“Two Kinds of People”
There's an old saying, “There are three kinds of people in the world: Those that can do basic math, and those that can't.” (Think about it)
Today Jesus, in our Gospel reading, presents us with two people, and by extension two kinds of people. And I don't mean “Democrats” and “Republicans”. There are two kinds of people in the world. Pharisees and Tax Collectors. The proud and the humble. The self-righteous, and those who claim no righteousness of their own.
This Pharisee. His hubris is almost unbounded. In his very prayers he expressed how full of himself he is. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
First he begins by claiming superiority not just over the tax collector, but over “other men”, indeed, implying he's far above most (or even all) men.
They are extortioners, but not me. They are unjust, but not me. They are adulterers, but not me. And then there's this lousy tax collector. I'm sure glad I'm not like HIM. Everyone else is bad and sinful and worthy of derision. But not me. If the pharisee were alive today, surely he'd have chosen a side in politics and convinced himself he was far better than the scum of the earth on the other side. He would see everyone else's shortcomings, real or imagined, and count himself far better.
Because on the other hand, he brags to God, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” And if you pressed him, he'd probably prattle on and on about all of the other righteous outward deeds and works on his resume. He'd probably sound a lot like the rich young man who told Jesus, regarding the commandments, “All these I have kept from my youth”
And then there's the tax collector. “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!” First, he stands far off. As if he's not worthy to be in the presence of other men, certainly more righteous than he. He further shows his humility, by not even lifting his eyes to heaven as he prays. Surely if he's not good enough for other men, he has nothing to show before God. And his sorrow for sin is also shown outwardly in beating he breast, a very demonstrative expression of guilt and shame. This man is broken. This man is crushed by the law. We don't know what his sin is, or maybe they are many. But he is plagued, vexed, and tormented. He can only beg God, “have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Could there be a greater contrast between these two? Outwardly, the pharisee has his act together, and the tax collector is a mess. Before man, the pharisee is a pillar of the community, and the tax collector is a low-life. Ask any ancient Jew who you'd rather be: the pharisee. Ask them who would inherit the kingdom: the pharisee. But not so fast, says Jesus.
This man, the tax collector, went home justified. For here is the principle: whoever exalts himself will be humbled. And whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
These men, who appeared so different, weren't so different at all. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That means not only tax collectors but pharisees, too. The main difference between these men was repentance and faith. The pharisee was living a self-righteous self-delusion. The tax collector saw the truth with clarity. Neither man was righteous, of himself. But only the tax collector who acknowledged his sin went home righteous. For he fell on the mercy of God, and received that very mercy.
The application is so clear, my friends. Put away your self-righteous delusions. Don't think you can impress God with your fasting and tithing, or your church-going and volunteering. Don't claim you've kept even the least of the commandments. Don't pretend that you can stand before the withering accusations of the law and hold up for a moment. God knows your heart. He sees what's inside. All the window dressing of good works may impress your fellow man, but God will not be mocked. Sinful pride has nowhere to hide from the Righteous Judge of all.
Rather come before him in humility. Own your sin. Confess it. Hold nothing back, but lay it out there before him. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sin... if we confess our sin.... God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The same Jesus who cleanses lepers and gives sight to the blind, the same Jesus who casts out demons and heals all manner of disease. The same Jesus who responds in compassion to so many calls for mercy, even from a poor sinful tax collector – This Jesus has had mercy upon you.
Jesus so often breaks the expectations of the world, and turns them upside down. “If you are the Christ, save yourself!” they mocked. Ah, but he is the Christ, and his precise plan was not to save himself, but us. He conquers by his own seeming defeat. He destroys death by being destroyed. He takes away sin by becoming sin. And his cross, where he is shown no mercy - is precisely how he is merciful to the sinner.
The final section of this reading also contrasts two kinds of people: children and grown-ups. Now in Jesus' day children were not idolized as they are in our culture today. We have gone to the other extreme of placing many children on a golden pedestal, where they can do no wrong. Some parents very purposely won't even say 'no' to their children. Some raise them with the assumption that the child will know best how to choose his own values, and we adults should stay out of the way. And many believe that children are innocent, paragons of virtue born without wicked inclinations.
But in Jesus' day children were often regarded as far less than adults. Adults were the valuable and productive members of society. People who have gained the wisdom of life the hard way – by living it. People who understand and can grasp Jesus' teaching and interact, ask pertinent questions. Many people, even Jesus' own disciples, couldn't be bothered with children, and didn't imagine Jesus would bother with them either.
But Jesus welcomes children. He receives them, blesses them, and sets them before the adults as an example – not of good works – but of faith. “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” But why? Not because the children are our future. Not because they are morally superior. But because they show us that the kingdom of heaven is passively received. Jesus commends their faith.
And that faith is the same as the tax collector who had nothing to offer God but his plea for mercy. These children had no grand life accomplishments. They had nothing to boast about like the pharisee. But they were excellent examples of receiving by faith all that the merciful Father gives. They come to Jesus, and he blesses them, freely by his grace.
Truly, there are two kinds of people in the world. Not some good and some bad – for all have sinned. Some repent and some do not. Some have faith in Christ, and some do not. Some want to be grown-ups who can do everything themselves. Some have a childlike faith that receives the gifts from the giver of all good things. Some think they are something when they are nothing. And some know they are nothing, but are made something by grace. Two kinds of people.
Depart in peace. Children, you have received the kingdom. Go home justified. In Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.