We have all spoken the words that we hear the Pharisee speak in our scripture reading this morning . . . words thanking God that he is not like other people. We have all uttered words expressing our unwillingness and thankfulness that we are not like those other people . . . people that we do not like who they are, what they do, or what they represent. We have all said those words . . . we have all been in the shoes of the Pharisee. All of us.
Think about that.
In the United States the most despised and distrusted group or minority would be who? Well, I think that you would be surprised to learn that the most despised and distrusted group in the United States is . . . atheists! At least according to recent research conducted by the University of Minnesota. The research was based on two questions, one based on what people saw as any group’s vision of American society; and, who would you disapprove of if your child wanted to marry them.
In both questions, atheists easily ranked number one. Followed by Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, Jews, and recent immigrants. Also, in the group of despised and distrusted groups were conservative Christians. All these groups were people that the responders were thankful that they were not like them.
I imagine that we could all add to the list of groups or people we are all thankful we are not like. I wouldn’t want to be politician right now . . . they probably rank right up there as people we are thankful that we are not like. Health insurance companies and their agents . . . I imagine none of us would want to be like those people. Internal Revenue Service agents . . . lawyers . . . Democrats or Republicans (depending on which side of the fence you sit on) . . . Griz or Bobcat fans (depending upon your loyalty). We are thankful we are not like the beggar on the corner of the street . . . thankful we are not disabled . . . poor. We all have our list of people and groups we are thankful that we are not like.
We all do . . . so, does that make us bad? Does that make us worthy of the condemnation that Jesus heaps upon the Pharisee? Maybe, maybe not . . . it depends upon the attitude in which we utter our prayer of thanksgiving for not being like others. If you listen closely to the words of Jesus, then you will notice that it all comes down to the attitude in which the prayer was uttered.
The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is his attitude. His prayer was not once of sincere thanksgiving about not being a sinner . . . of not having fallen down . . . but, it was one of superiority. He did not see those that he was thankful for not being like as human beings . . . as brothers and sisters in the family of God; no, what he saw were groups and individuals beneath him . . . unworthy of him . . . something less than acceptable and loveable. The Pharisee’s attitude was that he was better than everyone else, the world revolved around him, and anything less was contemptible in his sight and heart. The Pharisee’s attitude sucked. The Pharisee was breaking his arm patting himself on the back.
In our society we live with a hierarchical system that ranks things and people according what we believe is most valuable. A high school education is more valuable than a dropout . . . a college education is more valuable than a high school education . . . graduate school more than college. The richer you are, the better you are. The more physically beautiful, the more advantages in life you get. The stronger you are . . . the smarter you are . . . the more you own . . . all rank high in where you get to stand in our society. Because of that, we are thankful we are not like those other people who are not as smart as we, strong as we are, rich as we are . . .
But, this view of society . . . this view of hierarchy is not an acceptable way of living life in the eyes of God. Jesus makes this plain in contrasting the tax collector’s prayer to the prayer of the Pharisee. In the eyes of Jesus, all that God has created . . . especially the children of God’s family . . . all of us . . . is created with equal value. No one is better or worse than the others in God’s creation. The tax collector recognizes this in his prayer, the Pharisee has no clue.
This parable, as told by Jesus, leaves us—the listeners—in sticky middle ground as to where we stand in the story . . . are we standing in the shoes of the Pharisee, are we in the shoes of the tax collector, or are we flip-flopping between the two? I guess it all depends upon our attitude . . . not only in the words that we speak, but in the way that we live our daily lives.
It is a shame, after over 2,000 years of having been established as being followers of Jesus, that we still live in a world . . . in a society . . . that ranks people—God’s children—by what the world and we think is valuable in our eyes. There is value in all of God’s creation . . . in all of God’s children . . . and, we should recognize it as Jesus recognized it. It may go against what the world is saying, but it is what God wants. Each and every one of us is loved and valued by God . . . each and every one of us is a sinner when we cannot recognize that truth . . .
We have spoken the words of the Pharisee and the tax collector . . . but the truth of the matter is in how we live our lives. Amen.