Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday: Keeping focus on God

It is possible that the shock value of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18.9-14) has been lost on those of us who, two thousand years removed, have been so immersed in the comforting doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Of course, it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who “went down to his house justified.” He was the one who relied on the mercy of God, unlike the Pharisee, who thought he could justify himself by reciting his litany of good deeds. To the twenty-first century evangelical, there is nothing at all unusual about this parable and what it teaches. It is the very essence of the Gospel.

But there is an old dictum that the Scriptures were written for us, but not necessarily to us. Jesus had a very specific audience in mind when he cast the Pharisee as the self-righteous blowhard and the tax collector as the humble penitent. To any devout first century Jew, The Pharisees represented the purest form of Judaism. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the ultimate collaborators. Not only did they sell out the faith of their fathers, they also exploited their position for personal enrichment.

The contrast could not be more stark: the Pharisee, the embodiment of everything good and pure and decent, and the tax collector, the very face of collaboration and exploitation. There could be little doubt whose side Jesus’ original listeners would take. They wanted, and expected, the Pharisee to go home justified and the tax collector, despite his pleas for mercy, to get everything he deserved. To their ears, Jesus’ words, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down his house justified, rather than the other [the Pharisee],” would have been shocking. The very idea that a miserable tax collector would be justified in the sight of God just because he cried out for mercy and the fine, upstanding Pharisee would be turned away despite his record of service would have literally turned their world upside down.

The beginning of the Lenten season is a particularly appropriate time to consider the implications of this parable. Much of the emphasis over the next forty days will be on precisely the kind of spiritual disciplines which the Pharisee thought would justify him before God. How quickly we tend to fall back into a legalistic form of righteousness, especially when the emphasis of the season is the invitation to observe the disciplines of “holy living.” We must be careful to remember that none of these disciplines are ends in themselves. We are justified by grace, not by works, and no amount of boasting about our sterling record of spiritual discipline will make us worthy to stand before God. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, it is God himself who disciplines us for our good. What was it, after all, that brought that tax collector to his knees in the first place? Was it not God’s own gracious initiative, the promise of forgiveness if only he would turn from his sin and cry out for mercy?

“Two men went up into the temple to pray.” One, a Pharisee, went on his own initiative. The other, a tax collector, went in response to God’s invitation. The Pharisee was focused on himself; the tax collector was focused on God. That, in the end, is why the tax collector, not the Pharisee, “went down to his house justified.” No amount of fasting, tithing, or any other works, no matter how good they may seem, will send us home justified if they become ends in themselves, rather than means through which we keep our focus squarely on God.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.