At first glance, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable seems to be doing everything right. He attends worship faithfully, he offers thankful prayers to God, he tithes 10 percent of his income, and he even fasts regularly. That’s an impressive list! However, it’s not the state of his spiritual habits that Jesus reproaches, but the state of his heart. The Pharisee is diligent and observant, but he is putting trust in himself and his own piety rather than in God.
Martin Luther interpreted the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), to mean that we should put our whole confidence in God alone, trusting in God above all else. Our hearts should cling to God, Luther said. When our hearts start clinging to other things, as the Pharisee’s did to his religious routine, we turn those things into idols.
In one version of the communal confession we use in worship, we admit to God: “We have not loved you with our whole heart” (ELW, p. 95). Despite our best intentions, our hearts can become fractured, clinging to all kinds of things before they cling to God. Sometimes all that’s left for God is a tiny portion of our hearts. The words of the confession reorient us by reminding us of our dependence on God and our need for God’s grace. We echo the prayer of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable: “God, be merciful to us sinners!”
No matter how fractured our hearts become, though, God’s response to our prayers will always be the same. God overflows with mercy and compassion toward us. At the end of our confession, we receive the assurance of forgiveness in Christ. That good news is for everyone—Pharisees and tax collectors alike. We are all God’s beloved children, freed and forgiven by the radical grace of God.
Devotional message and art based on the readings for October 23rd, reprinted from sundaysandseasons.com.
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