In Jesus’ time in the temple in Jerusalem, also known as the second temple or Herod’s temple, specific spaces were designated for each of the various segments of the worshipping assembly. This temple no longer stands today. What remains is a portion of the outermost western wall, also referred to as the Wailing Wall, and is regarded today as Judaism’s most sacred site. Past some impressively substantial gates and massive walls, and past an equally impressive covered colonnade known as Solomon’s portico you enter the Court of Gentiles. Incidentally, it was in this space that the moneychangers and vendors set up shop providing a vital service to worshippers with the sale of animals approved for ritual sacrifice. This was also where on another occasion, Jesus, overcome with righteous anger, made a whip out of cords, overturned a few tables, and drove out the moneychangers, the vendors, and their merchandise. Within a few days of this, he would be arrested, tortured, and put to death.
Up another impressive set of steps and passing through some more impressively substantial gates you enter the Court of Women. Yep. No explanation necessary. Past yet another set of steps and another massive gate you enter the Court of Israel—which was where the men gathered. Then past that was the Court of Priests which surrounded the innermost chambers behind massive doors, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.
This is all just background information for today’s gospel parable. It appears both the Pharisee and the tax collector were eligible to enter the Court of Israel. They had to walk through the Court of Gentiles, and the Court of Women, ascending some massive steps, and walking through some massive gates, just so they could arrive at the place that was designated for them to address God in formal prayer. They didn’t need to go that far. They could have stopped after the first gate, or even after the second. But they were eligible to enter the third, so let’s just say they did. They also could have just prayed in the comfort of their own home. But that’s not the parable Jesus was telling.
And once in the Court of Israel, the Pharisee walks past the tax collector and everyone else to get to the front so he could stand between the Altar of Sacrifice and the doors of the Holy Place. And there, according to Jesus, the man “took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous …’” Hmm-hmm-hmm. Some scripture commentators and maybe we would not hesitate to pounce on the man’s glaring lack of humility and blunt honesty. He did begin by addressing God, but clearly he wasn’t speaking to God. He was well aware of the truth about himself, that he was a man of learning, familiar with the Law, and intentionally living by it, probably more than the average bear. He was truthful and sincere, which we would agree is an important quality of good prayer. It has taken many years, but I have come to understand that prayer is primarily communication. But it’s not really communication when one side does all the talking. Then he compared himself with the tax collector, and bragged that he fasted and payed tithes, probably something God has heard many times before.
In contrast “the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’” Like the Pharisee, he too was truthful and sincere. The big difference between them we would not know had Jesus not mentioned it. The tax collector went home justified, while the Pharisee did not.
If just like the Pharisee we simply accomplished everything expected of us, fulfilling our obligations and responsibilities proper to our state in life, to family, church, and society, it still would not be enough. That’s because the work of justification belongs to God alone. Justification is a big word, even in religious circles. But here’s an image that might help. Justification also refers to the margins on a printed page. The side with a straight edge is justified. The ragged edge is unjustified. So to justify is to bring order to what was disordered. And since justification is God’s task alone, it pertains to God restoring us from a disordered to a right relationship with him. We do not justify ourselves. No matter all the wonderful and amazing things we have accomplished, the businesses and industries we built from scratch, the jobs we created, the buildings and bridges we built, the books we published, the illnesses we cured, the exceptional children and grandchildren we raised, the academic degrees, Olympic medals, Heisman trophies, Superbowl rings, and Nobel prizes we earned, unless God restores us to right relationship with him, there remains in our existence a gaping void.
Along with many of the images in scripture that attempt to overturn the popular opinions and conventions of the day, we are reminded that although God’s will alone accomplishes the big and important stuff, there is much that God still needs from us, our willingness to embrace God and God’s will; our cooperation with his wisdom, his grace, and his plan; and our choice to place our hands, our feet, our blood and sweat, our patience, our courage, and our entire selves at God’s service to build up and prosper the Kingdom. The stated moral of the parable is definitely a quality essential to that right relationship with God and all God’s creation. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Acknowledging the truth of our humble state, that our nature is flawed, struggling, and sinful, is not about wallowing in low self-esteem. Instead, it is the embrace of God’s role in our justification, knowing it is not up to us, and that we rely completely and absolutely on God’s mercy.
“The Lord is a God of justice,” we read from Sirach. So when we pray, we need to embrace the truth about ourselves that we cannot hide from God. We need to speak sincerely from the depths of our heart. We can trust that God hears those who call to him. And however God chooses to act is entirely God’s prerogative. We must trust that the Lord is a God of justice, and will accomplish what is consistent with that justice.
In his second letter to Timothy, St. Paul sees the end of his earthly journey. He mentions an incident where standing before a human judge, he felt most alone and abandoned. “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” Like the Pharisee in the gospel parable, he was well aware of all that he had accomplished with the power and strength of God’s Spirit. But unlike the Pharisee, he understood that nothing mattered if he was unwilling to bow humbly before God, the God who alone restores all to right relationship with him. And where we sit or stand in church matters little to God, only that like the tax collector, we humbly acknowledge that we stand in need of his mercy.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019