Pharisees, Tax Collectors, and Marriage
Have you ever read Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18 and said to yourself, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee with his pompous self-righteousness”? I know I have! What irony. As with any story from God’s Word, we short circuit its potential impact by deciding for ourselves what roles we are susceptible to, and those we are not.
One potential way we are all liable to the pharisaical prayer is in our intimate relationships, especially in families. There are countless times that I have said to myself during conflict with my wife (and sometimes to her out loud), “At least I’m not being mean and yelling like her!” Or another, more pious version might be, “Hey, I’m trying to be reasonable here. Just calm down.”
Translation: “God, I thank you that I am not like my wife right now, with her [fill in the blank: unreasonableness, meanness, unforgiving spirit, etc. etc. Compared to her, I’m the righteous one, and here’s all the evidence to back that up.”
What a recipe for disaster!
Perhaps there is a better way. Perhaps the prayer of the tax collector models how we should pray, self-reflect, and interact in conflict.
“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 18:13).
What if, instead of my internal dialogue pretentiously parading my rightness, I said to myself and to God in the midst of an argument, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” What if God then helped me attend to my part – rather than perpetuating to the merry-go-round of conflict – and communicate differently, starting with confession and repentance to my wife?
I certainly am a sinner, but like the Pharisee, when I compare myself to my wife, her sin seems so much more obvious than my own. I am quick to see her short comings, but slow to see my own failings. I quick to see my own righteousness, but slow to see her goodness as an image bearer of God. Like the Pharisee’s default bias toward viewing the tax collector as a hopelessly lost sinner, I put my wife outside the sphere of God’s grace and justify my lack of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness.
In your marriage, which prayer do you find more often in your mind: the self-righteous Pharisee, or the humble tax collector? What would happen if you committed to being, in a phrase my pastor always uses with premarital couples, the “chief repenter”?
This is no easy suggestion. Believe me, I know. An objection I hear in my own heart is, what about my wife? Is she also going to live out this prayer? However, when we go there, we are already living out of the mindset of the Pharisee. So if you’re like me, you probably realize the place to start living this out is first in prayer to God. Which means the place to start is easy. We can pray this prayer even over our reluctance to pursue this posture in marriage: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
*Please note, this is not marital advice, and not to be applied in any and every situation, for example, when one is a victim of domestic violence.