Pharisee or tax-collector: which one are you?

Luke 18.9-14

The four eponymous heroines of the TV series Desperate Housewives live in the suburban idyll of Wisteria Lane, and all of them have strong but different  characters.

Brie is always immaculately dressed, a domestic marvel, and has a pristine home.

Susan is dizzy, always getting herself into scrapes and digging herself in deeper as she tries to get herself out;

Gabbie the ex-model is materialistic and vain, and a very blunt speaker.

Lynette is a worldly wise schemer whose conscience will not allow her to put up with what is not right.

Any woman who watches this programme might well ask herself 'which desperate housewife am I? ' 

Having heard the gospel today, I wonder if we would dare to honestly ask ourselves 'which character in the parable am I ? The Pharisee, or the tax-collector?'

The Pharisee is full of swagger. He doesn’t humble himself before God, instead he parades his virtues. He reminds God (who sees everything and needs to be reminded of nothing), of just how wonderful he is. He goes beyond the call of religious duty fasting twice a week and he wants to make sure that God knows this.

The Pharisee has gone beyond being righteous, he is self-righteous, he isn’t holy, he is holier-than-thou, he is not sanctified, but sanctimonious. Not only does he remind God how good he is he makes himself feel even more self-satisfied by sneering at the tax-collector. 'I am so much better than everybody else', he is saying, 'especially him.' If the Pharisee were truly holy, and behaving in a God-like way, he would have consoled the tax-collector and raised him up, and helped him to see his worth and that God would forgive his sins. But he does not.

The tax-collector knows he has done wrong, he is acutely aware of how hated he is, for being a collaborator with the Romans, and his sins, which are not specified, weigh heavily upon him, so much so that he dare not lift his eyes from the ground. He feels that in the sight of God he is a worthless worm. His prayer is from the heart, it is short, it is heartfelt. ‘Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.’ He has reached rock bottom, but he has acknowledged his predicament and he has come to seek help from the only one who can lift his burden, God himself.

There may be days when are like the Pharisee, when our supposed goodness might make us feel smug and self-satisfied. We should always strive to be good, and to pattern our lives on those of our Lord and master, but we should never bask in our goodness and look down on others. We should not be swift to cast judgment, and condemn the failings of others. Jesus reminds us that before we point out the faults of others, we should look to see what faults we ourselves have. We should take the plank out of our own eye before we try to take the speck of sawdust from our neighbour’s eye. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

There may be days when we feel more like the tax-collector, that there is nothing good about ourselves, that we are worthless. Jesus reminds us that no one is worthless in God’s sight, we all have value and are precious. If ever we feel that low, we should come to God in prayer and ask him to raise us up. He lifts the burden upon us.

Like the characters of Wisteria Lane we are all different, we cannot all be the same, and it would be a less interesting world if we were. The message of the parable is that we should know ourselves and not delude ourselves. God sees us as we truly are, in his sight we cannot pretend to be anything other than who we really are. Thankfully he regards us with eyes of love and compassion, with pity not with blame.

And as God regards us, so we must regard others, not looking down on others, not judging them, not sneering at them, but by giving people a chance, raising them up when they fall, helping them to see their worth. 

So might we also be justified in the sight of God.