Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, addressing it to people who feel self-righteous (Luke 18:9). He is speaking to us — average people who tend to see themselves as better than average, those of us with Lake Wobegon Syndrome. You know about Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor's fictional town where all the children are above average. Studies show that nine in 10 managers rate themselves as superior to their average colleagues, as do nine in 10 college professors. According to professor of psychology David Myers, most drivers — even those who have been hospitalized after accidents — believe themselves to be safer and more skilled than the average driver.
Jesus says that two men go up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector (v. 10). The natural assumption made by anyone hearing this story is that the Pharisee is the devout person — the good driver! The tax collector, on the other hand, is the sinner, the bad driver. Sure enough, the Pharisee steps away from the crowd in order to maintain his purity before God, and launches into a list of all his religious accomplishments: “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” (vv. 11-12). He does everything right, according to the standards of the day, obeying all the religious rules of the road. In keeping God’s commandments, he is way above average.
Then the tax collector bows his head, beats his breast, and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13). He’s feeling so ashamed that he cannot even raise his hands and look up to heaven, which is the standard position for first-century prayer. The tax collector doesn’t make any boasts or excuses — he simply asks for God’s mercy. So the above-average Pharisee boasts, while the sin-sick tax collector says, “My bad.” They both connect with God, right? Wrong! In a surprising twist, Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “I tell you, this [tax collector] 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.” The tax collector restores his relationship with God by asking for forgiveness, while the Pharisee moves farther away from God by boasting of his righteousness.
This isn’t what the hearers of the parable expect. They’ve been taught, as we have, that good behavior draws you closer to God, while bad behavior drives you away. But Jesus insists that we be aware of our secret faults and humble enough to know we need forgiveness. It’s time for us to do some soul searching, confess our hidden faults, and say to God, “My bad.” One fault that can really hurt us is our failure to see the image of God in the people around us. Another is to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves. Finally, we blow it when we are not honest with God — or honest with ourselves — about our need for forgiveness.
Each of us needs to be forgiven, whether we acknowledge it or not, just as the Pharisee needed to be cleansed of the sin of pride when he said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” (v. 11). It’s time to get honest — honest with God, and honest with ourselves. We cannot go home justified, restored to right relationship with God and one another, unless we admit that we need to be forgiven, just like every other person on earth.