At the end of G.K. Chesterton’s (whom atheist Bill Maher thinks is a smart guy) classic Orthodoxy, he states that the one thing Jesus never showed in his earthly life is his mirth. I’ve come to realise that the problem is that, in one place at least, Our Lord’s humour was too dry to readily pick up on. That place is this:
“Two men went up into the Temple Courts to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood forward and began praying to himself in this way–‘O God, I thank thee that I am not like other men– thieves, rogues, adulterers–or even like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week, and give a tenth of everything I get to God.’ Meanwhile the tax-gatherer stood at a distance, not venturing even ‘to raise his eyes to Heaven’; but he kept striking his breast and saying ‘O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ This man, I tell you, went home pardoned, rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, while every one who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Both Pharisee and tax-gatherer were in the Temple Courts, the place in Judaism where God met man through the sacrificial system. Both thought they were praying to God, in the optimal place, no less. But only one was, and it wasn’t the Pharisee. He was “praying to himself.”
I can’t help but believe that at least one of his hearers cracked a smile at the thought.
The Pharisee, with all of his knowledge of the Scriptures, should have had an “inside track” to God. His mistake was that he was totally self-focused, and his self-focused nature made his praying a “closed loop,” starting and ending in himself. He starts by thanking God for who he is, but after that it goes downhill.
The slide starts when he adds who he isn’t–a thief, rogue, or adulterer, and certainly not a tax-gatherer like the one he sees out of the corner of his eye. It never occurs to him that he cannot take credit for this. We think of Judaism as being a “works salvation” business, but Jews aren’t “God’s chosen people” for nothing. God chose them. He did the mighty works to get them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. The cooperation was frequently minimal. It didn’t get better after they were in the land, either. A round trip to Babylon wasn’t instructive, not in his case. The initiative was God’s. The Pharisee hadn’t learned the concept of “there but for the grace of God, go I.”
Worse than this, his works gave him a sense of entitlement. This was a man who was “doing business with God.” He fasted and tithed, so he expected a payback. He had no idea that a finite creature could not presume–let alone be compared with–an infinite God.
The tax-gatherer had a different perspective. He knew he had a sin problem. Roman tax gatherers were contractors whose job it was to collect a certain amount of taxation and keep the rest. Needless to say, they were zealous in getting their share and more! Given the brutal ways of the Roman world, tax-gatherers were even more unpopular than IRS agents are today.
The tax-gatherer knew he had no reason to presume on God. All he could do was to ask for mercy and forgiveness.
But that’s all any of us can ask. We have no reason to presume that God must love us, or smile on us, or relieve us of our suffering. That he does is a result of his love and his mercy, which he exercised to the Jews and ultimately to all of us through the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ on the cross. But it was enough for the tax-gatherer and it’s enough for us.