In this week’s Gospel lesson (Luke 18:9-14) Jesus tricks us. He tells the parable about a smug “churchgoing” man and a despised collaborator with the Roman Empire—a traitor to his own people. The churchgoer prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—especially that traitor standing over there.” The traitor prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says that God prefers this traitor’s prayer over this churchgoer’s, because the traitor knows better than to try impressing God with his accomplishments.
By the way, the fact that this “churchgoer” is a Pharisee is not why he is so smug. Just like today’s churchgoers, there are smug, self-righteous Pharisees and humble, unassuming Pharisees who pretty much agreed with Jesus. So don’t turn this into “Jesus versus Judaism,” as we Christians have been tempted to do.
When we hear the story we want to identify with the traitor. And that’s where the story plays a trick on us. We catch ourselves thinking, “God, I thank you that I am not like that smug churchgoer,” which, of course, puts us in exactly the same category as that smug churchgoer.
Most Sundays during the church year we pray a prayer of confession together, acknowledging that we are sinners. The purpose of that is not to get us to beat ourselves up. It’s to awaken us to a welcome that embraces not just us but everybody, regardless of successes or failures. It’s meant to be a word of welcome to people who spend too much time beating themselves up for things they wish they had done differently. As far as God’s welcome is concerned, we are all in the same boat. Those of us who seem to mess up constantly are just as welcome as those who look like overachievers. Those of us who gather regularly in God’s name are not getting extra credit for doing that. And those who don’t gather are not getting extra demerits.
We don’t need to pretend to be anything more than we are. We can just be ourselves. And so can everybody else. God’s welcome includes everybody.
Try this prayer: God, I thank you that I AM like other people—no less welcome than the greatest saint or the lousiest sinner.