February 21, 2020

The Real Test of Being in God’s Presence

Der Pharisäer und der Zöllner, Peter Gallen

By Chaplain Mike

Sunday’s Gospel
• Luke 18:9-14

OK, let’s be honest. What are you thinking after you read this famous parable about the Pharisee and the publican?

I would guess that many of us who have accepted the Gospel read this straightforward story and say in our hearts:

“Thank God I’ve escaped the sin of this proud Pharisee. Thank God he showed me the truth about myself and I humbled myself before him like this publican. Thank God I prayed ‘the sinner’s prayer.’ Thank God I’m justified.”

We identify with the humble tax-collector, not the pious, self-righteous Pharisee.

And the moment we do, we’ve fallen directly into the trap Jesus set for us here.

What an irony that it is so easy to read this parable in a self-congratulatory way! Faced with two characters, I naturally gravitate toward the one commended. I want Jesus’ approval! I want to know that, like the tax-collector, I stand justified before God. And, of course, I don’t want to have anything to do with the Pharisee. Just look at him—he prays “to himself,” he commends himself, his total focus is on himself. He is so blind that he can’t see how incongruous it is to thank God for what he imagines are his own achievements!

Thank God I’m not like that.

And the moment I utter the word, I have become the very one I detest.

Whether I identify with the Pharisee or the publican in this story, it can get me into trouble. You see, a spirit of self-justification and self-righteousness does not require that I be religious or have a spotless reputation, like the Pharisee. It only requires that I be right in my own eyes. It only requires that I see myself as approved. Publicans can think like that too.

No matter who I am, seeing myself as “right” feels pretty good. From this safe, lifted-up vantage point, as a “righteous” person I can look down on the unwashed around me, and feel good that I am not characterized by their sinful faults, poor doctrine, bad habits, and foolish choices. Or, as a sinful outsider, I can look down on the respectable folks around me and condemn them for their hypocritical religious piety, their “holier than thou” bearing, and the narrowness and legalism of their lifestyle.

So the righteous look down on sinners and thank God that they are not like them, saying “There but for the grace of God go I.” And the sinners look down on the righteous and assert they wouldn’t be caught dead being such snobs, openly suspecting it’s all a big act put on by whitewashed tombs.

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. (Rom 2:1, NRSV)

As usual, the ever-wise C.S. Lewis had his finger on the pulse of the matter here. In Mere Christianity, he wrote:

Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

So then, how should we read this parable? We should read it looking only at Jesus. Not at the Pharisee. Not at the publican. Trying to identify with either of them in contrast to the other leads only to spiritual pride—thank God I’m not like him!—regardless of which one I’m pointing to.

But when I look at Jesus and realize that he is pointing me to God, who alone has the power to justify me—then I will take the appropriate position coram Deo (before the face of God). Comparison with others will not cross my mind. My complete attention will be on confessing the secrets of my heart to the One who is looking right through me and requiring an account. In a desperation that consumes all my energies, I will find myself crying out for his word of forgiveness and reinstatement. My concentration will become incredibly focused, not on myself, not on others, but on the One who made me, who knows me, who speaks the truth to me, who invites me to relate honestly and directly with him.

Humble myself? When God shows up, and I get a glimpse of him, I’m devastated. Comparing myself with someone else won’t even be on the radar.

Luke 18:9-14 (NASB)—

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

“The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’

“But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’

“I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”


  1. Ouch. You know, I’ve thought this before then taken it to an interesting meta-level by taking pride in the fact that I identified with the Pharisee by identifying with the publican. Pride just keeps on keeping on, doesn’t it?

    It occurs to me that this parable shows the anti-Incarnation. By identifying with the good guy we become the bad guy. Conversely, Jesus identified with the bad guys and thus became the good guy.

  2. Thank you so much for this study.

  3. Great perspective. How often have I heard this preached as a “How to be justified with God” sermon, or “What we can learn from this about the doctrine of Justification.” Apply a little logic, and deduce the process necessary to attain the desired end: kinda makes the story all about us, doesn’t it? And to think, it was all about Jesus the whole time. Well, it just goes to show you, there are two ways to read the Bible: As a book about God or a book about yourself.

    And while I’m on it, there are three types of people in the world. Those who can count, and those who cannot.

  4. Very good word. Slippery slopes abound on either side when our attention focuses on others or ourselves in comparison to others, whether from the Pharisee or Publican side of things.

    An old song by Keith Green came to mind “Make my life a prayer to you” which has a phrase in it: “it’s so hard to see when my eyes are on me…” May we receive the grace to simply come before God and let his Spirit reveal and pray for us and through us whatever our condition or need.

  5. OK, so life isn’t a contest with others or God. It is simply being with Christ. Why do I struggle so mightily with this EVERY DAY when the answer is in front of my face?

    “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:3-4)

    Thanks Chaplain Mike. Grace and peace to this community.

  6. Rob in Oregon says

    Thanks, Chaplain Mike…
    So it is not about being right, it’s about knowing Jesus…
    Grace and Peace to all..

  7. I read this and I was sad that I was glad I was not like the Pharisee.

    But then I was glad that I was sad that I was glad.

    And that made me sad (so I was glad).

  8. We don’t just thank God that we’re not like Pharisees. (In fact, part of me thinks we need to use them less. They’re such pricks, so it’s easy to say “don’t be like them” or “I’m so glad I’m not like them” without any honest self-examination.) I think we do this all the time when people who all agree with each other get together and talk about some group that they all disagree with. When I was a politically conservative, evangelical Protestant, it happened in Sunday school classes or small group discussions, directed at atheists, liberals (but I repeat myself 😉 ), Muslims, modern art, Catholics, Arminians, etc. Now that I’m a politically moderate Catholic-to-be, I find myself doing it on Internet forums, and in discussions with friends, directed at Glenn Beck-loving Tea Partiers, charismatics, most praise and worship music, Left Behinders, and the like. We all do it, and it’s not pretty.

  9. Thanks for this sermon’s perspective, so refreshing and so necessary. That was my prayer this morning…show me where I am prideful and arrogant–my downfall every day.

  10. I am sooo thankful I am not like the people who read this post and were thankful they were not like the people who were thankful they were not like the Pharisee in the parable.

    Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.

    Great post.

  11. Anything I say, can and will be held against me. My life should be about following Jesus.

  12. Denise Spencer says

    Great minds do think alike! Our Bishop celebrated Mass with us today and he said he always sees this story as a sort of “trick parable” for exactly the same reason you refer to it as a “trap.” I’d never thought of it that way before, and am glad to hear it from both of you. But you carry it to still another level by challenging us to look only to God. That’s the only answer here, isn’t it?

    Thank you, Mike.

  13. CM: I hope you keep posting these reflections and comments on the Sunday teaching at your church service. I say that for two reasons. First, its just good stuff. Second, during the last 3 months my wife and I have begun to attend services at an ELCA church in the downtown area of our city where we both work and live. This, after all our years of wandering and listening to the “doism” that someone referred to in a post above. So, its cool to hear your comments about something we have been exposed to the same day. Hope you keep it up. bless ya bro

  14. This is what makes pride so insidious.