“Two men went up to the temple to pray.”
Daily worship in the Temple began at dawn with the atonement offerings. Worshipers would gather outside the temple at the great high altar where an unblemished lamb was slaughtered and its blood was sprinkled on the altar. This was the sacrifice of atonement.
Trumpets would sound, cymbals would ring, a psalm was read, then the officiating priest would offer incense, trim the lamps and go into the building. Only after this ritual was completed could the worshipers in attendance offer their private prayers to God.
This is the setting of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus tells us the Pharisee stands off by himself, feeling pretty good about his own righteousness. After all, he fasts twice a week, which is more than expected of a good Jew. He makes a great show about his giving to the temple. And he takes credit for his own righteousness. That’s why he stands apart – so that he won’t be contaminated by those less righteous than himself.
In stark contrast, the tax collector stands apart because he feels unclean and doesn’t want to contaminate others with his own uncleanness. He listens to the blowing of the trumpets, the clash of the cymbals, he hears the reading of the psalm and sees the blood splashed on the sides of the altar. He watches the priest disappear into the temple to offer incense before God – and then reappear to announce that the sacrifice has been accepted and Israel’s sins washed away by the atoning sacrifice of the lamb.
The tax collector stands far off and cries out: “O God, make an atonement, for me, a sinner.” Jesus then declares to his audience: “I tell you, the tax collector went down to his house made righteous, rather than the Pharisee.”
The Eastern church encourages the practice of the “Jesus prayer,” the prayer of the tax collector: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Confession opens us to see the truth about ourselves, like Isaiah who, on catching a glimpse into the throne room of heaven, cries: “Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among an unclean people.”
We don’t need to remind God to be merciful. Mercy is essential to God’s character. Confession helps us to see the truth about ourselves. Only when we see the truth about our own brokenness are we able to recognize that the deformation of the world is tangled up with, and enabled by, our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Realizing the truth about ourselves, our complicity in the world’s brokenness, is the first step of healing – for ourselves and the world.
Confession also reminds us of our need for a Savior, of our inability to make right what we’ve made wrong.
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).