Have you ever met someone who thinks very highly of themselves? I certainly have. When I was in seminary, I took at class on the book of Matthew. Part of this class required that we work in groups on certain passages and then present our findings in 3 weeks time. I no longer remember what I our passage was. But I remember the group that I worked with. There were 6 of us. One lady that was far too excited that I had a Danish name: Ladegard and started speaking to me in Danish. She was so crestfallen when I had to inform her that yes I have Danish in me but my family came over so long ago that no one spoke the language in the family anymore. Then there as another young man who was taking the course on Andover Newton’s campus but was a matriculated student at Gordon Conwell the conservative seminary in another part of the Boston area.
He is the one that I remember the most. He took control of the group without being given control. He claimed that because he knew the Bible the best he would tell us what to do and he’ll handle the interpretation work for the group. He also openly disapproved that there were 2 women part of this group because we should be at home raising children and asking our husbands about the Bible. I was dumb struck. He went on to recount what made him the most qualified: he knew the Bible, he formed his life based on the prescriptions of the Bible, and he knew that interpretation should be no more than following the words of the scriptures word for word. There was no real research needed.
Every time I read this passage from Luke, I am reminded of this individual. He was so unapologetically full of it. He thought he understood everything he needed to be faithful. He thought he knew everything about the Bible and God’s desires for humanity. In his mind he was truly a righteous person while the rest of us on that campus were misled into living sinful lives. This is not how Christians or faithful people of God are called to act in life because we all have our failings, our struggles, our moments of doubt and faithlessness. We all let our emotions get in the way. We all allow for daily living to just take over everything.
This is the struggle of humanity. Only Christ was perfect in faith. We all work to learn how to be as faithful as we can. We are only asked to come before God authentically, as who we are, not puffing ourselves up, not singing our own praises, because then there is no reason for prayer. Henri J.M. Nouwen, a 20th century theologian, once wrote about this topic, “As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what people think of us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to putting people and things in their ‘right’ place”.
At the end of the day, our self evaluations need to be based on who God created us to be, not who others think that we are, not a summation of our actions, but on living our lives as creations of God seeking only to live into God’s plans for us. We figure out those plans by coming to God openly, honestly, and with humility in our prayers, seeking only his guidance for tomorrow. This is what the tax collector from this morning did. He came honestly with all the judgments of society upon his back, with all the weight of his actions in his secular life weighing upon him. He did not seek the attention of everyone else. He did not seek the praise of those around him. He just sought out God, forgiveness, new beginnings, and a relationship with the Holy, hoping to gain the inspiration to live a better life.
This is all any of us can do: seek the inspiration from God to live a better life, to be better in our devotion to him, in our commitment to one another, and in our love for humanity. All of the rest of the flowery liturgy does not matter. The rawness that we see here with the tax collector, this is how we are called to be. God doesn’t need to be reminded about our strengths, our talents, our successes in life. He already knows all about them. He wants to see us working to better ourselves and our world.
So whether you come to prayer here in this place of worship, or in the privacy of your own homes, remember to do so with complete honesty and with the rawness of life. God knows our deepest struggles, but he cannot help us to work on those struggles until we come to admit them and agree to seek his help. In prayer, there is no one there to judge us. Even the most righteous of people have their flaws, even if that flaw is being judgmental of those around them. Remember what Christ said in the parable for this morning, “I tell you, [the tax collector] 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”.
So live your lives honestly, approach God with authenticity and realism, and know that our God does not judge us harshly in the times of life when we stumble in faith or do not live up to expectations but rather he embraces us and seeks to help us learn and be guided more fully onto the path he has laid before us in life. Let us live life cognoscente of our own struggles so we do not find ourselves unfairly judging others categorizing people based on our biases and thoughts of who they are. So let us worry first about living into God’s work, God’s word, and strengthening our relationship with God and let us find that in so doing our judgments of others may fall to the wayside as we realize that we all struggle in this life. We all deserve the same compassion, love, and care as we figure out our unique faith journeys together.
 Henri J.M. Nouwen, 20th century.
 Luke 18: 14, NRSV.
(based on Sirach 35: 12-17 and Luke 18: 9-14)