Strength in Confession

            Comparisons happen all the time.  Who has the better football team?  Which desert is the most popular?  What members have been in the congregation the longest?  Most of the time these comparisons are innocent and help promote some healthy competition that motivate us to improve our skills and nurture growth.

            But competition also has the ability to spiral into a cancer within individuals and communities.  When the comparison changes from abilities, characteristics, and actions to personal attacks, we have stepped into dangerous territory.  At that point, we assume that a person’s value as a human being is strictly related to their contribution to society.  Or in other words, one cannot fail without being a failure.  And the more success one has, the more that person is valued over others.  If we aren’t at the top, shame fills our spirits and makes us feel as if we are worthless humans.

            It is a deadly disease that completely disregards the Christian message.  Jesus said that we cannot earn our salvation but that through Him, we have been given the gift of forgiveness.  Our reputations in this life have NO bearing whatsoever on our salvation.  Look at the people Jesus hung out with during his life. 

Today, we read about a Pharisee and a tax collector coming to the synagogue.  The Pharisees lived righteous lives according to the law, as holy in their daily activities as anyone could live, like monks and nuns.  The tax collectors on the other hand, were Jewish people living in Israel, who collected taxes for the Roman Empire.  They typically charged double the actual taxes, giving to Rome the tax money and pocketing the rest.  Most tax collectors were corrupt traitors.  We have two extremes described in this parable.  One who thinks he does everything right and one who knows he is doing wrong.

Who did Jesus direct the parable to?  Verse 9 describes it.  “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” He’s speaking to the people who think, “I’m right and you’re wrong.  You need to do things my way.  I am more worthy than you.”  While the words “I am better than you” may not have been said, it was an assumption in their thinking.

And the Pharisee prays, “thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  What categories can we add to the list today?  Thank God I’m not a politician, a selfish neighbor, or maybe even a Synod representative.

This pious clean Pharisee then tries to justify himself through fasting and tithing.  Look how good I am!  I hardly ever do anything wrong.  It’s always someone else that messes things up.  God can’t help but have pictures of me hanging on his office wall with all of my holy behavior!  Just look at how much better I am than this tax-collecting, lowlife traitor.  The Pharisee is in denial of his own sinfulness.  He hides it in the closet and locks the door while defending his behavior so that he feels acceptable because he believes that it is his good behavior that will save him.

The tax-collector, he didn’t pretend that he was good.  He didn’t attempt to justify his actions or his own self-worth.  He had cheated people out of their hard earned cash and he KNEW it!  As a matter of fact, the text doesn’t say anything about the tax collector changing his ways once he left the scene!  He might be going out to do the same thing again tomorrow.  But out of humility, he couldn’t even look up as he beat his chest and confessed, God be merciful to me, a sinner!  Present tense sinner.  And Jesus said the tax collector went home justified. 

The tax collector could have pointed at the Pharisee and exposed his flaws.  But he didn’t.  He wasn’t concerned about the Pharisee’s problems.  He had his own sins that needed God’s forgiveness and it was more important that he deal with his own than to point at others.

The Pharisee was guilty of trusting his own efforts to earn salvation rather than the grace of God.  He felt he DESERVED God’s blessings because he acted so good.  Let’s not mince words, the Pharisee saw HIMSELF as a god!  So many times I have been like the Pharisee.  In my attempts to justify actions and my worth, I have ignored my own faults while pointing out the sins of others, expecting to earn God’s favor.  But if I’m able to do everything right, what is the need for Jesus Christ?

Amy Grant sings a song called Better Than a Hallelujiah.  Please read the lyrics (and sing along if you’d like) on the screen through her song.

Our tax collector is a mess.  But he acknowledges it and God blessed that confession!  Jesus forgives us NOT because we are acting good enough or that we are right and someone else is wrong, but because we humbly acknowledge that we have fallen short and need Christ’s grace as much as anyone else.  Through the blood of Jesus Christ, you and I are forgiven.  Let’s keep our comparisons healthy and leave this place with repentant and grateful hearts, sharing God’s love and forgiveness with others.  Amen.