He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
On the last Sunday in October, Christians around the world celebrate Reformation Sunday. This day commemorates the day that Martin Luther nailed 99 theses to the cathedral door and set off a wave of change that became known as the Protestant Reformation. Over 500 years later the church has continued to split and change and reform leading to the hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations that exist today.
Part of why Luther felt the church needed reforming is exhibited right here in this parable Jesus told, showing us that this problem has existed in religion since people starting practicing it. The struggle is demonstrated by the Pharisee - he does all the right things - he fasts, he tithes, he goes to the temple to pray. The problem is, he does it all with the wrong attitude. He does it because he wants to be seen as better than other people - he even goes so far as to thank God that he is not like those others - the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and, of course, the tax collector over there. The tax collector, on the other hand, recognizes that he is not perfect. He comes before God humbled, asking for mercy and forgiveness.
Doing all the right things means a whole lot less when you do them for all the wrong reasons. Turning religious practice into performance to make yourself look better than others, kind of defeats the whole purpose. This parable reminds us that attitude is everything. God wants us to do our best for God out of love, out of our desire to serve the Lord, not because we think it will improve our social standing or elevate us above others.
Reformation Sunday reminds us that there is a time to check attitudes in the church and seek change if necessary. This parable reminds us that there is a time to check our own attitudes and seek change if necessary. May our eyes and our hearts be opened.
God of Reformation and Change, help us to see when we need reforming in our own hearts. Help us to check our attitudes and to make sure we are doing the right things for the right reasons. May you humble us before your throne. Amen.