To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The first time I went to AA
I remember the first time I went to an AA meeting. But this particular gathering of nameless faces didn’t meet in the basement of a church on a Monday night. Instead they met on a Friday evening during rush hour traffic, amongst the strip clubs, seedy bars, and litter-filled roadways off Piedmont Road.
I found it ironic that their meeting space was behind a liquor store. Yet pulsing in from every artery of life, this anonymous society of misfits found sanctuary in a barren room filled with metal chairs, cheap coffee, and a litany of untold stories whispering about.
The chairs were arranged in a giant U-pattern. As a newcomer and introvert, I found it paralyzing. I didn’t know how I was supposed to hide or what I was supposed to say if called upon.
As I sat there and waited for the meeting to begin, I started to take in my surroundings. I focused less on the surface and tried to tune into what was going on beneath what I was seeing.
Peppered throughout the room were muffled conversations, laughter, smiles, and something different. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was mesmerizing. It was almost as if these people knew something that I didn’t. The air was electric with it.
Suddenly, a man entered the room and made his way toward the front. He opened what they call the “Big Book” and called the meeting to order. He began by saying, “My name is [Tony] and I’m an alcoholic. I’ll be your secretary.” And everybody in unison welcomed him.
I was immediately taken aback. Now, I’ve seen movies. I know that they say that stuff in AA meetings in the movies, but I didn’t think they really said it. But they do! I was floored by his honesty, his transparency, and the fact that there wasn’t an ounce of judgment in the air after he said it. It was liberating.
After Tony introduced himself, the group recited the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” The meeting then moved into a recitation of AA principles and then followed by a reading from the Big Book. After that they moved into an open floor format where others could share. But before each person spoke they would introduce themselves, “Hi, I’m [Gary], and I’m an alcoholic.”
This group of people enamored me. You want to know why I think that is?
It’s because this group openly acknowledged their brokenness and somehow that brokenness created a thick, tangible atmosphere of grace. It was outrageously beautiful, scandalous, and horrifying because it didn’t seem pretty or holy, but it was still sacred and attractive in its own way.
An ancient story of a holy man and ragamuffin
There’s an ancient story of two men who went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, known for his strict adherence to the law, and the other was a tax collector, hated and despised by the community.
When the Pharisee prayed, he said, “God, thank you that I’m not like everybody else. I don’t steal from people, I don’t commit adultery or do evil, and I especially thank you that I’m not like that tax collector over there. In fact, I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all that I make.”
When it was the tax collector’s turn to pray, he dragged himself toward the altar, but stopped short of it. Not even turning his eyes to heaven, he simply beat his chest and mumbled, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus then says that only one of these men went home justified before God – I’ll let you guess which one. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18.9-14).
We’re all the Pharisee
Whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve all been the Pharisee. Pharisees are fixated on differentiating themselves from others, on maintaining an “us vs. them” mentality.
We too easily fall into the comparison trap and measure our self-ascribed righteousness by how different we are from others who don’t have it all together.
We barricade ourselves inside our polished church walls from the toxicity of the world, secretly afraid that we might get infected with its sin, as if righteousness is something we have to protect.
Pharisees don’t like it when a drunk stumbles into the service on a Sunday morning, for example, or when a tired mother can’t control her children, or when someone’s “Sunday Best” doesn’t quite measure up.
We’re all the tax collector
But we’ve all been the tax collector, too. We have failed to measure up to whatever it means to be a “good Christian.” We lie, steal, cheat, miss child support payments, get drunk, forget to pick up our kids at school, cuss out people during rush hour traffic, or something else.
But whatever it was, it was all we could do to crawl to the space we call “sacred,” direct a prayer toward heaven and whisper the words that essentially cry, “God – help.”
A Ragamuffin’s prayer
The late Brennan Manning, one of my favorite ministers and writers, embodied the spirit of the tax collector the best. He wrote:
Ragamuffins have a singular prayer: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Any additional flourishes to make that cry more palatable are pharisaical leaven. Warning: Mine has been anything but a straight shot, more like a crooked path filled with thorns and crows and vodka. Prone to wander? You bet. I’ve been a priest, then an ex-priest. Husband, then ex-husband. Amazed crowds one night and lied to friends the next. Drunk for years, sober for a season, then drunk again. I’ve been John the beloved, Peter the coward, and Thomas the doubter all before the waitress brought the check. I’ve shattered every one of the Ten Commandments six times Tuesday. And if you believe that last sentence was for dramatic effect, it wasn’t.
We’re all like both of these characters, but if you’re like me, then you’re often more like one than the other. Unfortunately, I don’t regularly reflect the authenticity of the tax collector, but rather the judgmental, self-righteousness of the Pharisee. I might be wrong, but I might be right – I think I’m in good company.
What we can learn from this story
There are a few things about this parable that I want to draw attention to:
- First, Jesus directs this parable to those who think they’re righteous, not to “sinners.” It’s addressed to “some who were confident of their own righteousness and [who] looked down on everybody else.” Ask yourself the question: Do I look down on anybody because of my self-ascribed righteousness? My… Christianity? Depending on your answer, perhaps this parable’s for you.
- Second, notice how the Pharisee prayed. He postured himself proudly and compared himself to those around him fixated solely on the things he sacrificed during the week to differentiate himself from others. Yet the tax collector postured himself humbly, acutely aware of his inner condition. When he prayed, “God, have mercy on me a sinner,” he acknowledged not what he did, but who we was. I think that’s key.
- And third, Jesus said that only one of these men went home justified. I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t the first guy! The Greek word for “justified” is dikaios, and in this passage, it is in the perfect passive participle form, meaning it is an action that happened to the man and it is still continuously happening. He wasn’t merely justified once, but he is being justified! Now that’s a pretty powerful thought!
Grace lives in brokenness
Something we can learn from all of these stories is that brokenness creates a vacuum for God’s grace to rush into. When we approach God with a laundry list of what makes us different from the bad guys, then we miss the point entirely.
God wants you – the you who’s messed up, imperfect, burned out, wasteful, sinful, and dare I say, unrighteous.
It’s why Brennan Manning understood something about God most of us struggle to grasp. It’s why the tax collector could walk home upright, even though he was crooked. It’s why the atmosphere at the AA meeting was so liberating to all who sat in it.
Every person, every story, every bare surface was excessively saturated in the grace of God because someone at some point decided it was time to be honest.
I have a dream that one day our Sunday mornings will look a lot more like the church basement on Monday nights, or the barren room, that wasn’t so barren after all, in the building behind the liquor store tucked away between strip clubs and seedy bars.
But it’s going to take people like you and people like me to stop acting like we have it all together, to stop comparing ourselves to the ones who aren’t like us, and to be honest about our own condition, our own faults, and our shortcomings. Because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that grace lives in brokenness.
I’ll leave you with the words of Brennan Manning:
“God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be.”