Friday Focus: No Contest
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." - Luke 18: 9-14
It should come as no surprise that we can’t impress the Maker of the Universe with our resume. Trying to brag our way into heaven is totally counterproductive. Proud praying is no praying at all. These are just some of the lessons to take away from this week’s gospel. But there is a bigger lesson behind them.
The love of God is infinite. We are not competing in a zero-sum game for a bigger share of a finite commodity. We don’t build ourselves up by putting other people down. In fact it produces exactly the opposite result. As Jesus has taught us so many times: He has scattered the people who are proud and think great things about themselves. (Luke 1: 51) Obviously the Pharisee’s pride is not pleasing to God. It makes a mockery of his good works and attempts to pray. He isn’t lifting his mind and heart to God. He’s grandstanding, reveling in his own self-regard. And for what… a feel-good moment? Justification for God’s favor? A spoiled child’s demand for exclusive rights to a Father’s love? What a waste!
Look at the mathematical symbol for infinity. It is self-contained and continuous. It has no limits, no beginning, no end. You cannot diminish it by subtraction. You cannot enhance it by addition. That is the love of God… not spread thin and divided among his children, but infinitely abundant and constantly available to each and every one of his beloved. We don’t compete for it. We don’t buy it by tithes and fasting. We receive it for free, but we receive it on God’s terms, not ours.
And what are those terms? For Christians, it is an acceptance that we are saved by the sacrifice of the cross. Love of God, love of neighbor… not love of self. Humility, not prideful self-promotion. Honesty with ourselves and with God. Forbearance and forgiveness not jockeying for favor. An understanding that eternity is infinite, but our time on earth is not. We need a bias for action, a sense of urgency, a willingness to come to God as we are. The tax collector did not wait for circumstances to get better. He did not wait to retire from his shady profession. He came in his sins and humbly and sincerely begged for mercy. And that was all God expected from him and all he expects from us. Jesus tells us that when they went home that the tax collector: was right with God but the Pharisee was not. Pride kills. It makes a mockery of sacrifice. Humility sanctifies our prayer and ennobles our lives.
Loving and serving God is not a contest with winners and losers. There are no outcasts, no “black sheep” in God’s family. He loves us all. He commands us to love each other. That leaves no room for pride, only the joy of seeing another beloved brother or sister come to the Father for forgiveness. And that is the only way that we can all go home together… serenely, joyfully… right with God.