I assume most of you have heard of TikTok. TikTok is that video sharing platform that’s especially popular among young people. Millions of them post short videos on this platform. In most cases, they don’t really seem to be doing anything at all. They’re not sharing information. They’re not demonstrating a skill. They’re not offering a DIY lesson. They just move their arms, and maybe dance, and that’s the extent of it.
Why are there so many people, especially young people, who want to broadcast themselves like this on Tik Tok? They want to be seen. They want to be noticed. And the more views, the more validated they feel.
There is an inborn, natural drive in us to be seen. To be ignored, to be overlooked, is social death. To be a nothing in the world is a worse thing for most people than to be bad, because at least then people pay attention to you. Negative attention is better than no attention at all.
To need others to validate your existence is a legitimate need. No one who has ever seen anguish in the eyes of the child ostracized on the playground, or of the beggar at the intersection, or of the homeless outside the big box store will deny this.
Our faith teaches us that we are fallen. And in our fallen state, a legitimate need can and does turn into insatiable craving, which can lead us down paths to places that we never thought we’d go. Which can turn us into people that we never thought we’d become.
There is this insatiable craving in one of the characters in yet another of the parables of Jesus that Luke’s Gospel presents to us today. We refer here to the Pharisee, whom we will consider first.
Now the life’s ambition of the Pharisee was to be the most dedicated student of God’s Law that he could be, surely a noble and worthwhile pursuit. And so, at first glance, it seems odd to say that his craving led him down a path to a place he never thought he’d go. He’s at the temple to pray, after all!
But the Pharisee—he’s not so much praying as rehearsing his accomplishments before God. And we have to admit that it’s an impressive list! We can admire a man who has lived a decent and disciplined life, which is certainly the exception rather than the rule in a fallen world.
Consider for a moment this exceptional man! He’s been faithful to his wife, he doesn’t cheat on his taxes, and he’s diligent in his religious devotion.
What could anyone say against these things? If there were more men like him, the world would be a better place!
But all these moral accomplishments, which in themselves are good, for which one has good reason to thank God—they give no satisfaction to the Pharisee. He appears to thank God for the grace that has kept him from the snares of greed and lust and selfishness. But it’s not really God’s grace that gives him satisfaction. He doesn’t look to God for his validation. Rather, he looks to himself. Or to be more precise, he looks to who he is relative to others for his validation.
“I thank you God, that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
Note that his accomplishments appear all the brighter in proportion as the failings of the sinners he mentions appear all the darker. He needs to see people as worse than he is—and he needs people worse than he is to see him—in order to satisfy this craving to be significant.
This is not the problem of the Pharisee only. Consider the phenomenon of gossip. Why is it that when we are together with certain people we like to gossip? What is at the root of this delight in discussing the private moral failings of people we know, or the public scandals of celebrities we don’t know? Simply because at such moments we feel so much better about ourselves and because we can say with a certain relish: “I would never do such things.”
Gossip—including the gossip in the click bait articles on our social media feed that we can’t resist reading—comes from this craving to feel significant. We want our own superiority to be confirmed and we achieve this by looking down on the behavior of others and putting ourselves above them.
This is how the Pharisee relates to the tax collector. When we consider him next, we may wonder why he is classed with those whose moral failings are obvious. Why mention the tax collector in the same breath as the thief, the rogue and the adulterer?
In Jesus’ day, the territory of the Jewish people was occupied by Rome, the enemy of this people. The tax collector was of the people, but he worked on behalf of the enemy. So his own people naturally regarded him with suspicion if not open hostility.
He was “unclean” because of his many contacts with the Gentiles. Moreover, to survive he had to charge more tax than the imperial administration required in order to make a profit for himself.
One can see here that the temptation always existed to extort taxpayers. For this reason, tax collectors were generally accused of inordinate greed. The great ancient Greek poet Aristophanes referred to the tax collector as a veritable Charybdis, that terrifying whirlpool monster of Greek mythology, which hungrily sucked down every passing sailor.
The tax collector is also at the temple to pray. Only he cannot enter the temple, since the religious authorities proscribed him as unclean, as we’ve already mentioned. For this reason, he has to stand “far off,” probably in the outer court of the Gentiles.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
That’s his simple prayer. It is dramatically different from the prayer of the Pharisee, who has no need of anyone or anything because he already sees himself as complete, especially when he compares himself to that wretched tax collector.
But this is not the tax collector’s experience. His sense of himself is betrayed by his posture. His head hangs low as he beats his breast, a gesture of contrition and repentance.
Maybe the suspicions of his compatriots are justified. Maybe he has succumbed to the temptations unique to his profession and extorted money from them. But Jesus says that his prayer is heard by God. Evidently, God has shown him mercy, because the man goes home justified.
What does this mean? In our language today, we might say that he went home validated by God. We might further say, in the language of our time, that the Pharisee sought a source of validation external to himself—in other people. We have already said that this becomes an insatiable craving. But it can never satisfy.
And in fact it can work against you. The crowd is fickle. People can lose interest and for whatever reason no longer pay attention to you. And if in fact this attention constitutes your only source of validation, its loss is devastating. We have seen this in the tragic lives and deaths of so many celebrities and performers. But the problem is not confined to them only.
The Pharisee regarded himself as complete before God. But in fact he has a profound lack. The tax collector regarded himself as lacking before God, but he goes home complete. He lacks nothing, because his source of validation is constant. It will never change. He can look to it again and again and find his satisfaction there.
This is profoundly liberating. The Pharisee is concerned with his self-image; he has to work to maintain appearances. We all know people like him. Most of them are bound up inside and are never as free as they could be. But since the tax collector has nothing of which to boast, he has nothing to maintain. And since he does not need others to validate his existence, he is free to be himself. That means that he can open himself up to them.
In his classic essay, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis said of the true Christian that he loves you more, but needs you less. Of the Pharisee and those like him, we can say that they need you more, but love you less. The Pharisee does not love the tax collector, and may even still regard him with contempt, but that no longer matters to the tax collector. Or rather, if it matters—because we are all affected by the opinions of others—it does not define him. Only his validation by God defines him ultimately.
The tax collector is free to be in relationship with the Pharisee. But the same cannot be said of the Pharisee. He is not free to be in relationship to the tax collector. Only if the Pharisee gives up the futile attempt to find his source of validation in others, only if he lets go of all his accomplishments, which are too heavy for him to carry anyway, only if he, like the tax collector, lets God validate his existence, can he be free. Then he and the tax collector stand on level ground, at least before God. The barrier of pride the Pharisee has built—that is removed. And the barrier of shame that the tax collector has built—that is removed. No longer does the tax collector have to stand far off. No longer does the Pharisee have to stand by himself. Instead the two can stand together, side-by side, and pray to the one God who shows no favoritism, but longs to show mercy to both.
Parables disturb and upset expectations. This parable is no different. There are at least two questions that linger as we leave our parable for today. First, we may ask: what is the point of living a decent and disciplined life, when it doesn’t seem to matter to God?
Either the commandments of God stand for something, and then it’s not a matter of indifference whether a person obeys them or not. Or else the commandments of God are not meant seriously, and then this tax collector, and people like him, are always okay.
But would not all self-discipline, all sacrifice, all moral effort then be devalued, and would not the garbage be placed on top of the heap? Then all the efforts of the good man count for nothing and suddenly he is in the same category as the thief and rogue and adulterer. But this cannot be the will of God. This would make a mockery of God and God’s commandments.
This is the objection in the hearts of all good people. And if they don’t reject the parable of God’s mercy, they cope with it by a system of double bookkeeping. There is the account that God keeps, and then the practical one that good people keep.
But what was the tax collector thinking to himself when he went away? “Now I can go on as before, now I can go on cheating and extorting money from others, now that I found out that God doesn’t care, that he doesn’t reject people because of the wrong they do, but validates them even if they are worthless to others.” Or would he not go away filled with gratitude for God’s mercy, finding it simply impossible to continue living as he had before, sinning against God and others?
Then there is the verdict of Jesus: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humility doesn’t appeal to us very much. All the coaches today tell us that the key to success in our social and professional lives is confidence. Humility and confidence do not go together in our minds. A young Christian man went to see a counselor and asked him how to find a balance between confidence and humility.
But this question rests on a misunderstanding. People pay money to these coaches because they are insecure. But we have already seen that it’s not the tax collector, but rather the Pharisee who is insecure. He thinks he has reason to be confident in himself, but is he really, when he has always to tell himself that he is better than those around him?
The tax collector is freed from all this. His source of validation is God. His confidence rests in him. Of him it holds true: all who humble themselves will be exalted.
If only we could all come to the end of confidence in ourselves like the tax collector. Then God could make a new beginning in us. Then we would rest in him as children do in the presence of their father. And then we would be free, new persons. Amen.