those other people. When he looks at the world, he only sees “us and them.” Not only has he made himself the judge of others, he has written many of them off.
But, “When we are genuinely standing inside the recognition of our own sin,” writes Ron Rolheiser, “we judge no one.” We judge no one.
Even with all of his commendable spiritual practices, the Pharisee has not developed a sense of heartfelt connection with others or with God. He has stayed separate. Above the fray. Standing in judgment over others, not open to them. He may be confident that he is doing all of the right things, following all the rules, that he is following God’s way, but he never looks inside his own heart. He never examines his own shortcomings.
With his closed heart, the Pharisee doesn’t even try to understand the situation or feelings of the tax collector. He can’t imagine that they would have anything in common. He has no idea and he doesn’t care about what’s going on inside the tax collector’s heart, about his fears and hopes, his pain and struggles. The Pharisee doesn’t feel any need to be curious about what has led a fellow Jew to become a tax collector.
To the Pharisee it is simple – there is the right way (his) and the wrong way (those other people.) Why those other people are doing the wrong things is of no interest to him. He is unwilling to consider that there might be larger social forces at work that entangle the tax collector – like crushing poverty or generational trauma.
To the Pharisee it is obvious. He thinks he knows all there is to know. No need to open his heart to listen to another person’s story. What the Pharisee fails to see is that because he is so certain of his own rectitude, God can’t reach his heart. What he doesn’t see is that God lives in the very places within himself that he has closed off; and that God lives within those people he has shut out.
The question for us this morning is, how open are we to looking within our own hearts? To reflect on why our hearts may be closed to others and closed even to God’s activity within us? When others may not meet our standards or do things the way we think they should, how open are our hearts to them? How willing are we to acknowledge to God the truth of our failure to fully love others?
We live in a culture where the Pharisee’s contemptuous approach to life seems to have seized the day. Turn on the television and you are likely to see hair-raising political commercials that claim how bad the other side is and how solely good one candidate or party is.
Almost everything about our present political culture tempts us to see the world in a simplified frame of “us vs. them.” Given how intense our political divisions seem to be, we can easily succumb to the Pharisee’s way of thinking – to be grateful we are not like those other people; to think we have the full truth. In so doing, we close our hearts, too – to other people and to God.
One of my favorite writers, Debie Thomas, asks, “Don’t we behave sometimes as if we’re finished products, with nothing new to discover about the Holy Spirit’s excavations into our inner lives? Don’t we set up … litmus tests for each other, based on personal inclinations and pieties that have nothing to do with Jesus’s open-hearted love and hospitality? Don’t we fixate on the forms of religiosity we can put on display for others to applaud, instead of cultivating the secret and hidden life of God within our own souls? Don’t we allow scorn — disguised as holy indignation — to take root and grow in our hearts, until love sours and empathy dies?”
There is another way. When we open our hearts to realize and embrace the full truth of who we are and who everyone else is -imperfect, then we allow the grace of God to move in our hearts and in our lives.
(The next thing I’m going to say may be the most important thing I saw in the whole sermon… it’s related to why what we are doing next weekend in our Crucial Conversations workshop is so important.) When we understand that we have habituated ways of reacting to stress and conflict that can send us into some very dark places inside ourselves, then if we have the courage to look within and recognize our sins, our shadows, our short-comings, trusting that God can do something new in our lives; God can help us grow. We don’t always have to react the same ways to stress and conflict; we can pause, take a breath, and go forward in a different way. (Next Saturday we will be learning about some of different ways to respond to stress and conflict.)
If we want to grow in our relationship with God, we must take an honest look at our hearts – not only the beauty and blessing that is there, but also our dark and our shadows – which, by nature, are in all humans. (Different versions of beauty, different versions of darkness.) Over the course of our lives, we have all built up ways of coping with this world that sometimes distance us from our hearts, from other people and from God.
For some in this congregation, being honest about our shortcomings is second nature. If anything, you beat yourself up for your shortcomings. You might say, “Gee! I failed again. I messed up again!” Often times, we beat ourselves up and think nothing can change. The challenge is to bring that to God. To trust that God can work with that. That’s the place that God can grow us; that’s the fertile soil in our spiritual lives. All of that stuff – that’s where God wants to get in, work the soil, so something new can bloom.
There are other people, like me, and others in this room and online, too, where it can feel threatening to admit we don’t have it all together. We may want to be all about, “love and light,” serving, being active, shining goodness… “Life is great.” But, taking an honest look at the ways we close our hearts, taking an honest look at our habituated reactions to stress and conflict… don’t want to go there… don’t take the time to go there…got too many other things to do, don’t want to do that..
To soften our hearts and allow more grace into our lives, build up good and healthy connections with other people and God, we need to look inside, we need to lovingly embrace what God lovingly embraces, our own shadow and sins. Following this sermon, you will have an opportunity to have an opportunity to reflect.
Friends, we are all a work in progress. No one here has arrived. Nor will we ever arrive. We will forever be a work in progress. We need to give grace to ourselves and to other people. Our God loves the Pharisee and the tax collector; Our God listens to our prayers. But, “only the honest and desperate prayer of confession changes a life.” (Debie Thomas)
May be like the tax collector, and pray from our hearts – O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Amen.
You are invited to examine your own heart with these questions:
Do you look down on those who are less educated, less affluent, or less successful than yourself?
Are you quick to find fault with others and to verbalize those thoughts to others?
Do you have a sharp, critical tongue? Do you frequently correct or criticize others? Are you argumentative?
Are you driven to receive approval, praise, or acceptance from others?
Do you generally think your way is the right way, the only way, or the best way?
Are you easily offended? Do you complain often?
Are you guilty of pretense? (Would the people at church be shocked if they knew what you were like at home?)
Do you have a hard time admitting when you are wrong? To confessing specific sins to God or others?
Do you have a hard time sharing your real spiritual needs/struggles with others?
Do you become defensive when you are criticized or corrected?
Do you tend to be controlling—of your partner, your children, friends, or those you work with?
Do you frequently interrupt people when they are speaking?
When is the last time you said these words to a family member, friend, or coworker: “I was wrong; please forgive me?”
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.