February 26, 2020
"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!'" (Luke 18:13). When Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, he drew a deliberate contrast between two attitudes toward repentance. On the one hand, the Pharisee essentially thanked God that he's not a sinner like everyone else (vv. 11-12). The tax collector, on the other hand, showed contrition not just in his words, but in his very posture and gestures. It was the later, whose confession was honest and humble, that Jesus said, "went down to his home justified" (v. 14).
On this Ash Wednesday, I want to invite you to add a third voice to the way you imagine this passage. It's the voice of our congregation each Sunday in worship. As is the Presbyterian custom in traditional worship services, we read together a Prayer of Confession that's printed in the bulletin. As your pastor, I take great care to write these each week using words from Scripture and relating them to the message God has given me for the sermon. Basing these prayers on the Bible means we confess using God's words about us, rather than our own rather biased assessments of ourselves. But even the most well prepared liturgy can't express the full state of every heart in the room. So, we usually read the words mechanically. Inside, some of us react to them like the tax collector ("Yes Lord, that's right. Have mercy on me."), while others react like the Pharisee ("But I don't sin in that way!").
We would never guess who's thinking which of those thoughts based merely on what's happening on the outside. But Jesus sees the inner state of our hearts, and he says, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted" (v. 14). The next time you "go up to the the temple to pray" (v. 10), whether that's tonight at our 6:00 p.m. Ash Wednesday service or on an upcoming Sunday morning, pause and notice what happens inside you when we confess our sins together. Is your heart resistant to confessing? Why is that? How can you humble your heart before the Lord, so that he will lift you up (James 4:10)?
Grace and Peace,