Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt, and this morning he told it to us. It’s a dangerous story. We hear it and we are inclined to write the Pharisee off as a self-righteous, religious hypocrite, and then we leave this place of prayer with contempt in our hearts – which is not what Jesus has in mind for us. Jesus keeps telling us this story, because he wants us to go home with greater love for God and the people around us.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. Years ago, I named them, Phil and Max. Phil’s a Pharisee and Max a tax collector. Phil’s a good man, and he knows it. He takes his religion seriously. He observes the prayer times diligently, he studies scripture daily, and he gives generously to help the needy. Phil is the kind of dedicated person of which every congregation and every community needs a few. He has taught Sunday school, he has been an Elder for several years, and when you talk to him about giving it doesn’t turn into a sales-job. Phil gets it. He is committed to his congregation, and in addition to his work, he also serves on the boards of several non-profits. It’s people like Phil who hold the community together with their efforts and their example. Phil knows what is right and he does it.
Max’s is a different kind of story. Max collects taxes, and that doesn’t mean he got a degree in accounting and started working for the IRS. Max works for the Romans. He has crossed the line by collaborating with the occupying military power, squeezing the population to maintain the empire and its legions. The Romans created a unique and effective way of collecting taxes through a franchise system. The imperial government sold the function and office of Tax Collector to regional brokers who then employed locals to do the dirty work. The local tax collector was given his financial quota, and nobody really cared how he managed to raise the amount. He set his own rate, and from whatever he was able to collect, he skimmed off his profits. That’s what Max does for a living. You can imagine he doesn’t have many friends. He has betrayed his neighbors by collaborating with the occupation forces, and to make matters worse, he himself profits from their subjugation under pagan rule. Max walks down Main Street, and as soon as people see him, they cross to the other side of the road. Max is a sinner, and he knows it.
So the two went up to the temple to pray, and Phil, standing by himself, thanked God that he was a good man and not like other people. He brought with him two short lists, one telling of the ways in which he went far beyond the call of duty in his religious observance, the other listing some of the people who damaged life in the community with stealing, adultery, and shameless profiteering.
Max, on the other hand, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven. All he said was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This man, Max, Jesus said, went down to his home justified rather than the other, Phil. Now that was Jesus’ outside-of-the-story statement; neither Max nor Phil knew anything about the state of their relationship with God according to Jesus. For all we know, Max returned to his life of sin. The next morning he got up and he took money from his neighbors, handed some of it over to the Romans, and put some aside for himself. Max was not a good guy. He was a corrupt crook and he knew it. And Phil was a decent man who, for all we know, returned to his life of religious observance and civic responsibility.
Jesus didn’t tell us this outrageous story so we could walk away whispering, “God, I thank you that I am not like Phil.” This is not a lesson in contempt, but a teaching about our need for mercy.
Phil’s prayer is short, and it is an expression of his relationship with God. It begins beautifully, “God, I thank you,” opening the moment to become a channel for waves of gratitude for all the things God has done. It begins beautifully, but then it quickly turns into the sad report of a spiritually self-sufficient man who didn’t come for mercy but for praise. “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest,” he says, and his contempt for the rest of the people is matched by his pride in his own accomplishments. He assesses himself against the standard of religious law, and he is satisfied. He looks around and compares himself to those who cannot measure up, and he is pleased with the difference. Phil prays with peripheral vision and keen powers of observation.
Max’s prayer is short as well, and it too reflects his relationship with God. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knows himself. He knows what he has done and what he is capable of doing. Without a sideward glance, his eyes lowered, gazing at his toes, he stands before God. Max is oblivious to all but his own need for God’s mercy, perhaps not even hoping for the mercy of God’s people anymore.
I read about a social worker who works with prostitutes in Chicago. A young woman told her how she got involved in prostitution, how it began. She talked about the drugs and the money, the near-impossibility of walking away, and about living with a permanent sense of shame and guilt.
“Can you believe I hired out my own daughter?” she said, “I can’t, but I did it, and I know I would do it again. Hiring her out I made more in one hour than I would in one night.”
“I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story,” the social worker wrote, “I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last I asked if she had ever thought about going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naïve shock that crossed her face. ‘Church?’she said. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’” 
She had long given up hoping for the mercy of God’s people. Whether we like it or not, we pray with a sideward glance, comparing ourselves to others, finding those whose brokenness seems worse than our own. Well, at least I’m not like her, not like him, not like them – I may have my foibles and failings, but compared to them … Thank you, God. When I pray with a sideward glance, the corners of my own heart remain dark – and I continue to live in illusion and denial.
What Jesus dares us to imagine is a community of mercy. Sin is so pervasive and powerful that even our perceived righteousness can break our relationship with God and with each other; sin isolates us both in our goodness and our badness. Only mercy can teach us to pray, “God, we are all like other people. We are not who you made us to be. Have mercy on us. Take away the burden of our sin.”
Karl Barth was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century. He taught at the university of Basel in Switzerland, and on Sunday mornings, he frequently went to the prison to preach. There he shared with a small congregation of prisoners and guards the good news of Jesus Christ. He talked about our captivity behind walls thicker than the walls of their prison, behind doors heavier than the doors of their cells. He talked about the power of sin to fragment and separate and isolate us from God, and then he told them the story of God’s grace. The story of a love that will not let us go. The story of a mercy that breaks the walls and kicks down the doors.
“We are saved by grace. That means that we did not deserve to be saved. What we deserve would be quite different. No one can be proud of being saved. Each one can only fold [their] hands in great lowliness of heart and be thankful like a child. Consequently, we shall never possess salvation as our property. We may only receive it as a gift over and over again with hands outstretched.” 
Salvation is not about getting out ahead of the rest. Much of it is about learning to say we again, standing on the common ground of our need for God’s mercy, standing in the company of sinners, knowing that Jesus is standing with us. We all enter the kingdom of heaven, not because we deserve to be there, but because Jesus has joined us in our lonely exile to forgive our sins and bring us together in the community of forgiven sinners.
As forgiven sinners we look at others not to compare and judge and deepen our divisions, but to see one another and hold one another in solidarity and recognize one another as brothers and sisters. None of us can be proud of being saved, because it’s not our doing. It’s grace, abundant and sufficient, poured out for all—because we all need more love than we deserve.
Phil and Max—I want to tell you the end of the story, and I’m making it up, but I’m also not making it up. Phil and Max now pray together regularly, and a couple of weeks ago a woman from Chicago sat with them. “Guys,” she said, “can you teach me to pray?” And Phil said, “In the morning we say, ‘God, we thank you for the gift of this day. Help us remember who we are.’” And Max said, “At night, before we go to sleep, we say, ‘God, we thank you for the gift of this day. Forgive us when we forgot who we are. Hold us in your grace in the hours of the night.’” And the professor from Switzerland said, “You always say, we, huh?” And they answered, “Always. We’re in this together; all of us.”
 See Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing about Grace? (Zondervan, 1997), p. 11
 Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Harper, 1961), p. 39