Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed abouthimself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—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.”’ Luke 18:10-13 NIV
Spiritual health is a lot like physical health. Quality is often the primary concern and measure. It is not enough simply to acknowledge we have it, but the overarching goal is that we nurture good health and avoid bad health. Good health is the underlying presumption for our continued mobility, accomplishment and long life. That is true for good spiritual health as well.
And so we have in this parable an illustration of both good versus bad spirituality. We are told about two men who make a point of coming to the temple to be close to God and communicate with Him. That, in and of itself, is noteworthy if not commendable. Most people who attend church on a Sunday morning would say that is the reason they are there. And most people when they leave want to feel as if what they have done has been acceptable and pleasing to God. To the unenlightened participant however, there is no way of knowing who was nurturing good spiritual health and who wasn’t. But God knows because He sees the heart.
A basic requirement for healthy spirituality is humility. Jesus makes this abundantly clear when He concludes the parable by saying “I tell you that this man (the tax collector), rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility in this context is demonstrated by the tax collector’s choice of a subservient posture and place to stand, and his acknowledgement of his sinfulness and need for God’s mercy. This expressive humbling of himself is what moved the heart of God to forgive and justify him.
To be justified before God has been described as being viewed by God “just if I’d” never sinned. It is a truth that is underscored by God’s promises to us when we are humbly repentant to remove our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west and to bury them in the depths of the sea. (Psalm 103:12 & Micah 7:19)
To fully benefit from this parable however, we must seek to identify with the Pharisee as well as the tax collector. The two divergent attitudes toward sin which these two individuals represent coexist within the heart of all of us. That is why in any given situation our sin can be obfuscated or acknowledged, denied or confessed. We would like to believe that we are most like the tax collector in being quick to humbly acknowledge our sin and ask God’s forgiveness. There is something abhorrent to us about the self-righteous Pharisee who fails not only to acknowledge his own sin, but in the process compares and judges others as less than.
But it is an illuminating exercise in humility to pause, and ask God’s help to ferret out that self-same Pharisaical attitude lurking within our own heart. There are some strains of sin, often rooted in spiritual pride and accomplishment, that camouflage themselves, as with the Pharisee, in a holier than thou attitude. Have you ever fallen into the trap of comparing yourself with another and then thinking of yourself as more righteous and less sinful than them? Most certainly. Or have you ever been so preoccupied with the wrong doing of another that you have overlooked or failed to acknowledge your own? Doubtless, yes.
Our best response at such a time is simply to join the tax collector and pray his prayer that releases God’s justification: “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Oh the joy of going home “just if I’d” never sinned!
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