Recently while waiting to board an airplane, I stood near a group of “elite” fliers – people who have racked up so many frequent flyer miles that they walk red carpets, board early, and get first dibs on overhead luggage space. Near them was a woman who caught my attention because she wanted my attention. Loudly enough for everyone to hear, she struck up a conversation with nobody, or anybody, announcing, “Well, I’ve got a half million miles on one airline and a half million on another, but I don’t have a million on one, so I can’t walk down their silly red carpet!” Smiling wide, she caught my eye and nodded as if I would understand. I smiled back even though I, someone who only just entered the miles race, really did not understand. One of the other elite fliers said, “You don’t want another half million miles, because then you’d never get to see your family.” She laughed, then declared with pride, “I already don’t see my family.”
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. The parable in Luke 18:9-14 describes two people who have gone to the Temple — a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both these men are Jews, but neither are right with God. The tax collector works for the Romans, squeezing his needy neighbors on behalf of the empire and his own personal profit. The Pharisee distinguishes himself from this wretched tax collector, praying loudly, “God, I thank you that I am not like him,” exalting himself for everyone to hear.
I’ve noticed a new form of exaltation today. Like the high-mileage flyer, I hear people exalt themselves by declaring how busy they are. I am so busy, they say. I have so many miles. I never see my children. They cry, “Woe is me; I am always on the go!” But their proud tone belies their lament. Today, being busy is a badge of honor. Busyness means you are valued and needed. That no one else can do what you do and therefore you must do everything. We flip open our calendars and show off all of our appointments like medals or awards.
I am guilty of this myself. For instance, a certain someone in my life really doesn’t understand what I do for a living. She has a knack for calling at exactly the wrong time, and after I’ve grown impatient with her poor timing, she’ll say, “Oh, you’re busy? Well, what do you have to do?”
What do I have to do?! I’m so upset by the question that I can’t remember what I have to do. So I respond pridefully, “I am just busy. I can’t talk right now, because I am just so busy.” My own worry that my activities might not be as important as they feel makes me justify myself, justify how I am spending my time, justify my very existence.
I wonder what made the woman in the airport feel the need to justify herself to strangers. What was missing from her life? Did she need some affirmation or recognition? Did she need to be understood and known and loved? We don’t always get our needs met by the people around us. So we seek to meet our own needs by exalting ourselves.
According to Luke’s parable, though, this approach doesn’t work. As hard as he tried, the Pharisee in the Temple could not justify himself. Justification is a big word in our Christian language that means “to be made right.” Our relationship with God (which is often not right) is made right through justification. We cannot do it for ourselves. It is something that God does for us. Justification is an unmerited gift, offered by God’s grace and love.
The parable concludes with the Pharisee condemned for his pride. By trying to justify himself, the Pharisee was trying to do what only God can do. Therefore, he went home at odds with God and God’s desires for his life. The tax collector was honest with himself and God. He’d searched his soul and knew what he needed. He also knew he couldn’t meet those needs by himself. After a sincere prayer of confession, he was justified in his relationship with God.
This Sunday we, like the Pharisee and the tax collector, will come to the Temple full of needs. We are in need of mercy. We are in need of attention, of being understood and known and loved. Our Scripture lesson today reminds us that we cannot fulfill these needs on our own. But the good news is that we don’t have to. All God asks is that we come and that we are honest. Let us search our souls and lay our needs at the feet of our Savior.
Questions for reflection:
What thoughts, ideas and feelings arose in you as you read this passage?
Recall a time pride or self-importance got in the way of an honest moment with God or someone you care about. What was that experience like?
Recall a time when you needed to be lifted up. Did you try to do this yourself or did you turn to God? What was that experience like?