It’s an appropriate place to begin the season of prayer and repentance. It is the place in which two men and two attitudes collide, found in Luke 18:9-14 (English Standard Version):
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
I suspect that most of us find ourselves somewhere between these two attitudes, occasionally feeling more tax collector than Pharisee but also displaying the character of the latter in all too many circumstances. It is an especially acute temptation in a culture which promotes the individual to the extent our does, where the internal desire to know that we matter to anyone is thwarted by the simultaneous but empty notion that “everyone is special.” Well, yes; in the sight of God we all have a unique and valued place. But that isn’t what is being promoted.
The world, of course, has its enticements by which we can stand out by virtue of what we possess. That has been written about and preached about countless times; someday it might even get through to us. But the nature of the Pharisee’s pride was far more insidious than that. He believed he was special because of his religious standing, because of the favor he had courted with God. And why not? Is one not to be grateful that he or she has known God and His beneficence, as opposed to knowing only exclusion from such fellowship?
It’s a very subtle but nonetheless serious step from knowing one’s standing with God to the place of the Pharisee. Is it possible that our place among the people of God can become a possession which makes us think of ourselves as better than those “other” people? Or that our holding to the “right” version of Christian doctrine affords at least a higher status within the fold? Or that our years of service give us special privilege?
Today many millions of Christians will submit themselves to what might be called the sign of the tax collector. Ashes will form on them the sign of the cross, which says to all that we have nothing unless God has toward us the mercy for which the tax collector pleaded.
(Please share your prayers in the comments; I’d prefer to have only prayers offered during this season, but would like us to share with one another how we might approach God in humility.)