The first person in this story was the Pharisee. The second was the tax collector. But the third person in this story is Jesus, the teller of the story. He tells the story to turn everything upside down. To offer hope.
I want to suggest a challenging thing. In this story Jesus is talking about people who are at the ends of the spectrum. The most outwardly spiritual group and the least.
But most of us live in between. We’re not great, but we’re mostly good enough. We listen to the prayer of the Pharisee and maybe we hear something that sounds a little familiar.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people. At least I’m not a robber like that person. At least I’m good most of the time, not like that person. At least I’m usually honest, I’m frequently loving. At least I’m better than the worst person.”
And then the Pharisee identifies the actions that make him good: “I fast two times a week. I give 10 percent away.” And we think, “I give up meals sometimes to help people in Haiti. I give a little money. I go to church some of the time.”
Jesus suggests that mostly good enough, only mildly contemptuous of others, still isn’t a good place to be. Better than others isn’t connected to God.
Think for a second about how Jesus talked about the Pharisee. He was impressed with themselves. He had contempt on others. He was outwardly spiritual but inwardly proud.
But the answer isn’t in giving up. In assuming we are useless. The point of the story is humbly saying to God, “I need help.” One translation of this story says that the Pharisee prayed to himself. In contrast, the tax collector cried out to God. He asked for mercy, assuming that it was available.
And that’s the point of the story. That mercy is available.
Jesus looked at the tax collectors who looked hopefully at him and said, “those who humble themselves can sit with me.”