This weekend the St. Michael’s staff attended a fundraising event for Hospice of the North Coast. It was a Halloween themed Trivia Bee. Along with the trivia contest, there were prizes awarded for best costume and best team name. Our team name was the St. Michael’s Saints and Sinner.  The Saints is plural, but the sinner is singular. I thought it would be fun for people to wonder which one of our bunch was … you know … the sinner.

However, when we arrived, the sign on the table read, “St. Michael’s Sinners … and Saint.” To which Linda, our Parish Administrator, remarked, “Hmmm, I wonder what they’ve got on us?”

Of course the joke of the team name is that we’re all sinners. The Christian view of humanity is one of perfect equity: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). And yet, it is equally true, that every Christian, by virtue of our baptism, is also a saint. We are washed, we are sanctified, we are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (I Corinthians 6.11).

We are sinners of our own making. We are made saints by God’s grace.

But we so often and easily confuse this formula, and mislead ourselves into thinking that we are saints of our own making, and it is God who sets us up for sin and failure. When we flip the formula, we transfer our trust from God, and we place it in ourselves instead. Such is the circumstances of those whom Jesus is speaking to in today’s gospel.

Jesus tells this parable to “those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.” Notice the direct correlation between those “who trust in themselves that they are righteous,” while “despising”, abhorring, disdaining, loathing other people. 

When we place our whole trust in God we are able to see others as they are — as God sees them — and love them accordingly; without partiality. But when we place our whole trust in ourselves, now other people become threats, obstacles, impersonal means to our self-serving ends.

This is precisely the picture our Lord paints in today’s gospel. 

In this parable we encounter two people, a Pharisee and a tax collector. By all outward appearances, the Pharisee is a righteous man. He fasts regularly and tithes consistently. He is a model of faith and virtue. The tax collector on the other hand, is a kind of public miscreant; notorious for his usury and deceit. He is a model of weakness and sin.

It is important to note that there is nothing wrong with the spiritual disciplines of fasting and tithing. They are in fact essential ingredients to the spiritual life. And there is certainly nothing right about extortioners, adulterers, taking advantage of others through lies and misdeeds.

Be that as it may, Jesus teaches that it is the inner disposition of the heart by which a person is known to God, and justified by Him. It is as the writer of Proverbs says, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the spirit.”

This parable is a stern warning for those who pursue the spiritual life. As we aspire to love and serve God in our spiritual disciplines, the enemy is close at hand to use this good momentum, and turn it into an occasion for pride: to subtly shift the heart away from trusting in God, and misplace our trust in the self. This shift is subtle yet profound, and its spiritual effect is disastrous.  

The Pharisee takes his focus away from the vertical plane — his relationship with God — and he shifts it to the vertical plane. He begins exalting himself over other human beings. As a result Jesus says this man is not justified before God. He will be humbled.

The tax-collector on the other hand, has not a care in the world for those around him. His heart is laser-focused on his relationship with Almighty God. And any heart fixed on God, knows deep inside how far it has fallen from the glory of God. The tax collector prays what has become the heartbeat of the prayer life of the church, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” He humbles himself before God, and Jesus tells us this man is justified. He will be exalted.

God indeed “resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4.12).

St. Augustine writes, “The Pharisee was not rejoicing so much in his own clean bill of health as in comparing it with the diseases of others. He came to the doctor. It would have been more worthwhile to inform him by confession of the things that were wrong with himself instead of keeping his wounds secret and having the nerve to crow over the scars of others. It is not surprising that the tax collector went away cured, since he had not been ashamed of showing where he felt pain.”

St. Basil the Great writes, “Be on your guard, therefore, and bear in mind this example of severe loss sustained through arrogance. The one guilty of insolent behavior suffered the loss of his justice and forfeited his reward by his bold self-reliance. He was judged inferior to a humble man and a sinner because in his self-exaltation he did not await the judgment of God but pronounced it himself [he trusted in himself]. Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners. Humility often saves a sinner who has committed many terrible transgressions.” 

It is so easy, it is such a temptation, to compare ourselves to other people. This results in one of two basic outcomes. We either make ourselves feel better because we think we’re not as terrible as someone else, creating a false sense of self-assurance. Or we make ourselves feel worse because we’re not as good as someone else.

This result is an insidious cycle that creates perpetual unrest, insecurity, delusional self-confidence, or destructive self-loathing. We become stuck in a backwater in the river of life, and cannot break free to become the person God created and redeemed us to be.  

Trusting in the self is like a mirage in the desert. There are no pools of water to refresh us there. Only more dust that deepens our spiritual thirst.

When we think of and pray for others, it ought only to be in love; for their well-being, for their healing, for their salvation, or if we are hurt by them, for God’s grace to enable us to forgive them. Why? Because this is the heart of God for each one of us. He loves us, and desires nothing for us but our well-being, our health, our salvation, and to forgive the penitent for their sins.

Better to see those around us as saints, and ourselves as the chief sinner.

St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy writes, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners.” Some translation read, “of which I am the chief.” The greek word he uses is protos, as in “prototype.” St. Paul confesses himself to be the first, the foremost, the chief sinner. He places himself on the bottom rung. There is no one else underneath him. Everyone else is above. 

May God give us grace to place our whole trust in Him, to “trust in the LORD with all our heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all our ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight our paths” (Proverbs 3.5-6).

May God give us grace to humble ourselves, and “do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2.3), to beg with the Tax Collector for His mercy and forgiveness, that we might not only be justified before God, but also able to see others as they are — as God sees them — and love them accordingly; without partiality.

Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.