Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 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. I 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!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Yesterday I reflected upon the two great commandments: to love God and to love one’s neighbour. As part of that reflection I considered the importance of Christians gathering together in prayer, praise and thanksgiving to reinforce their personal commitment to serving God, and to support others as they travel their path of discipleship. Today’s reading gives us an opportunity to reflect upon our personal motivations as we live the life of a faithful follower of Christ.
The path of discipleship is a perilous one. There are certainly dangers represented by the attitudes and behaviours of those who do not share our commitment. Those attitudes and behaviours can easily bully us into watering down our commitment to serve God, and they can, ultimately, water down our own faith. But … there is another danger: a danger of using the outward show of faith as a way of bullying others.
On many occasions I have heard phrases such as: too holy to be of any earthly use and holier than thou. Such descriptions, or perhaps I mean accusations, are usually levelled at people such as those described in today’s reading. They ‘enjoy’ making a show of their faith. They seem to relish showing how much ‘holier’ they are than those amongst whom they live. They thrive on being ‘recognized’ for their commitment to regular churchgoing and their participation in public prayer. Unfortunately, many of those people are only about ‘show’ when it comes to matters of faith. Jesus is cautioning us against being like them.
There is a place in God’s kingdom for all who come to him in true faith, the faith which is capable of moving mountains, the faith that might be as small as a mustard seed and yet capable of enormous potential in the way it thrives in the communities in which we live. It is not for any one of us to judge the faith of others. The right to such judgement belongs to God alone. It is only God who sees into our hearts and minds and truly knows what is going on there. All of this means that those we might consider to be unworthy may be far more advanced in their Christian journey than us.
God does not delight in the spectacle of our devotion. God wants us to travel the pilgrimage of life in humility and devotion, he does not want us to expend the energy we might use in loving and serving him in peripheral displays designed to impress others. God is ready to forgive anything and to accept anyone, providing they come to him in honesty and humility.
Jesus also gives us a warning! Jesus makes it clear that not only are we misguided if we make a practice of showing off our devotion, but we will also come to the point of being humbled by God. It is those who are prepared to accept their vulnerability and unworthiness who will be exalted in the kingdom of heaven, and not those who wear the ‘right’ clothes, say the ‘right’ things, and mumble the ‘right’ prayers.
Let us pray for humility in our service to God that he might, in our time, welcome us into his nearer presence.