In the early years of our country, one Southern family stood out in offering leadership to a fledgling nation. Most renowned among the first families of Virginia, the Lees were wealthy, capable, intelligent, and dedicated patriots.
Using the legend of this family and what some consider a bit of overexposure, lyricist Sherman Edwards crafted a clever song for his Broadway musical â1776.â In a classic scene, John Adams asks fellow Continental Congress member Richard Henry Lee to help the cause for independence. He challenges the Virginia representative to get his colonyâs House of Burgesses to pass a resolution calling for independence from England. In the course of their conversation, Adams prays, âGod help us.â
Lee replies confidently, âHe will John. He will.â Then, as if to prove his statement, Lee launches into a delightful song that includes this wonderful stanza:
They say that God in heaven is everybody's God,
I'll admit that God in heaven is everybody's God,
But I tell you, John, with pride, God leans,
A little on the side of the Lees, the Lees of old Virginia!
This humorous song rings true because it is so natural to think that since we are faithful, we must be special, and that God must be on our side. Itâs a good example of what Jesus was getting at when he told the parable in todayâs gospel reading.
The Pharisee in todayâs parable was basically a good guy â a member of what might be considered one of the first families of the faith. But like Lee in the play, he lost sight of his place in Godâs world. He knew that thanking God was a good way to pray, but he allowed his prayer to degenerate into prideful boasting.
And he forgot about the need for repentance. As a human being, he had a dark side, but he tried to hide it. He made the mistake of choosing to look on his good side. He attempted to boost himself by comparing his good qualities with what he perceived as the negative attributes of others. He set himself up as the judge of his behavior over against the actions of others.
We can imagine the details of his thought process, because we are tempted to engage in the same delusion:
I may have told a white lie, but I thank God I donât cheat on my income tax.
I may be a thief, but I thank God Iâm not a murderer.
I may have turned aside when the poor family asked me for help, but I thank God Iâm not responsible for the starvation in Africa.
I may hold back on my pledge, but I thank God Iâm not one of those reprobates who never gives.
I may not get to church as often as I might, but I thank God I belong to a church.
I may not study the Bible as much as I should, but I thank God Iâm not an atheist.
These examples may be a little over the top, but Jesus was using the self-aggrandizing statements by the Pharisee in comparison with the prayer by the truly faithful man who asked simply, âGod be merciful to me, a sinner.â
Jesus makes it clear that it is dangerous to compare our relative goodness, whether real or imagined, with that of others. This is because such moral manipulation drives a wedge between us and God. It is especially tragic in its use of religion as a divisive element between us and our brothers and sisters. Such action works against us all by inevitably separating rather than unifying the human family.
Sometimes we can get into trouble even if we use the standard of todayâs gospel, âGod be merciful to me, a sinner,â as a way to compare ourselves to others. For example, Rabbi Joshua Davidson tells a wonderful old story from the Jewish faith that illustrates the danger:
A rabbi decides to model repentance for his congregation. Humbly he beseeches the Almighty for forgiveness, and he beats his breast proclaiming, âBefore You, God, I am nothing. I am nothing.â
The cantor sees him and joins in: âI am nothing. I am nothing,â she cries.
The temple president, sensing that he too must get in on the act, now comes up. âI am nothing. I am nothing,â he sobs.
In the silence that follows, the rabbi turns to the cantor and whispers, âLook who thinks heâs nothing.â
In truth, our measure is not one of comparison with others but rather against the values of the gospel, against the Ten Commandments, against the summary of the Law. How well do we compare with these standards? In doing so, we can stand to our full height, whatever it may be.
But then we take the test of the truest measure. How high do we stand when comparing ourselves against the final, and only, model of our faith â Jesus himself? The ultimate comparison can only be between ourselves and Godâs perfect desires for us. Of course, such a test leads us to only one conclusion. We fail, and can only offer the tax collectorâs prayer: âGod be merciful to me, a sinner.â
Only in this way can we move forward in the right kind of humility, asking for forgiveness after darkness invades us, the darkness that we have given into through our sin. Such repentance can renew us as we listen to Jesusâ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We will become humbled, cut down to size, and this will lead us to the exhalation that comes from a life in Christ.
Standing in the knowledge of our need for Godâs forgiveness and love, we can become not only the prayerful people Jesus calls us to be, but we can also act in the faith that despite our sin, God will empower us as children. We can pray, finally, âLord use us sinners to do your work. Use us as instruments of your peace and grace and love and active concern for your children, our brothers and sisters in Christ.