Jesus walks into a restaurant and says “table for 26 please”. Confused, the maitre does a quick head count and says, “but there are only 13 of you.” Jesus replies, “Yes, but we are all going to sit on the same side!” Besides giving us a laugh, this joke also illustrates two principals about the spiritual life that we see in this week’s Gospel reading about the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14). The first principle is that things aren’t always how they seem, and the second that, if you are sitting with Jesus, you are open to everyone’s view, starting with God.
As in our joke, so in today’s Gospel reading, things aren’t how they seem on the outside. In the passage we are given a bird’s eye view of two men at prayer in church, it could be any church, it could be your church. The first man was a Pharisee, to all appearances a holy man, respected in society. His prayer was “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, (not an) extortioner, unjust, (an) adulterer, or even like this tax collector (pointing to the guy next to him). I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ It’s easy to distance ourselves from this guy because he is exaggerated to make a point, but we shouldn’t. All of us employ this type of faulty logic in our spiritual lives, all of us judge others and justify ourselves, it is hardwired into our human nature.
Well the next person in the church, the tax collector, was just the type of person that no one had respect for in Jesus’ day, and everyone compared themselves favorably against. In the public opinion of Jesus’ day, there would be no contest between a Pharisee and Tax collector of who was more righteous; the Pharisee was of course the better person, the better prayer. It would be like in our day if a priest and a politician were in a church praying. Who is the better guy, the better prayer?
Well as you probably know, Jesus goes against the unanimous judgement of everyone in his time, saying that this tax collector and his prayer was better accepted by God than the Pharisee’s. For the tax collector wasn’t self-satisfied and putting on a show, he stood in a corner by himself, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” And in doing this he illustrates our first rule of the spiritual life; things are not often how they seem. I said we had a bird’s eye view of these two people at prayer. But really we have a God’s eye view, for Jesus is helping us see as God sees; into the human heart. As it says in scripture, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7)
The Pharisee, you see, has forgotten that God sees through all disguises, all the way into the heart. Instead of opening his heart and ears to God’s word, he puts words in God’s mouth. Rather than looking with empathy at the heart of others, he judges all around him as sinners. And in this way, he violates entirely our second rule of the spiritual life, that if you are sitting with Jesus, you must be open to everyone’s view, starting with God. The tax collector, on the other hand, comes naked before God and before those in the temple. His prayer to God is not full of self, but rather a pleading request. He does not look around in judgement of others, but looks humbly down as he beats his breast and pleads, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector brings before us a choice, an attitude we choose every Sunday, every day of our lives. Are we like the Pharisee wearing a mask and collecting points, or like the tax collector, who is open and vulnerable before God. Do we come to church full of ourselves, or do we empty ourselves to leave room for the grace of God? Do we hide our true selves from others, or do we sit humbly with Jesus on His side of the table? It’s not easy to be open to everyone’s view-first and foremost God’s-but it is the first step in seeing ourselves as God sees us; and in relying solely on the gifts of his grace. May this be the side that we always choose to sit on, now and always; amen.