The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
This is quite possibly the most conceited prayer ever. There is nothing about how great God is, how much God loves him, or even a recognition of his need for God. The only time he thanks God for something is when he is bragging about himself and pats himself on the back for not being like the guy standing next to him. Imagine how arrogant you would have to be to say out loud, “At least I’m not like those people.”
We automatically don’t like this guy, but the crazy thing is, in the time of Jesus, he is what everyone thought you were supposed to be like. He looks like he is doing everything right. He looks like someone who follows God. He was a basically a professional religious person and he was applauded, not booed.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is the guy nobody is cheering for in this story. He is a conman who collects money for the Roman Empire, charges people more than they owe, and skims the rest for himself. The people who were listening to this agreed with the Pharisee, and would have said the same thing, “Thank God I’m not like this guy.”
The people hearing this for the first time have no idea what’s coming next, but what does come next changes everything for the crowd that was listening and for us as we wrestle with what it means to be close to God.
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
The temple was the place where people believed heaven was meeting earth. They believed that God’s presence was at the temple so standing close meant you thought you were closer to God. The tax collector stands at a distance. This parable is all about where these two people thought they stood from each other, from God, and ultimately from themselves.
What Jesus is teaching us through this parable is what is called righteousness. Righteousness is about where things stand. It was about the right relationship, right standing, between people and God, people and others, and people and themselves. Righteousness is God’s desire for the world that things would be in their right place.
The picture Jesus begins to paint is that one person is closer to God than the other guy, but it’s who actually is closer to God that would have left the crowd speechless.
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What that means, that he was justified and righteous, is that even though the Pharisee was standing closer to the temple, it was actually the tax collector who was closer to God. The reason was actually really simple. The tax collector wasn’t closer to God because he didn’t have sin in his life but because he admitted he did.
This is confusing to us because we have been taught in our culture that sin is something we don’t confess, we do other things with it.
The first thing we do is ignore sin and do whatever we want to do. That’s not really a great idea because a life filled with good things when lived like this spirals into a lonely life full of regret, pain, secrecy, and destruction. We all have seen this story play out.
If that’s not enough, if you want to know what sin looks like and what it leads to you simply look at the cross where Jesus took sin in all its destruction and bore it. Sin takes the most beautiful life and smashes it on the cross.
That’s exactly what sin intends to do with you and with me and with our families. We can’t ignore that.
Secondly, we can feel guilt about sin. We can try to do better. This really isn’t all that great either. All this does is cause us to be like the man in the story who bragged when he had a good week but, no doubt, disappeared into that room of guilt where we’ve all been before. He put on a mask and it was fake.
But Jesus shows us that there is a better way to live as he teaches us to be honest about our sin.
The reason this matters is because it is when we are honest with our sin we find ourselves being honest with ourselves, being honest with each other, and being honest with God.
As a result, we experience what God desires for our lives, a sense of acceptance of ourselves, a need for each other, and a hope in God who loves us.
As a result of being honest with our sin, we find ourselves in right standing. We no longer tuck things away inside our hearts where the guilt eats us alive. We no longer find ourselves judging others based on whether they are better or worse than we are. And we no longer see God as a God who is out to get us but instead a God who says he is with us, for us, and rescues us.
Now, with all that said, I want you to hear the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
The people who were listening to Jesus lived in the desert with no direct access to water. They couldn’t just go inside and turn on the faucet and get a drink. They lived most of the day thirsty. And when 25% of people lived in abject poverty where it was normal to not really know where your next meal was coming from, they understand what it means to actually be hungry.
This is where the words from Jesus become some really great wordplay. Because what is the first thing you think of when you see someone who is arrogant, conceited, egotistical, or self-righteous? You think to yourself, “That dude is full of it.”
Because the reality is that he has as much need as anyone else, he’s just afraid to admit it.
These were people who were always hungry and always thirsty and Jesus says to them that this is the picture we should have of our lives. Blessed are those who literally, physically ache over the condition of their own inner self and of the world.
Don’t miss this. Jesus blesses the absence, not the achievement. Jesus blesses the longing, not the action. Jesus blesses the desire, not the doing. Jesus isn’t telling you that you that you have failed because you aren’t perfect. He is telling you that you need to learn that you can’t do this on your own.
So, what do we do?
35Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
The church is for the sinner. It’s why I’m here. Because I know in this place I can be surrounded by people who won’t judge me but will hold my hand as I walk to the cross, confess my sin, and continue to receive the incredible grace of Jesus.
I need to come to that cross over and over and over again. I need to lay down my pride, mourn for the sin in my life, and humbly accept the mercy only God can give.