To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’
“Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
On this Ash Wednesday, as we enter into Lent, it is indeed a season of reflection and preparation. An important aspect of it is the acknowledgement and confession of our own sins. And of how we fall short of God’s perfection and will. We should never think we have a leg up on others. Yes, some sins are more devastating than other sins; we can’t escape that reality. At the same time, we too sin, and are sinners in that sense. We’re no longer sinners as before, as those declared and made righteous in Christ, so that we’re on a new path, the path of righteousness (Psalm 23). Yet we still have sin and sin (1 John 1).
It is particularly important during this time when some may think they’re better than others given what’s happening in our nation. We need to face the fact of our own complicity. Even the sin of simply not being present, of excusing one’s self, or not making the effort to understand what’s wrong, and how it affects actual people, including possibly some of our neighbors.
The point is that we need to accept that we too are in need of ongoing forgiveness, and a deeper repentance, which gets right to the heart of our own need, as well as the need around us.
This is not something we beat ourselves with again and again. But in a sense it’s where we live and is actually for our good. In the process we’ll more and more come to find the special place God has for us. In God’s love for all. In and through Jesus.