Christianity is not a philosophy or merely an intellectual practice. Knowing the right stuff isn’t enough to make you a Christian. Even knowing that Jesus is the Son of God and savior of the world isn’t enough to save you (despite what some might say). Christianity isn’t really about what’s going on in our head. Christianity is about what is going on in our hearts.
As we begin to think about the coming season of Great and Holy Lent, the Lord Jesus gives us a parable. We are so thankful for a God who cares enough to plainly tell us what we should be doing, and how we should be doing it. He starts this parable by telling us that two men went into the temple to pray. This temple is the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. These men have gone to the temple for one purpose, to pray.
The first man is the Pharisee. Pharisees were the most influential group of Jews during the time of Jesus. They were known for their zeal and legalism in observing the commandments of the law of Moses to the letter. In a way they were extremists when it came to certain parts of the law. St. Paul was at one time a pharisee and we see that his extremism led him to attack Christians when the Church was first beginning. So the Pharisee prays and says ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
Likewise we are told that the other man to enter the temple was a publican, a tax collector. Tax collectors were among the most reviled and despised of all people at the time of Jesus because they were Jews who worked for the Roman government collecting taxes and often stealing a little bit of the taxes for their own benefit. We are told that this tax collector also went into the temple and “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to Heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”
The Lord Jesus uses each of these men as examples because in many ways they represent those who were most respected in Jewish society as well as those who were most hated in Jewish society. Then the Lord does what He does best, He turns the model upside down. He reminds us that where you come from and what you say you believe have very little to do with reality. Reality is what happens when you lift your eyes and your hands in prayer to the Almighty.
Christianity is about what is going on in the heart. In the heart of the Pharisee, he thought of himself as a great and righteous man and so his prayer was self-focused. He talked about all the wonderful things he did and he took it even further than that. He talked about all the bad things that others were doing. In short, he judged then. To the Lord this man was rotten to the core. Even though he fasted twice a week, and gave 10% of all that he had, his prayer was rejected by God. However the tax collector came to the temple with full knowledge of himself. He knew deep within his heart that he was indeed a great sinner. He didn’t even want to look up to God or come close to the front of the temple where others could see him. He didn’t try to pretend to be good or compare himself to others. He simply beat his chest and said “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Both men went to the same place, both men prayed, and both men were praying to the same God. The one difference was the heart. One was prideful and arrogant while the other was humble and meek.
King David writes “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart— These, O God, You will not despise.” Psalm 51:16-17 The Lord tells us that it was the tax collector whose prayer was accepted. It was the tax collector who “went down to his house justified rather than the other.” We understand from this that God despised the prayers of the Pharisee, no matter how many prayers he said or how long those prayers were. No matter how he fasted or tithed, he was despised by God because he did them all without a humble, broken and contrite heart. He was better off staying home instead of wasting his breath. God wants those who truly recognize that they have need of a savior.
How can we grow in humility? We learn humility by carefully examining ourselves and our sins. Some of those sins are deeds but others are sins in word or in thought. When we have carefully examined ourselves we realize that we have no room to compare to others, and certainly no room to boast before God. Each one of us is broken, each one of us is empty until we turn to God and He makes us whole.
We also learn humility by practice. Humility can be practiced through praying the psalms, as well as at home by giving other family members respect and patiently listening to what they say without arguing or being sarcastic. Humility can be practiced at your workplace or even here in the church. We sometimes have to deal with disagreements in the church because one person or another will try to make all the decisions regarding “how things should be done”. It’s true sometimes that someone will have a great idea but practicing humility means that often it is better to be quiet and wait to be asked for an opinion or for help, instead of simply assuming that others want it or need it. In corporate America such an attitude would be perceived as weakness, in Christ such and attitude becomes strength.
The Apostle Paul shows his humility when he declares that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” 1 Timothy 1:15. Imagine all of the amazing things that St. Paul did in his life and ministry. He helped spread Christianity all over the Greek speaking world! He wrote much of the New Testament…and he calls himself the chief among sinners! That is the attitude that God loves. He loves those who are humble because when He looks at them He sees His Son. May God remove the heart of the pharisee from each of us and replace it with a better heart…perhaps the heart of a tax collector. And glory be to God AMEN.