Most things in life are about measurements. We make them all the time, almost without know we are measuring. How much gas is left in the car? Do I have enough in the 401k to retire? How long until the lesson is over? 4th down and 1. How much does it cost? What time is it? Our life, whether we like it or not, revolves around measurements we make every day.
Sometimes the measurements are complex and sometimes they are simple. Some times we are the ones who are being measured. Just before I took my solo flight my flight instructor said to me,”There are two kinds of people in the world, those who can land and airplane by themselves and those who can’t. We’re about to find out which kind you are.” I was about to be measured, and with a potentially harsh measuring stick.
Sometimes we are measuring others. If we interview someone for a job or are considering hiring a contractor we are measuring to see whether this persons skills match our requirements and the price we are willing to pay.
Regardless of what we are measuring, the critical factor is using the right measuring device. It won’t do to use a ruler if you want to know something’s weight. Had my flight instructor given me a written test of flying he would not have been able to answer the critical question — could I land the plane by myself.
Jesus talked about the essentials of measuring correctly in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican found in Luke 18:10-14. The story goes like this. Two men went to the Temple to pray. This would have been common for Jews of Jesus day, the temple was the appropriate place of prayer and the more observant among them prayed there whenever they could. The text, in setting these men side by side begs us to compare and contrast them. What did they have in common?
- Men, subject to the strengths and weakness of all men.
- Jews. The Pharisee was obviously a Jew because all of his sect were. The publicans/tax collectors were from the local populace, hatred the Jews felt for tax collectors was largely based on the fact they were traitors, all of the others mentioned in scripture were Jews (Zaccheus and Matthew).
- Believed in God. Why else would they be in the Temple praying?
- Thought prayer was important enough to devote at least a few minutes of their lives to it.
They were also different enough in Jewish circles for the parable to have likely been somewhat scandalous to Jesus’ audience. There was nothing the least scandalous about the Pharisee. Everyone would have been shocked by the comparison of a Pharisee to a Tax Collector despite the fact that they were, to outside eyes anyway, nearly identical. Can that happen in religious circles today?
So what differences did the individuals see in themselves. Well what Jesus appears to be saying to me is that their differences come down to what measuring stick they were using. How did the Pharisee measure himself? He says it in his prayer:
‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
First he was measuring himself against some select points of the law where his sect excelled. The Law called for only one fast a year, but the Pharisees made it a point to fast twice a week. The law called for a tenth of only oil, grain and wine, while the Pharisees counted a tenth of even the spices in their cupboards. Second he was comparing himself to the populace at large noting that he was not like robbers, evildoers and adulterers (a selective list). Thirdly he compared himself to the Tax Collector who was a traitor to his race and religion in addition to being an out and out thief and extortionist.
If you select your measuring stick carefully, can you always make yourself look good? If I compare my BMI to the general population of 54 year old males, I probably am about average. But if I compare it to only healthy 54 year old males probably not so much. Was the Pharisee cherry picking? Was his prayer actually putting on a case, like an attorney, for God’s review? Do we do that– plead the case for our innocence?
How about the Tax collector, what measure did he use? The key is in his prayer as well:
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
It appears to me his measuring stick was not others but the holiness of God before whom all of our righteousness is like filthy rags. How could someone, no matter their achievements in regards piety, come before the perfectly righteous and just God and consider they were worthy to claim they had no sin? The answer is, of course, they could not.
And now for the good news: when we choose to compare our righteousness with God’s it can only lead to a cry for mercy. And Jesus says that cry will be heard. He says:
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
How about us? What is our measuring stick? Do we insist on comparing ourselves with others or with God? When was the last time we cried out for forgiveness?
Some other thoughts we may want to chase:
How were the two men’s attitudes toward God reflected in this story beyond their words?
Can you compare this parable to the story of Cain and Able in Genesis 4?
What did Jesus say about keeping the prickly points of the law, especially about the tenth, adultery, prayer, etc in Matthew 5 and 6? How might this apply here?