Day 303: When You Stand by Yourself at Church (Luke 18)

Detail of The Pharisee and the Publican by James Tissot

11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Luke 18:11-12

Jesus tells a parable of two men who were at the Temple at the same time, but they weren’t at the Temple together. Notice that each of them is standing by himself. The Pharisee stands by himself apparently because he thinks he’s too good to get near a tax collector. He begins thanking God for all the things he isn’t. He isn’t an extortioner. He isn’t an adulterer. And he certainly isn’t a tax collector.

On the other side of the Temple, “standing far off” is a tax collector. Apparently, he thinks he’s too bad to get near a Pharisee. He doesn’t thank God for all the things he isn’t. He begs God for mercy because of the thing he is: a sinner.

The explicit point of the parable is that this man, and not the Pharisee, went home justified. But I see an implicit lesson in this parable as well. There are way too many people today who only ever stand by themselves when they come to church. I’m not talking about singles, or widows, or people who are the only believers in their family. I’m talking about people who hold themselves apart from community. Either too proud or too ashamed to admit their weaknesses, they stand alone when they come to church, or they don’t see the need to come at all.

The Internet has made it much easier to believe that you have worshiped God in any given week because you watched a service online. That you’ve been fed because you listened to a service. That you “got your worship on” because your car radio is tuned to a Christian station. But you haven’t been knee to knee with other believers in a very long time.

We Americans have always prided ourselves on our self-sufficiency and independence. And in many ways, we’ve fashioned Christianity in our own image. We’ve made it a personal thing that we keep to ourselves. If we share anything at all with our fellow believers, its often just the highlight reel of how great the job’s going, how wonderful the vacation was, and how everything is fine. We may be at church at the same time, but we are standing by ourselves.  Jesus told a parable about two men who came to the temple. One went home self-satisfied. One went home justified. But don’t miss the fact that both of them went home lonely. And when you go to church next Sunday, don’t stand by yourself.

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