He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘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.’
There was a couple I knew growing up who had it all together, or at least it seemed like they did on the surface. They were in church every Sunday morning, sitting together holding hands, with children flanking them on either side sitting attentively. They attended the Wednesday night dinners, participated in bible studies, and volunteered for celebratory programs.
However, on one particular Sunday morning I saw them out in the parking lot, before church, yelling at one another. I was shocked: not only were these two some of the best members of the church, but they were yelling so loud that many congregants were parking on the other side of the lot just to avoid them. Yet, 45 minutes later there they were standing in line with their palms outstretched ready to receive communion. They were surrounded by people who had seen them fighting in the parking lot, but they still came forward to receive the body and the blood.
I am often guilty of thinking I have to have it all together before I pray, before I read scripture, or before I arrive at church. Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable I tend to focus on all of the things I have done correctly. But, when I enter church thinking I’ve got it all worked out, I leave feeling empty, as if something is missing. Though I was perplexed by the juxtaposition of the fighting couple standing at the altar of God, I realized that we are all just like them, in different ways.
I think that this parable Jesus told is all about prayer and about the way we enter into a church on Sunday mornings (or any other day of the week). Jesus tells his disciples that there are two types of people who come to church – Pharisees and Tax collectors. Depending on the week, or the time of year, we are one or the other most of the time. There are times when we walk into the house of God, ready to worship as good bible-believing Christians, Pharisees of the 21st century. We are so pleased with ourselves for following all the rules and behaving appropriately all the time. And sometimes we go home after church with an emptiness because we were so full before we arrived. But there are other times when we enter the house of God as tax-collectors, needing everything, afraid, lost, full of doubt, and return home with more than we ever dared to ask in the first place.
So, the next time you prepare to worship, or to pray to God, know that sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed. We all carry with us a lot of baggage and, occasionally, we are unaware of it. There will be sermons that you get nothing out of, a hymn that does not resonate deep in your heart, and a bible study that you already know all the answers to. But, there will come a time when you enter into prayer empty, afraid, and hopeless; a time when you do not have all the answers; a time when all you have left to say is “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And God will be there waiting.