“God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” What a prayer! If you sense Jesus using some satire here, I think you’re right. He’s exposing the self-congratulatory religion of the Pharisees, that, when brought out into the light of day, is patently ridiculous. “God, I thank you that I’m better than those guys. God, look at the good I do.” Those prayers make us chuckle because they’re so blatantly self-righteous. But the funny thing about satire is that while it makes the Pharisee the obvious target, it allows us to pause and reflect. Maybe we’re laughing at the Pharisee because we recognize his attitude, alive in ourselves.
I’ve never heard a Christian publicly pray the way the Pharisee did in Jesus’ parable, but I’ve seen plenty of examples of the attitude in action. Anytime a Christian feels as if “God owes me something” because I go to church on a regular basis, the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. Anytime a Christian feels as if “the church leaders ought to do things my way because I give the biggest offering,” the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. Anytime a Christian takes smug satisfaction in their own so-called “Christian maturity” by pointing out the shortcomings of others, the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. If we’re still laughing about the Pharisee’s prayer, it’s probably to keep from crying. The urge to measure ourselves against other people is irresistible. It is also a sad attempt to justify ourselves before God, which misses the mark completely, because that’s not how God measures us.
The Lord does not measure our actions, words, and thoughts relative to other people; he measures us according to the exacting standards of His Law. If you are starting to squirm, that is most appropriate. The Law says, put God first in your life, as the only number one. The Law says, don’t misuse God’s name. Watch your speech. The Law says, honor God’s Word with your time and attention; and honor the authorities God has placed over you, beginning with your parents. The Law says, don’t murder. Don’t even hurt someone. The Law says, remain sexually pure, even in your thoughts. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Don’t destroy someone’s reputation with gossip or slander. Be content with what you have and help your neighbor to keep what he’s got. That’s the standard by which God measures you! Do you dare to say, “God, I thank you that I am not like those who do such bad things?” Are you really willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Pharisee in the temple? If so, then remember Jesus says that man went home “un-justified.” He went home with no blessing from God. It was a waste of time for this guy to go to the temple, because the person he really worshiped was himself.
If, however, you have heard the Lord’s exacting standards and are embarrassed of your track record; if you are crushed by your own failures in living by God’s Law, then let’s go stand over by that tax collector—the one the Pharisee pointed out—and hear what he has to say. Wow—he looks crushed, too. He won’t even look up. He’s so upset he’s taking it out on himself. But listen to what he’s saying: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Now there’s someone God can work with—someone who has given up trying to impress God. Someone who has been deflated by their own sins—someone who just can’t seem to get it right no matter how hard they try. Someone who has hit the bottom and realized there is only one way out; one way to live; and that is to appeal to God’s mercy; to plead with God to spare us from the punishment we deserve. The tax collector knows that the only way life with God is going to work is if God shows mercy. God is going to have to hold back the hand of punishment. He is going to have to do something about our sin, because we can’t.
What we call the Good News is this: God did do something about our sin. He did not ignore it. He did not overlook it. He forgave it. Now, our sin had to be dealt with somehow—someone had to pay for it. That’s where the man who told this story about a Pharisee and a tax collector comes in. Jesus stepped into our world; stepped into a human body; stepped into our sin; stepped into the punishment; stepped into the unfathomable consequence of sin…and He did it all for you. He did it so that His Father could justly hold back the hand of punishment from you. “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy” has been the church’s song ever since. It is the song of the tax collector, and everyone else who understands, “I don’t deserve God’s blessing at all.”
What’s interesting is that a baby could not begin to claim that he deserves to be in God’s kingdom based on all the good he’s done. No infant I’ve ever seen (outside of the movies) is in any position to claim membership in the kingdom of God based on who they are and what they’ve done. Yet Jesus says, “…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” So how does that work? It’s simple, really. Jesus says, “…for to such [babies and children] belong the kingdom of God.” Babies can’t do anything to “get into” the kingdom, but Jesus can bring them in. By His Word, by His touch, by His name with baptismal water, Jesus brings them in His kingdom and says they belong. “Receiving the kingdom of God like a child” is a matter of letting Jesus bring you into His kingdom. It’s a matter of letting him give to you. Just like with babies—adults can’t do anything to “get into” the kingdom, either. But Jesus can bring you in. He’s the only one who can.
When we speak or sing, “Lord have mercy,” what we’re saying is, “Lord, I don’t deserve your blessing at all. But if you want to, you can bring me in to your kingdom.” And you can be sure that He wants to, because He went to the cross for you. Receive the kingdom like child. Let Him give to you. Let Him bring you in. Let God’s Law kill the Pharisee inside you, and find rest in the fact that it’s not about you. Life that matters is about a God who is merciful, and His Son, who is love.