Unlike the Pharisee, he has no illusions of his own righteousness.
He’s overcome with guilt and sorrow for his sin. He knows he doesn’t deserve anything from God but punishment, and so cries out in mercy, even beats his breast.
This man, Jesus said, walked out more justified than the Pharisee.
Why? Because it wasn’t others’ sin that so gripped his heart and soul, it was his own.
Now, most of us would hear a story like that and shout “amen!” because we don’t think we’re the first guy, the self-righteous Pharisee.
Those are the people with all the funky religious rules and weird clothes. Those are the fundamentalists of another generation or the obnoxious guy on Facebook who doesn’t celebrate Halloween or the celebrity pastor who keeps saying dumb things.
But I think Jesus would beg to differ.
Remember, he addressed this parable to “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” That cuts both ways.
What’s more, if the tax collector in Jesus’ day was the easy target, the hated person in the culture, the one that reasonable, middle-of-the-road, kinda spiritual people are free to mock, then maybe it’s us who are the Pharisees.
Jesus’ words to the Pharisees of his day and to the Pharisees of our day is simple: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).
Empty, vacuous declarations of self-righteousness bounce off the ceiling. But desperate, humble cries for mercy and grace reach the throne room of Heaven.
Today, social media is our “public temple” in a way. It’s where we declare who we are and what we stand for, for better or for worse. And I’m afraid we’re so quick to make sure everyone knows that we’re “not like that other guy who keeps getting it wrong.”
You might substitute “obnoxious celebrity pastor” or “outrageous Hollywood entertainer” or “corrupt congressman” for tax collector. Our generation of Christians seems too eager to “not be like those other kind of Christians.” We all think we are among the most reasonable people we know.
In our lurching attempts to not be Pharisees, we become Pharisees of a different stripe. But Jesus’ words to the self-justified should haunt us and then drive us to our knees in humility and cries for mercy.
These may not be the stylish prayers of the digital world. But they are the prayers Jesus seems to answer.