When I was in graduate school we had a special program for juvenile offenders. They were kids that had been arrested on generally minor offences, usually related to some kind of drug use and instead of time in Juvenile Hall the judge ordered them to attend our program with their parents. Individual and family counseling was provided for each family and then there were two groups, one for the kids and one for the parents.
One kid had been arrested for under-age drinking and his father was also arrested because he was the one providing the alcohol for his son and friends. The father was not happy about having to give up time to come to the program and didn’t really think he belonged in the program at all. He was confronted by a couple of the other parents one night in group and angrily shot back at them, “at least my kid isn’t using drugs.” It was one of those “oh no you didn’t” moments.
Luke tells us that some of the folks traveling with Jesus were starting to feel pretty proud and self important, so he told them a story about two men who went to the temple to pray. They were not together physically, and they were miles apart socially. One was a Pharisee, the cream of the crop in that time, and the other was a tax collector, reviled for being a collaborator with the occupying Romans and probably also for cheating.
Jesus contrasts the prayer of the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” to the long recitation of the Pharisee who is addition to enumerating all of his righteous deeds, says, “God, thank you that I am not like other people.”
There are usually two edges to the sword of self-justification. The first is to point out your own accomplishments (the Pharisee points out that he fasts properly and gives 10% of his income away). The second, and far more popular it seems these days, is to point out how terrible someone else in in comparison.
The parent group made it clear to the man that first of all, alcohol is still a drug even though it is legal and that second, his family was in just a great a need of some adjustment as all the rest in the group. It was splendid.
There are two edges to Jesus’ parable however. Seeing the self-righteousness of the Pharisee, we might be tempted to think, “thank God I’m not like a Pharisee.” Our comparison becomes just as toxic as the Pharisee’s, just as denial rich as the man in the parent group. Perhaps the best bet is to be like the tax collector: God be merciful to me, a sinner.
It is believed to have come from a monastic community in Northern Egypt called the Desert Fathers in the 5th century. Although very simple, it is said silently over and over. Here is what is known as “The Jesus Prayer.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”