"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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" (Luke 18:11-13 NRSV)
"There's nothing wrong with me," the man says.
"But sir, you've just been in a terrible car accident. You're bleeding and have some deep bruises. There may be internal damage!"
"There's nothing wrong with me!" "At least have a doctor check you out, sir. We have an ambulance right here - it wouldn't take very long."
"I told you, there's nothing wrong with me!"
"But sir!" Then the man walks away from the car accident. His wife picks him up and drives him home. Later he dies from internal bleeding.
"There's nothing wrong with me" can be a dangerous thing to say.
Spiritually, it is probably the worst thing a person could possibly say. For a person to stand before God and say, "There's nothing wrong with me" - that's incompatible with Christianity, and unacceptable to God. What is the opposite of "there's nothing wrong with me"?
Wouldn't it be "there's everything wrong with me"? According to the Bible, a Christian is someone who stands before God and says "there's everything wrong with me." A Christian is also someone who says, "But Jesus Christ has overcome my sin.
He has taken away all the things that are wrong with me."
In today's parable, Jesus tells about two opposite people - one who said "there's nothing wrong with me" and one who said "there's everything wrong with me." Jesus told this story to people who were confident in their own righteousness, and looked down on everybody else. "Two men" Jesus said "went up to the temple to pray - a Pharisee and a tax collector." Remember, the Pharisees were the people who lived good, clean lives. The tax collectors were people who swindled and intimidated others out of their money. Both of them came to church - went to the temple to pray. "The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."
Maybe you can sum up his prayer this way: "I thank you, God, that there's nothing wrong with me."
Then Jesus focuses on the tax collector in his story - the opposite of the Pharisee. He had been stealing money from people his whole life - ruining the lives of others so that he could live it up.
He knew that his whole life had been a disaster, and that he deserved to go to hell when he died. Jesus says that "the tax collector stood at a distance" - he wouldn't even walk up to the front of the temple - "He would not even look up to heaven" - he was so ashamed of his sin - "but beat his breast and said, 'God have mercy on me, a sinner.'" His prayer was the opposite of the Pharisee's, wasn't it - maybe you can sum it up this way, "God, there's everything wrong with me. Help me."
Jesus goes on to say that the sinful tax collector was the one that was forgiven by God, and not the perfect Pharisee. Why? Jesus tells us: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
The Pharisee was proud, looking down on others, exalting himself. The tax collector was humble, sorry for his sins.
What is Jesus saying there? Is Jesus saying that you earn the forgiveness of sins by being humble? "Look at how humble that tax collector is," says God. "That tax collector deserves to be forgiven, because he is so humble!" Is that how it works?
That's what a lot of people think, but that's not how it works. If that's why God forgives you, then your salvation would be completely dependent on you, and your level of humility. Then, you could never be sure if you're forgiven by God or not, because you will never know if you have been humble enough for God to forgive you.
The truth of the matter is neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector deserved God's forgiveness. The Pharisee didn't because he was conceited and self-righteous - thought he was better than everybody else, thought he was perfect. The tax collector didn't deserve God's forgiveness because of the terrible life he had led. Neither one deserved to be forgiven by God.
God forgives people purely out of his mercy. As a result of his undeserved love, God forgives people. God forgives people because Jesus Christ has taken away the sins of the world. Because of that sacrifice Jesus made on the cross - cleansing the world of all of its sin, he offers forgiveness to all. In this story, God offered forgiveness to both the Pharisee and the tax collector. But only the tax collector received God's forgiveness. Why? Because, in his mercy, God chooses to forgive only those who humble themselves before him. Those who stand before God and say, "There's everything wrong with me. Lord have mercy on me. I am a sinner" - those humble people who recognize their sin, recognize their need for God's help - those are the people that receive God's forgiveness. Not because they're earning it, but because God shows undeserved love to all who are humble and sorry for their sins.
Pastor Campbell can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org