For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke 18:14 (NIV)
“Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.’” (Luke 18:10-14 Msg.).
The proud Pharisee and the humble tax man . . . Which one are you? Now don’t answer this question too quickly. Sometimes we reduce Lent to nothing more than a religious observance; one in which we give something up like watching a favourite TV show or eating chocolate. In so doing we think we’re pleasing God. But we’re not. When we commend ourselves for transitory self-denial we’re simply doing what every other Pharisee does.
That’s not to say that Lent isn’t about self-denial, it is. But it’s about more than giving up a favourite TV show or eating chocolate. It’s about giving up the things in our lives that do not please God – things like hypocrisy, duplicity and making excuses as to why we’re too busy to live for and love God. The tax man got it right. What truly delights God is when we confess our sinful attitudes and habits and humbly ask for forgiveness.
And more . . . Lent is about giving up our feelings of guilt. The tax man was justified (made right) before God when he received forgiveness from God. When something good like justification happens, it’s cause for celebration. The point is this: Lent is an occasion for remorse for as long as we’re harbouring unconfessed sin, but once we confess our sin, Lent should (in part) be about how we embrace fresh feelings of relief and joy.
I think the best part of the story about the Pharisee and the tax man is hearing how the tax man “went home made right with God.” Isn’t this the desire of our hearts . . . to be made right with God? I think it is. And I think it’s why, having asked for forgiveness, we should stop beating ourselves up about the way we’ve been living (if that’s what we’ve been doing) and start worshipping Him for all He’s accomplished on our behalf.