"Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.'"
-Luke 18: 9-14
When I was an actor a question that was often asked of me was, "What's your motivation?" It sounds so cliche, doesn't it? We laugh at actors when they scratch their heads and ask, "What's my motivation?" Back in the 90s Sprite even did a commercial poking fun at it. See for yourself:
Excuse me! What's my motivation?!
Funny, huh? But whenever I was taking on a new part I needed to get inside the mind and heart of the character. Why would my character say or do a particular thing at a particular time? It was important for me to do as an actor. I suspect it's important for us all to do.
The world throws so much at us, and we are tempted by a whole host of motivating factors that drive us to do what we do. We are driven by a competitive motivation--we want to win, get better, be the best at everything we do. We have to succeed, and so that success becomes our motivation. This was certainly the case for me during my baseball-playing days. Competition fuels us, as does a motivation of consumerism. We gotta get more and more, and so often our desire to do something is fueled by whether or not we end up getting something in return. Consumerism and competition by lead us to some sort of success--they can help us get the kinds of stuff that we seek in life, like money, jobs, houses, and the like--but ultimately they do not work. Ultimately they do not fall in-line with how God wants us to live our lives. That's because they aren't the kinds of motivations that Jesus calls us to have.
Jesus tells a parable about motivation, which features a Pharisee and a tax collector coming to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanks that he is not a sinful man, like the tax collector over there. He prays that God will notice the good things that he has done with his life--the fact that he fasts twice a week, and the fact that he tithes, gives 10 % of his income. The tax collector, meanwhile, cannot even bring himself to look up to heaven, and all he says to God is, "Be merciful to me." As Jesus points out at the end of the parable, the tax collector humbled himself, the Pharisee exalted himself, and because we know--as that crowd who heard the parable knew--God sees our motivations, sees the inner workings of our heart, Jesus informs the crowd--and us--to pay attention, because all those who humble themselves will be exalted, and all who exalt themselves will be humbled.
An artist's depiction of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
It has to do with motivation. What is the Pharisee's motivation? It's attention. It's praise. It's self-congratulation. It's a desire to somehow impress God. "Hey God! Look at me! I hope you're paying attention because I'm doing all the things I'm supposed to do, and then some, and look, I'm not at all like this miserable tax collector who extorts money from people. Nope! I'm the very best kind of person, so be sure to reward me and keep on blessing me because I'm so good!" It would be nice if we could say this is an exaggerated way of thinking about our motivations toward God, but we see it still. There are those of us who tithe like this Pharisee in the story, but it's only because we're told to, not because we want to; in fact, we don't really want to do any of this hard church stuff, but it's what we're supposed to do, so we grit our teeth and bear it. There are those of us who perform acts of kindness or show up to church just because we somehow think our good works will impress God and get us a cosmic Get Out of Jail Free card, and our motivation then becomes making sure we get to heaven.
But the tax collector's motivation isn't to impress God; after all, he's got nothing he can impress God with. This guy comes to God with his head hung low, weighed down by his sins. All he wants is a relationship with God, and that's his motivation. Why does he come to Temple? Why does he pray? Because he wants to know God. He wants to be in a relationship with God. That is what compels him, and while the story ends at that point I would like to imagine that the tax collector went forth from that moment of prayer and was inspired, motivated, by that relationship to show his faith by his actions.
It's an old, old argument that's been around as long as the Church: which is better, our faith or our actions? Are we defined by what we believe or by the works of our hands. Everyone from Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius in the 5th century to Martin Luther and Erasmus during the Reformation has argued one or the other, and we sometimes find ourselves having the same argument depending on our spiritual background. Even in this parable it seems clear: the Pharisee is motivated by actions, the tax collector by faith. But that's a flawed argument. It's not one or the other. If we know anything about Jesus we know he doesn't work very often with duality. It's a both/and, not an either/or. It isn't faith OR action, it's faith AND action (or more to the point, faith IN action). Our faith must be lived out by our works, but our works are meaningless if we do not have that faith, that relationship with God, as our motivation. The Pharisee lacked that relationship, but the tax collector--sinful person that he was--desired that relationship, which is why he called on God for mercy. That was his motivation. That should be ours.
It's worth asking ourselves: what's my motivation? Why do I come to church? Is it just to make myself feel better, or is there something deeper? Do I serve in the church? Why? Do I tithe? If so, why? What is my motivation for giving something back to God, whether time, talent, or treasure? Is it so that I will be seen? Or is it my way of living out my faith, living out my relationship with God? Am I trying to get that cosmic Get Out of Jail Free card and make sure I make it into heaven in the next life, or am I motivated to make this life a little more like heaven here and now? We can write all the checks we want, but that won't bring us a sense of peace and oneness with God. We can stand up and wear fancy clothes and give fancy sermons all day long, but none of that is going to impress God! We can try as hard as we want to exalt ourselves, but God is still gonna see us naked, with our sins exposed, and you know what?? God is still gonna love us in spite of them!!