May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always
acceptable in your sight, oh Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Good Guys and Bad Guys.
They fight against each other in movies.
We read about them in literature.
We see them on TV.
We cheer for the good guy.
We hope for the demise of the bad guy.
In the stories that we see and hear,
The good guy wins.
The Bad guy loses.
And we think we know the difference between the good and the bad.
But it’s not always quite so simple.
It’s not always so black and white.
It’s not always so either/or.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about what appears to be a good guy,
and a bad guy.
Only the tables are turned.
It’s not what we would expect.
Because it’s not quite so simple.
Jesus begins the story by saying, “Two men went up to the temple to pray,
one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisee is the good guy.
He Loves God.
He knows all the rules and he follows them meticulously.
The tax collector is the bad guy.
He’s a scoundrel.
If we modernize this story a bit,
We can see that we have the same standards and tendencies today.
At first glance, we assume that
The Christian who goes to church (like you and I) is the good guy.
The atheist down the street is the bad guy.
As a matter of fact, if Jesus were to tell this parable today, he might begin it by
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Christian, the other an atheist.”
Atheists wouldn’t go to the temple to pray!
They don’t even believe in God!
This idea is shocking.
And the same kind of shock value is inherent in Jesus’ ancient story,
The tax collector wouldn’t go to the temple to pray!
The shock reminds us that its not quite so simple.
Not quite so black and white.
Not quite so either or.
Instead, Jesus uproots our expectations.
He switches everything around:
producing a double shock.
In the story that Jesus tells, we learn that
The good guy isn’t quite so good.
The bad guy isn’t quite so bad.
It’s not what we would expect
It’s not so simple.
Because there’s no such thing as a purely good guy.
No such thing as a purely bad guy.
But there is such a thing as being purely human.
And both the good guy and the bad guy have human tendencies.
And we must bring those human tendencies to God in prayer.
We all have the human tendency that the Pharisee has:
We all want to be good--
Be better—be perfect.
We want to do things right:
For ourselves, for our loved ones, for God.
And we also have the human tendency of the tax collector:
We all mess up,
We all fall short.
We’re all sometimes scoundrels.
But we’re not just good.
And we’re not just bad.
And we need God’s help.
And this means that we have to be honest.
Honest even in our prayer.
You see, the Pharisee: Who we thought was going to be the good guy,
Who gets made out to be the bad guy:
Is actually just the guy who is extremely dishonest in his prayer.
In his prayer, he says:
“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 he leaves a lot out.
Because he’s definitely not perfect.
He can’t be, because he’s human.
But he didn’t bring that to his prayer.
Instead, the surprise comes from the tax collector:
Who we thought was going to be the bad guy,
Who gets made out to be the good guy:
Is actually just the guy who is being honest about his humanity.
And that honestly is deeply good.
The tac collector, was standing far off:
He would not even look up to heaven:
Was beating his breast and saying,
“God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Jesus’ story today reminds us to be humble.
And being humble is often about being honest.
Honest about who we are.
Honest about our actions: both good ones and bad ones.
I’m not saying that we should be self-deprecating:
Or overly hard on ourselves.
But we should be honest.
Because if we’re really honest:
We’ll remember that we don’t have to be perfect.
We don’t have to be perfect before each other.
We don’t have to be perfect before God.
Because we’re really just human: And it’s not quite so simple,
Not quite so black and white.
Not quite so either/or.
And that’s not even the greatest news.
The greatest news is that God loves us anyway.
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