To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“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.’
“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.”
Many of us fall into the trap of playing the comparison game: we see someone else or what someone else has, and suddenly we start to compare ourselves to them. While some comparisons can inspire us, they can become negative as we begin to think that we are better or lesser than others, often without knowing the full story of who they are or what they are going through. Even more importantly, when we compare ourselves to others, we base who we are on other people rather than discovering who God has uniquely created each of us to be. What tends to cause you to compare yourself to others? How do you feel after you have compared yourself to another person?
This parable is introduced as one that Jesus told to people “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” The word that is often translated as “looked down on” can often mean “hold in contempt” or “despise,” which provides a different understanding of the depth of judgement.
The Pharisees sought to codify the 613 Laws of Moses into a manner that all people could follow fully. By having a deep understanding of the laws, they believed that they could live a life without sin, making them righteous in the eyes of God.
During Jesus’ time, tax collectors were generally seen as collaborators with the Roman occupiers of Israel, and they were further vilified because most tax collectors would charge additional taxes above what the Romans had set, as a way to earn additional income. By working with the Romans, the tax collectors were also seen as less holy given that the Romans practiced a religion that relied heavily on the worship of idols and gods who were not God the Father.
As the Pharisee prays, he stands in the midst of the Temple Courts, where he would have been seen and heard by all who were around him, and he compares his actions, which followed the Laws of Moses, to those of people who did not follow the Law to its fullest.
The tax collector’s prayer is simple, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In it, he acknowledges that he is a sinner and that God is the only possible source of forgiveness. The word that we translate as “have mercy” can also be translated to mean “make reconciliation,” which further emphasizes that God is the source of his forgiveness.
Jesus ends this parable with the admonition that “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He is not looking to encourage us to a false sense of humility but rather towards a level of vulnerability with God and each other that allows us to be real about who and what we are.
Merciful God, we thank you that you seek us where we are, that you desire us to be the people who you created us each to be, and that you place other people within our lives who help us in this journey. Open our hearts and minds to the reality of your presence within us; help us to hear and understand the ways that you call us towards lives of humble obedience to you, without fear of comparison to those around us. Guide us so we might be open to those we compare ourselves to and be welcoming of those we judge. In Christ’s name we pray; amen.