Is there anyone so lonely as a Pharisee? Is there anyone so lonely as the man who stands apart from others when he prays? Is there anyone so lonely as the man who must put up the big façade, pretending that all the good deeds he does makes him acceptable to God, when he knows in his heart of hearts that he’d far rather be doing quite different things than what he boasts about? To be such a Pharisee is to be very alone, even when standing in the crowded temple, even when standing in a church.
The Pharisee HAS to keep a distance from other people, because if they got too close, if they came to know him too well, then they’d see behind the façade, and the entire pretense would crumble. Then others would find out the real truth about the Pharisee, that he really wasn’t set apart from others at all. That he shared the exact same temptations and trials, and that inside him lived the same rebellious and stubborn soul that lived in all the rest. Far from marching from one victory to another, he too stumbles from one failure to another.
The Pharisee, then, behind the pretense to holiness and the looking down on others, is intensely alone. Most of all, lonely because separated from the God who dwells only with sinners.
Are you a Pharisee, then? I think when we first hear this parable that we know so well, we immediately place ourselves into the person of the tax-collector, and we shake our heads at those silly folks who think they can curry God’s favor with their good works. How dumb can you be, we think. But dig a little deeper in the text, and I think we all start to squirm. Do you try to keep others at a distance so they don’t really get to know you in your sin and in your struggles? Do you stand apart when we gather in this room for prayer – not asking intercessions for the things you really struggle with for fear of what others would think of you? Do you want others to know all about the good things you do so that they can look up to you and praise you? Do you try to hide from others the very real sin that lives inside your heart and rebels against God’s commands, wanting to do your own thing? Do you even at times give into that, but try to keep your giving in “hush-hush” so that others continue to think of you in a way that does not match the truth about you?
Sadly, I find myself far too often in the place of that Pharisee. And so far too often, alone. All alone, praying with myself, maybe even just to myself.
But if the Pharisee is alone, the tax-collector is not. True, he stands afar off. True, he won’t even lift up his eyes. True, he beats his breast. But listen to what he prays: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is not alone because he stands before God with empty hands. He knows the evil that lives in heart. He knows the evil that he has done in his life. He knows the words he’s spoken that have cut other people and hurt them. He knows the times real burning hatred has been a guest in his breast. He knows how many times he has burned with desire for what God has not given him and how he has grumbled about what God has seen fit to bestow on him. He can plead only for mercy; he’s deserved nothing but wrath, and he knows it.
And he doesn’t just know it in his heart. He says it with his mouth. He confesses before everyone there that he is a poor, miserable sinner who has deserved nothing but God’s punishment now and forever. And yet he asks for mercy.
Interesting word there in the Greek. His prayer is not the word we expect: eleison. As in Kyrie eleison. Instead, he prays: O God, be propitious to me! O God, provide a sacrifice of forgiveness for me! O God, don’t give me what I deserve!
Think who is telling this parable. He is the answer to the tax-collector’s prayer. He is the One sent to be the sacrifice of forgiveness for us sinners! He is the One who stands with us in the loneliness of our sin so that we might receive from God the mercy we have not deserved.
This tax-collector, says Jesus, went down to his house justified, declared not guilty. And so, no longer alone. Because he was nothing but a sinner before God, he made the wondrous discovery that Jesus came to be the friend of sinners, that He came to take our sin upon Himself, that He came to bear on His cross what we could never bear, in order that we might become even as He is. No longer separated and cut off from God, but exalted to be the very children of God and heirs of His eternal kingdom.
To stand with the tax-collector means to be known as a sinner, as one who stands by nature under the dreadful wrath of God, as one who needs forgiveness and mercy. But oh the freedom of being done with the facades! Oh, the freedom of no longer having to pretend! Oh, the joy of speaking the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about yourself: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Humbling, indeed. But the very humiliation is exalting!
And then the joy of discovering that not only do you have the Lord Jesus, the friend of sinners, but you have sisters and brothers. They stand around you, beating their breasts, not lifting their eyes, pleading for the same mercy, and like you, they are given that mercy for which they plead.
A family of sinners through and through. Coming together to this table where the One who is your propitiation, your sacrifice of atonement on the cross, now gives Himself to you, to impart to you His forgiveness by the very Body and Blood that won that forgiveness for you. All around you, sisters and brothers who kneel with you and confess the same thing as you: that they are but a family of sinners who know what it is live from the free grace of God in Christ, and who have no need then to pretend to be anything other than what they are: forgiven. And so a family where there is no looking down on another, as though some were worse than others. A family where each says with the humility of Paul: “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”
That is what the Church is all about, or it is not the Church that Christ founded. Not people who have their act together, but poor sinners, pleading for mercy, and then living together from the mercy they receive from the hand of God. Together with Christ. Together with one another. Not alone anymore. Amen.