Psalm 65:4-5 4 Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! They will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple. Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away.
Have you every felt unworthy? Like, you weren’t good enough? As if other people, or the space, or the thing carried a demand for purity that you didn’t have? Like, maybe you should hang back, keep your distance, and look on from afar? Afraid? Scared that if someone saw you—really saw you—you’d be thrown out, rejected, ostracized, because you didn’t belong in that space, or with that group of people, or with that thing?
Caught in the muck and mire of feelings of being outcast and unacceptable, we hope Maybe one day I’ll be worthy, if I can just… (fill in the blank). Maybe we’ll be worthy when we finally achieve that certain level of perfection we’re sold on—some mythical conception of human existence that doesn’t actually exist. We’ve become convinced by brilliant marketing campaigns dependent on our desire for inclusion that there’s such a thing as “normal” and “regular” and that, somehow, we just don’t measure up. And we really want to measure up, to fit in, to be “normal” and “regular”, to be chosen and selected. But maybe I’m too fractured and broken to fit in…At times we find ourselves desperate to feel good about ourselves, so we elevate ourselves above others hoping that identification with the culture of the dominant group will put our fears at rest…at least I’m not that person over there…
Sadly, this always bleeds into our relationship with God. Does God really love me just because? Does God really need me? Want me? Choose me? It doesn’t help when the church and its leaders are also dead-set on the mythical notions of “normal” and “regular” peddled as “God’s will”. Bombarded on all sides, our doubt moves us farther and farther back. God is too much for us. So, we grow more and more afraid to come close, to be human—really human—in the presence of God, afraid to pray because we’re not good enough and don’t have the right words, afraid to approach because we’re impure, afraid to touch because our touch is unclean and cursed. So, we stand farther and farther and farther back…
And now Jesus told this parable to certain ones who have had confidence in being just in the eyes of God on the basis of themselves and despising the rest… “…Now the tax collector having stood from afar not even willing to lift up [his] eyes to the heavens, but he was striking his breast, saying, ‘God, please show favor to me, a sinner.’ Truly I say to you, this man went down into his home having been justified…because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9, 13-14
Getting started, Luke tells us to whom Jesus addresses this parable: And now Jesus told this parable to certain ones who have had confidence in being just in the eyes of God on the basis of themselves and despising the rest… The parable features two men: one a tax collector and the other a Pharisee. Jesus tells the story featuring the Pharisee first: he goes in, stands by himself to maintain ritual purity, and prays. What follows is a litany of ways he is righteous: he is not like those sinners—the unjust extortioners, the adulterers, and this tax-collector—and performs his ritualistic duties—fasts on the sabbath and pays his tithe on all he has and gets. Next up, the tax-collector. The tax-collector stands far off refusing to lift up his eyes to heaven. All he can do is remorsefully beat his chest and plead for divine mercy because he is a sinner. Jesus wraps up the parable with a quick and short (and familiar): Truly I say to you, this man went down into his home having been justified more than that one, because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles themselves will be exalted.
It’s tempting to look at this short and clear parable and deduce the motto: don’t be like those bad Pharisees! Ironically, as soon as we do that we become the self-exalted one in the story. It’s not about the Pharisee being bad. They aren’t “bad”, their the most religious of all the children of Israel; they loved God and God’s law, wished to be obedient to it, to study it, discuss it, and teach it. It’s about Jesus up-righting upside-down systems, even religious ones.
Thus the parable is not a warning against being a hypocrite, but an exhortation to be as those who do not elevate themselves over others. It’s about those who stand far off because they know who they are—sinners, people who miss the mark, fail, stumble, tumble, and get back up. When the people expected those who are technically perfect and can stand on their own to be declared righteous; Jesus says the righteous are those who can’t stand on their own, who aren’t perfect and know it. It is not about thinking oneself better than the rest because of your deeds, your status, your birth, your dogmas and doctrines; it’s about realizing exactly who you are.
Even when you find yourself casting your eyes downward, standing far off for fear of being unable to fit in, for fear of not being accepted as you are, for fear of making others impure because of your impurity, you may find yourself a humble creature square in the presence of a Creator who adores you and receiving the fullness of divine love, favor, and mercy.
The parable is a paradox. The farther you back away, stand from a distance, the more you find yourself in God, accepted, loved, adored, cherished, as you are. That’s the reversal. It’s not those who are holy, pure, perfect, obedient, abiding the law at every turn who are closest to God, it’s actually the ones who are aware of how far they miss the mark who throw themselves on God’s mercy and lean into God’s love. It’s the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus dwells, it’s those who know God because they know themselves.
The thing is, knowing who you are—faults and all, shame and all, vulnerability and all, weakness and all—the more you know who God is: the one who stands in solidarity with the outcasts, with you. God in Christ chooses, desires, and identifies with the outcasts, (literally!) those on the fringe, those on the margins, those who just don’t measure up and fit in. You are never too far away to be square in the middle of God.
I’ll close with a story from my favorite childhood novel, Black Beauty:
“No doubt a horse fair is a very amusing place to those who have nothing to lose; at any rate, there is plenty to see.
“There was a great deal of bargaining; of running up and beating down, and if a horse may speak his mind so far as he understands, I should say, there were more lies told, and more trickery at that horse fair, than a clever man could give an account of. I was put with two or three other strong, useful-looking horses, and a good many people came to look at us. The gentlemen always turned from me when they saw my broken knees, though the man who had me swore it was only a slip in the stall.
“There was one man, I thought, if he would buy me, I should be happy. He was not a gentleman, nor yet one of the loud flashy sort that called themselves so. He was rather a small man, but well made and quick in all his motions. I knew in a moment by the way he handled me, that he was used to horses; he spoke gently, and his gray eye had a kindly, cheery look in it. It may seem strange to say—but it is true all the same—that the clean fresh smell there was about him made me take to him; no smell of old beer and tobacco, which I hated, but a fresh smell as if he had come out of a hayloft. He offered twenty-three pounds for me; but that was refused, and he walked away. I looked after him, but he was gone, and a very hard-looking, loud-voiced man came; I was dreadfully afraid he’d have me; but he walked off. One or two more came who did not mean business. Then the hard-faced man came back again and offered twenty-three pounds. A very close bargain was being driven; for my salesman began to think he should not get all he asked, and must come down; but just then the gray-eyed man came back again. I could not help reaching out my head towards him. He stroked my face kindly.
“‘Well, old chap,’ he said, ‘I think we should suit each other. I’ll give twenty-four him.’
“‘Say twenty-five and you shall have him.’
“‘Twenty-four ten,’ said my friend, in a very decided tone, ‘and not another sixpence—yes or no?’
“‘Done,’ said the salesman, ‘and you may depend upon it there’s a monstrous deal of quality in that horse, and if you want him for cab work, he’s a bargain.’
“The money was paid on the spot, and my new master took my halter, and led me out of the fair to an inn, where he had a saddle and bridle ready. He gave me a good feed of oats, and stood by whilst I ate it, talking to himself, and talking to me. Half-an-hour after, we were on our way to London, through pleasant lanes and country roads, until we came into the great London thoroughfare, on which we traveled steadily, till in the twilight, we reached the great City. The gas lamps were already lighted; there were streets to the right, and streets to the left, and streets crossing each other for mile upon mile. I thought we should never come to the end of them. At last, in passing through one, we came to a long cab stand, when my rider led out in a cheery voice, ‘Good night, Governor!’
“‘Halloo!’ cried a voice, ‘have you got a good one?’
“‘I think so,’ replied my owner.
“‘I wish you luck with him.’
“‘Thank ye, Governor,’ and he rode on. We soon turned up one of the side streets, and about half way up that, we turned into a very narrow street, with rather poor-looking houses on one side, and what seemed to be coach-houses and stables on the other.
“My owner pulled up at one of the houses and whistled. The door flew open, and a young woman, followed by a little girl and boy, ran out. There was a very lively greeting as my rider dismounted.
“‘Now then, Harry, my boy, open the gates, and mother will bring us the lantern.’
“The next minute they were all standing round me in a small stable yard.
“‘Is he gentle, father?’
“‘Yes, Dolly, as gentle as your own kitten; come and pat him.’
“At once the little hand was patting all over my shoulder without fear. How good it felt!
“‘Let me get him a bran mash while you rub him down,’ said the mother.
“‘Do, Poly, it’s just what he wants, and I know you’re got a beautiful mash ready for me.’
“‘Sausage dumpling and apple turnover,’ shouted the boy, which set them all laughing. I was led into a comfortable clean-smelling stall with plenty of dry straw, and after a capital supper, I lay down, thinking I was going to be happy.”
 Translation mine unless otherwise noted
 Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 645. “Insofar as Luke’s audience will identify themselves with one or the other of these characters, then, Luke has structured this account so as to render the choices starkly and to ensure that the toll collector will be viewed, however paradoxically, as the positive model.”
 Gonzalez, Luke, 212. “…in fact the Pharisees were among the most religious—sincerely religious—people in Israel. Their desire to be obedient to the law led them to study it assiduously, and to discuss how it ought to be interpreted and obeyed in all circumstances of life. Thus the parable is not about hypocrisy and sincerity but rather about the great reversal that is so clear throughout the Gospel of Luke.” and the reversal is religious!
 Green, Luke, 647. “Jesus’ portrayal of this Pharisee operates at two levels. On the one hand, he is engaged in and admits to behavior characteristic of Pharisees: praying, fasting, and tithing (5:33; 11:42). In and of themselves, these are admirable practices for which scriptural warrant is easily found….”
 Green, Luke, 646. “First, having become convinced of their own righteousness, they have come to depend on themselves. They are self-possessed, able, at least in their own minds, to live Honorably before God quite apart from divine mercy. On the other hand, they disdain others, their concerns with holiness manifested in the exclusion of others from their circles.”
 Gonzalez, Luke, 212-213. “Both the Pharisee and the tax collector stand, one ‘by himself’ and the other ‘far off,’ One stands by himself so as not to be contaminated by others less pure than he. The other stands far off because he does not consider himself worthy. Yet, the one who stands far off is in fact nearer to God.”
 Green, Luke, 649. “Within his social world, the toll collector is a person of low status, a deviant; he has no place among the others, nor does he attempt to seize a place by asserting his honor. Averting his eyes, beating his breasts-these are demonstrations of humility and shame that are consistent with his request for divine favor.”
 Green, Luke, 649. “…One claims superior status for himself by comparing himself with and separating himself from others; the other makes no claims to status at all, but acknowledges his position as a sinner who can take refuge only in the beneficence of God. Convinced of his righteousness, dependent on his own acts of piety, one asks for and receives nothing from God. The other comes to God in humility and receives that for which he asks, compassion and restoration. Like other ‘sinners’ in the Third Gospel, he finds himself included among God’s people…”
 Green, Luke, 643. “The basic issue is this: Who recognizes God as the gracious benefactor? Who are those who not only come to God openhandedly in trust and expectation, but also behave accordingly, with graciousness, toward others.”
 Gonzalez, Luke, 213. “All that the Pharisee says he does he should be doing; and all he says he is not, he should not be…Jesus is not saying that people should not do what the Pharisee does (fasting and tithing) nor that they should become collaborators with the powerful and the ungodly, as tax collectors were. He is saying that, when the Pharisee uses his piety and religious practices to consider himself better than the tax collector, he will not be justified; and that even a tax collector who acknowledges his sin and his shortcomings will be justified. The reversal is that the one who brings piety, purity, and obedience, and who trusts in all these, is farther away from God than the one who simply brings misery, weakness, and dependence.”
 Anna Sewell Black Beauty New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950. Original Publication: UK: Jarrold & Sons, 1877. pp.180-185.