Jesus tells this story…
…Two people go up to pray. One is a respected and respectable figure – a Pharisee. The second is a resented and reviled one – a tax collector. When it is the Pharisee’s turn to pray, he stands confidently at the front of the room, his eyes moving from side to side and then to his own uplifted hands. As he prays, he thanks God that he is not like other people around him – like this tax collector in particular. He is proud of the fasting and tithes he has to offer, grateful that he didn’t come here empty-handed like some others he can see.
And the tax collector? He stands back by the doors. He wants to come closer but is unsure if it is safe or even welcome. And while he wants to look up to heaven, he can’t lift his eyes off the floor from his empty hands that are beating against his chest. He has nothing to give, not even words of thanks or praise. All he can pray is this, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And then, like in any good story, comes the surprise at the end. Jesus says, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14 NIV)
What Jesus is telling us here is not just a good story; it is good news. It is good news about who it is that God welcomes and why. It is not the arrogant who assume but the humble who ask. It is not those who are confident of their own righteousness—of their own goodness and standing—compared to whoever is beside them. But instead, it is found in where they stand in relation to Jesus. And the question isn’t what do we have in our hands to give, but rather are we humble and hungry enough to receive the gift that he has to offer? This is not just a good story, but the good news of mercy and welcome to the humble and empty-handed.
And yet it is more than just good news. As Frederick Beuchner puts it, “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news.” Even here, the good news of mercy and welcome comes with the uncomfortable and challenging word of warning.
Because there is a warning.
Jesus isn’t just warning us against Pharisees. He isn’t just saying, “Watch out for this kind of people. Call them out. Point them out. Stay away from and unfollow them.” Instead, he is warning us against being Pharisees. He warns us against being the kind of person whose eyes are looking from side to side when they should be looking up and down. The type of person who turns this source of confidence we can now have because of our new relation to God into a source of arrogance in relation to those around us. The warning is not against an outside threat we need to call out in others, but an inside threat we need to acknowledge in us. Elsewhere Jesus warns us against “the yeast of the Pharisees.” This yeast isn’t something outside of us like a lump of starter or bag of dry granules. Instead, it is all around us and in us. It is in every breath we breathe in or exhale. He is warning us against activating it or acting out on it. Because we can, we do. So don’t avoid this by pointing it out in others and avoiding them, but by acknowledging its presence in us and surrendering it as we look up to the one we find our confidence in.
And it is not just a warning against finding our confidence in what we see when we look side to side. It is also a warning against finding it in whatever we might have in our hands to give as well. None of us want to feel like we come to God empty-handed or starting from scratch again. Sure, we tell ourselves, that was fine when we first started out. But we aren’t starting out anymore. Aren’t we better than that now? Shouldn’t we be better by now? Shouldn’t we have something to show for it—something more to give? And it is true that by the grace of God, we are not what we once were. But it is only ever by God’s grace that we can come to him: Humble and empty-handed, walking in the way of the tax collector, not the Pharisee.
And this can feel like hard news to our pride and sense of ourselves. We were hoping all we needed was a little self-improvement. A Lenten-like fast where we give up a small vice we already wanted a break away from—a short booster shot of self-discipline to keep us sharp. But instead, we are asked to bend our knee and acknowledge our need again like the tax collector. This can feel like hard news.
But at that moment, when we look up and then down and then at our empty hands, the good news becomes truly good again. Because the Lord has mercy and welcomes us home with open hands, and he enables us to reach out beside us with open ones too.