October 23, 2022
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
That video was originally released in 1995 by Nine Inch Nails. Johnny Cash recorded that video in 2002. The woman standing in the back was June Carter Cash his second wife. She would pass away three months after that filming and four months later Johnny died. It would be their last musical effort together. It is a song and video that seems filled with a life of regrets and “hurts” as the title implies.
Our lives are filled with hurts and regrets. We learn how to live with them, if we are coping well. If not, it can lead to neurosis, psychological disorders, eating disorders, or addiction. Which continues to layer our psyche. If we are coping, then we have learned some type of mechanism to do that. Our gospel lesson gives two examples and Jesus’ response to both guys.
The setting is the temple in which two men are praying. This is a parable so Jesus is telling a story, this is not a scene to be observed. The characters are a pharisee and a tax collector. Both of these men are Jewish, that is why they are in the temple together. Non-jews would not be allowed in the same area of the temple—which is a key characteristic. This is not an antisemitic dig at the pharisee. Unfortunately, that has been the case throughout history. Remember Jesus is Jewish as well.
The pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people; thieves, rogues, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income.” Wow! That’s pretty self-righteous, isn’t it? His coping mechanism is comparison in order to make himself feel better. He compares himself to the undesirables of the world. He may not be prefect, but he is pretty close to it—just ask him. He fasts twice a week while everybody else does not. In fact, the only time required to fast was once a year on the day of Atonement known as Yom Kippur. Again, a little bit of Jesus sense of humor comes out in describing the extreme of this pharisee. He also gives a tenth of everything he gets, not just his income but gifts and donations, the ultimate stewardship warrior.
The poor tax collector is standing off to the side, maybe even in the corner with his head bowed and beating his breast, both symbols of deep repentance. The rest of the community would have viewed him as the ultimate traitor. He left his family to work for the occupying Roman forces. The only way a tax collector made any money was to overcharge the Jewish folks so when he gave Rome what was due to them, he collected some leftover for himself. Depending on his needs and desire for luxury that overcharging could become considerable.
The tax collector prayed, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” simple short type of prayer, not wordy and filled with exuberance and lengthy, made for show. His coping mechanism is to admit his guilt, his sins and seek God’s mercy. He knows he has messed up. Just like when we heard the words from the video, “I wear this crown of thorns upon my liars chair, full of broken thoughts I cannot repair.”
Jesus praises the second man, the tax collector and says, “I tell you this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” This is the theological concept we Presbyterians call justification by faith. It means that we are unable to make ourselves right or righteous before God. The only way we can be made right is by faith in the forgiveness of sin offered by Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross. Then Jesus kicks in another one of his great one-liners— “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The great reversal to remind us that the ways of the kingdom of heaven are not like the ways of this world.
How mad are you going to be when I tell you that most of us use both coping mechanisms to deal with our guilt, regrets and hurts? We have justified ourselves not by faith but by comparison. We have said, God, I thank you that I am not like, and fill in the blank. The list could be quite impressive if we think abut it. God, I thank you I am not like, people of color, LGBTQ+, democrats, republicans, conservatives, liberals, progressives, evangelicals, educated, school of hard knocks, common sense, book smart, sheeple, MAGA, and the list goes on. The upcoming mid-term elections are not helping our humility much either. The ads on TV, social media, newspapers and radio are filled with mudslinging.
What if we could do as Cash sang, “If I could start again a million miles away, I would keep myself I would find a way.”? That is the good news of the gospel. We can start again each and every day with the mercy of God fulfilled in the love of Jesus. We do not have to be experts in prayer or know any magic words to get this forgiveness. We do not have to pay for it, nor do we have to put banners and flags in our yards. We do not have to wait to go to church, we can just ask for the strength not judge one day at a time.
“What have I become? My sweetest friend, everyone I know goes away in the end.” Those words from the video are a stark reminder that death is going to play a part in all of our lives. When we live with regret and pain and hurt it tears away our health and causes life to be miserable. There are other ways. It may take some therapy and some medication, but that’s good because it will make you feel better. We can always add spirituality to our regimen. We can always pray and seek God’s mercy. Remember Jesus does not condemn the pharisee either. There are times we are going to use the coping mechanisms we know best. That doesn’t mean it is right, but it does mean that we can still seek forgiveness. Disciples do not judge. Thank God, that Jesus is our judge and wipes away our sins. Amen.