Did you get anything out of church today? How was it? Someone is bound to ask you the question, “How was church today?” We so often ask this question, and the answer is usually something about the music or the preaching. Occasionally we enthusiastically gush that the preacher didn’t even get to preach, the service was so good. We often measure the service by how we see ourselves with respect to God. The better we worship and the more we rejoice, the better we feel about our standing with God, and so the better the service is.

Jesus made the comment that where two or three are gathered in his name he would meet with them, be in their midst (Matt. 18:20). In other words, when it comes to church, Jesus is paying closest attention to even the smallest congregation. We cannot escape the implication in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, that God was paying close attention to what was going on in this assembly of two. Gathered at the temple, God was listening to their prayers and waiting to dispense his approval on them!

It is hard to escape the implications of Jesus words; the tax collector left the temple with the approval of God, rather than the Pharisee. To understand that, we must understand the religious standing of the two men in the society and culture of their day. The tax collector was an Israelite that collected the revenue from his fellow citizens for the occupying Romans. The tax collector was hated, especially by patriots and religious people, who exalted the national and spiritual aspirations of Israel as an independent nation, ruled by God and his Messiah. They despised the Roman occupiers, and distained any who cooperated with or assisted them. The fact that many tax collectors cheated the people on what taxes they owed, and collected more than they should to pad their own pockets, made it worse simply added to the hatred. No one was lower than the tax collector in society. In the gospels, the tax collectors were often listed with sinners of all kinds, including prostitutes. If anyone was going to hell, the tax collectors were first in line! Something of their lifestyle can be understood by the couple of times that Jesus encounters a tax collector that repents and throws a party for his friends, those who show up are described as the worse sinners of all (cf. Matt. 9:10-13; 11:19; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:30-32). Maybe the worse kind of people were the only “friends” a tax collector had, drawn no doubt to his money.

The Pharisees on the other hand were at the opposite end of the spectrum. They were ardent patriots, and religiously zealous. Their meticulous attention to keeping the law was legendary. But it was not just the law, they were experts in theology, and in the nuanced interpretations of the Old testament and the law. They were also exceptionally knowledgeable of the traditional interpretations of the elders, and practiced their religious duties assiduously, often with a great deal of show. The way they dressed, prayed and conducted themselves was all calculated to impress people with their “holiness” and sanctity in the sight of God. The speech of the Pharisee in this parable succinctly says it all (Luke 18:11-12).

The Pharisee was particularly self congratulatory when he compared himself to the tax collector. By comparing himself to the tax collector, the Pharisee felt like he had found a point of leverage in his relationship with God. Surely he was “better” than this other man, and God appreciated and approved of him more. But in the hands of Jesus, the Pharisee’s self confidence is unwarranted. It is the tax collector that left “church” justified in the eyes of God. His simple prayer for mercy, his down turned eyes, leveraged the mercy of God more than the proud piety of the Pharisee. And that is the point. God is not looking for religious piety from his people, but humble submission and repentance.

The Pharisees was convinced of his superior position with God because of his piety, something he worked at and carried about him like a cloak. The tax collector was convinced of his inferior position with God because of his sin. When each expressed themselves in prayer, it was the humility and honesty of the tax collector that moved God, and to which God responded, rather than the pride and piety of the other.

In our gathering for church, the first order of business is to see ourselves in the sight of God, right. To get a proper perspective on things and to connect with God is why we go to church, at least it is the biggest part of it. In a way Jesus said, the tax collector connected with God, but the Pharisee did not. And the reason is obvious; the tax collector was humble and real, and he did not try to present God with a list of merits that compelled God to acceptable his worth. The truth is that his repentant and humble spirit in and of itself did that, it commanded the attention of God.

There is another implication in the story. The self important piety of the Pharisee was a turn off to God. God did not respond, he did not connect. His approach was faulty. The approach of the tax collector is much more low key, self deprecating and not at all self-confident. Indeed, it may even be described as desperate. Yet God responds to this desperate plea, because in the end it is this man that submits to God, and God forgives and sanctifies him. If Isaiah’s comments about filthy righteousness (64:6) means anything, it refers to the presentation of personal religious piety to God, as though he should be impressed with mere religiousness. In the end what God desires is for us to appear as we are, and to admit and recognize it, and he will take it from there!

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