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“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)

Why is it that we have a tendency to compare ourselves with others? We walk in a room and start sizing up our surroundings, creating a pecking order, determining where we are in the list of greatest to least. Why is it that we find the need to gauge our righteousness based on the righteousness of others? We accept our sins while condemning others. At least I’ve never done “that,” whatever “that” might be. We justify ourselves, determining that good enough or better than others is enough. Often, these actions are committed without thought. We don’t intend to act this way, it just seems like human nature.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)

The story that Jesus tells is a familiar one. The classic approach is to compare two opposing characters to emphasize their differences. The Pharisee goes first. He stands by himself, yet offers up loud phrases with pomp and circumstance. He thanks God that he is not like other people, people who are clearly sinners. He is religious, not just going to synagogue, but also spending time both fasting and giving to others. By all signs, he is a good person. The kind that many of us would nominate for a leadership role in the community. The tax collector goes next. He stands far off, possibly even barely going in the room. He claims no greatness on his own. He simply bows and asks for God’s mercy. In many ways it seems his life is falling apart.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)

It’s fairly clear from the story which character is the good one and which one is bad. Or maybe good and bad aren’t the right terms. Perhaps it would be better to say which character makes the better choice. Both characters are sinners, whether they recognize it or not. Both characters are in need of God’s grace. And both characters recognize their dependency on God. Even the Pharisee, although at times he is pompous, recognizes his need for God, otherwise he would not pray at all. He is a good person. He has tried to do the right thing in life. Yet, there is something about the Pharisee that doesn’t seem right. He is judgmental. He looks down on others. He gauges his own righteousness against the righteousness of others, thus propping himself up as an elite follower of God. The tax collector, however, is broken. He knows he has nothing to brag about. He is placing himself at the mercy of God, and because of that he goes home justified. Thus we know which character we want to be.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)

Jesus tells the parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. We quickly understand the purpose and begin to point fingers. We know of the self-righteous. We know those who have the same struggle. We encounter them at church, at work, or around town. We know them because they go to other congregations. Their judgmental spirit, their self-righteousness shines brightly in their lives. We hope they are listening to the words of Jesus.

But will we stop long enough to determine which character we are? Not which character do we want to be, but which one we are. As we look in the mirror, what do we encounter? We want to see one clinging to the cross, but so often our humanness takes over. So often, we become the Pharisee. We have found the truth. We have discovered grace. We understand that it’s not all about rules. We have evolved in our own spirituality. And if we are not careful, we will evolve to the point of becoming a little too proud, a little too confident. If we aren’t careful, we become the very thing we despise.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)

As we look in the mirror, how will we respond to the person looking back at us. If we are honest, we may not always like what we see. If we are honest, we may realize we are more self-righteous than we want to be, that we have become the Pharisee. Yet, we are reminded that God’s grace covers are sins, all of our sins, even our sins of self-righteousness.

So go to the temple and pray, no matter who you are, and find forgiveness in God.