In printing, this word means the way text lines up along both the left and right margins of the page. “Justified” can also mean acceptable, or reasonable under the circumstances: for example, if someone proves to be trustworthy, you would be justified putting faith in that person; or, under certain conditions, an action is justified, such as deciding not to wait any longer for someone who is already an hour late for an appointment.
But in this passage we are given today from the Gospel of Luke, “justified” means something else. It means being made righteous in God’s eyes. It means being made right. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, the 18th chapter, verses 9 through 14:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 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.”
Like last week’s passage, this story is introduced with an explanation. Some of the parables Jesus come to us without clarification, and Jesus explained other parables to the disciples only after the crowds had gone home. But here, we have two parables back-to-back that Luke introduces with some editorial comment, so his readers will be sure to understand their purpose. Last week, Luke told us that the parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge was about the need to pray continually, and to not lose heart. Jesus closes that teaching with a question: “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” We can almost see the people around Jesus nodding to one another knowingly, assuring themselves that they will certainly be faithful. Others might fall away, but surely those who are closest to Jesus will stay strong. Sounds a little like Peter on the night Jesus was betrayed, doesn’t it? But there isn’t a rooster crowing this time, to alert these listeners to their foolishness, so Jesus tells another story. This one is aimed at those who trust in their own righteousness, and regard others with contempt – in other words, the very people smugly nodding to each other, sure that they have what it takes to stay faithful to Jesus, even if others fail.
Jesus first describes someone who, by all appearances, should be one of the most holy and devoted Jews around: a Pharisee. Pharisees get a lot of negative attention in the gospel stories, so we might need to adjust our thinking about these men – and they were all men, by the way – to understand how they might be seen through the eyes of first century Jewish culture. Pharisees were extremely devout, and highly disciplined in their religious practices. A Pharisee was a real Jew’s Jew: obedient to the Law, even going above and beyond what the Law required. The Law required fasting on one day of the year – the Day of Atonement. A good Pharisee fasted at least once a week, and the most religious Pharisees fasted both on Mondays AND Thursdays, for the sins of all Israel, as well as for their own sin. The Law required tithing, but made allowances for those who were too poor to offer a regular tithe. A Pharisee might give ten per cent of everything he bought, as well as everything he earned, just in case the person who sold him goods had not tithed those goods before he received them. A good Pharisee considered it his duty to know the Law inside and out, and to live according to each detail of that Law. A Pharisee was a Really Good Guy.
A tax collector, on the other hand, was a Really Bad Guy. Tax collectors were considered traitors and cheats. They had sold out to the Romans who oppressed Israel, collecting the Roman tolls and padding their own pockets with whatever they wanted to charge over and above the required tax. And it was all legal. But Jews considered the practice to be highly unethical, and contrary to God’s commands. If a Pharisee was at the top end of the righteousness ladder, a tax collector was on the very bottom rung. It would be perfectly understandable for a Pharisee to see a tax collector and think to himself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
So the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, feeling confident before God about himself and his own righteousness. He knows he’s a really good Jew. In fact, he’s much better at being Jewish than most other Jews, and his prayer reflects his attitude. He stands apart, where he can be clearly seen by others who might look to him as an example, and he lifts his hands and eyes to heaven. His very posture looks righteous as he begins to recite a familiar prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps he borrows from a Psalm of David to pray, maybe the one David used to rejoice when he was delivered from the hand of Saul.
Psalm 18:20-24 reads:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
But even if he uses a psalm of David to frame his prayer, the Pharisee doesn’t stop there. He goes on to declare, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” Four times, he uses the word “I” as he prays. He sees himself as the subject of each sentence. In the Pharisee’s mind, his own actions are what’s most important. As he compares himself to rogues and thieves, and especially to the tax collector he sees off in the corner, the Pharisee is proud of the sharp contrast between his good works and the evil he sees around him.
The tax collector also prays from a Psalm of David, but, by contrast, he chooses Psalm 51, the psalm David wrote to ask forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
The tax collector beats his breast, head bowed, off in a corner of the temple court. His sin is such a burden to him that he can only speak the first phrase of the psalm, ‘Have mercy on me, O God.” In the tax collector’s prayer, God is the subject. God is the do-er, the one who shows mercy. Compared to God, the tax collector can only beat his breast and beg forgiveness. He can’t help but pray for God’s mercy, fully aware of his own sinfulness.
If the story ended here, it would be easy to think that each of these prayers accurately reflected the men who prayed them, and leave it at that. But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that.
The movie, Shadowlands, tells the true story of theologian C. S. Lewis and his wife, Joy Gresham, whom Lewis married late in life. Joy died of bone cancer only four years after meeting C.S. Lewis. During a brief remission from Joy’s cancer, a friend tells Lewis, “I know how hard you’ve been praying, and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis replies, “That’s not why I pray. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.”
Prayer doesn’t change God; it changes us. That’s why Jesus doesn’t end the story with two prayers that reflect the men who pray them, because prayer changed one of them. And that is a beginning, not an end. If the tax collector kept praying from Psalm 51, he’d get to verse eight: “Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” This is not an end, but a beginning.
While we do need to follow the tax collector’s example of humble repentance, it’s also important that we don’t get stuck in the “What a worm I am” mode, certain that we are stained beyond redemption. Jesus doesn’t encourage us to wallow in our failure to measure up to God’s standard. Yes, we need to admit our sin and ask God for mercy, but it doesn’t end there. Once we are made right, we need to act in that assurance, and do right. Not like the Pharisee, so we will be noticed, but like the tax collector who knows how precious grace is.
At the same time, Jesus doesn’t encourage us to be like the Pharisee, either, proud of the good work we do, the way we show up for church on Sunday, the committees on which we serve. Jesus has addressed this issue of pride and self-righteousness before, among his own disciples, so it isn’t something new. When James and John come to him and ask to be seated on his left and right, the other disciples are pretty upset with the way these brothers try to insert themselves at the head of the table. Jesus reminds them that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Once again, we are reminded that God’s ways are not our ways. God is not interested in hearing about how good we are, for not one of us is good enough. Scripture tells us that there is none who is righteous, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The proud Pharisee’s problem was that he trusted in his own righteousness. The humble tax collector trusted in God’s mercy. The tax collector’s honest humility is what sends him home …
The Greek word used here comes from legal language, and it means “shown to be in the right,” or “acquitted.” The tax collector is the one who is made right with God, not the Pharisee. Prayer doesn’t change God, but it did change the tax collector.
Wait a minute! The tax collector is a Really Bad Guy! It’s the Really Bad Guy who gets it right?
Comparison may be the key to understanding this parable. The Pharisee compared himself to a tax collector, and made himself feel better by comparing himself to someone he considered to be less than he was. The tax collector also made a comparison, but it wasn’t to another person. The tax collector compared himself to the holiness of God, and he recognized how far he was from matching that kind of righteousness. The Pharisee saw himself as holy because of what he did, but the tax collector saw himself as a sinner, dependent on what God does. The tax collector knew his only chance at holiness was by the grace of God. His humility saved him. His request for mercy sent him home justified.
Both men addressed God directly in their prayers. Both men quoted psalms, those models for prayer covering nearly every circumstance. Both men prayed about themselves. But one put himself at the center of his praise, while the other prayed persistently and humbly for God’s mercy.
That’s the kind of attitude we ought to have, says Jesus: persistent and humble. Not just in our prayers, but in the way we live our whole lives. We need to think neither too highly or too lowly of ourselves, but to be honest in our humility and desire for restoration to God.
We pray not because it changes God, but because it changes US.
- It changes us into people with humble and grateful hearts.
- It changes us into people who care less and less about having our good works recognized
- It changes us into people who care more and more about loving God, and loving others as much as we love ourselves
- It changes us into disciples of Jesus Christ, who eagerly participate in Christ’s mission to transform the world.
So, I must ask you: Have you, like the tax collector, been justified by repenting of your sins? Have you thrown yourself on the mercy of God? Have you accepted the righteousness that God offers through his Son Jesus Christ? If you can answer yes to all these questions, go in peace this day to share the love of God with others, and offer them the good news that God loved them enough to send his Son to die for them. If you long to be justified, to be forgiven of your sins, to live in the peace and knowledge that you have been made right with God, I invite you to talk with me, or with someone here you trust, to learn how you, too, can claim this gracious gift. Amen.
 Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries, United Methodist Church General Board of Discipleship (http://www.gbod.org).