“To some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and counted others as nothing, Jesus told this parable. Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:9-10). As these two men enter the temple, what Jesus sees is different from what the worshippers would have noticed. While the word “Pharisee” has become synonymous with hypocrite in English, the Pharisees had good reason to be confident. They led rigorous and disciplined lives, perhaps unmatched by their contemporaries.

The word “Pharisee” comes from the Hebrew word for “separate.” The Pharisees were clearly separate from the masses in the human eye. They lived in a way few could live. They kept, not only the letter of the Mosaic Law, but hundreds of laws that had been invented by men since then. They made many of the monks of the Middle Ages look like drunkards and playboys. The Pharisees were religious people. They were made even more visible and respected because of their connection to the ruling class, coupling political power with imposing religiosity.

The Pharisees were the spiritual A-team.

Tax collectors were about as far on the other side of the spectrum as one could get. Rome had an interesting way of handling taxes. They didn’t have a bloated bureaucracy like the IRS. I know this is hard to believe, but they had something even worse. They “farmed” tax collecting out to ambitious locals, who bid for the job. Anyone who has ever bid for a job knows that if you promise a lot, it is not without hopes for a profit. The tax collector then had to lie, cheat, and steal to keep his ever-growing pledge, digging deeper into the pockets of one-time friends and neighbors.

Hanging out with a tax collector would be like inviting an ambitious and unscrupulous lawyer over your house on a snowy day without salting the sidewalk. As you can guess, these men were hated and were hardly the poster boys for piety.

Notice how subjectively the Pharisee speaks, talking to God about Himself. “Lord, in case you haven’t noticed, there are some great things about me you should know.”

“The Pharisee, standing, prayed these things concerning himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men: greedy, unjust, adulterous, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week and I give tithes of all I acquire.’” Is this a prayer or a eulogy? What is scary is that this could be taken right out of much of the Christian literature and music on the market today. Notice how subjectively the Pharisee speaks, talking to God about Himself. “Lord, in case you haven’t noticed, there are some great things about me you should know.” No man in his right mind would try to woo a woman this way. Notice the plethora of I and the lack of me. This is about what the Pharisee does for God, and not what God does for the Pharisee.

“But the tax collector, having stood far away, would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but he beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Now we meet a man who knows his condition. Notice how he approaches God, as many Christians do at the beginning of the divine service, begging for absolution. He comes before God, not just as a man who has sinned, but as a sinner. He refuses to look up, to find some more detestable man or woman to which he can compare himself, to present even one good deed that he has done. He simply confesses who he is. He was born a sinner, and he has confirmed his status every day since.

Notice the me without all the I. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He does not justify what he has done, providing carefully crafted explanations for the tax system or introducing evidence that he has done good as well as evil. He simply lays his condition before the altar. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Ash Wednesday could care less about human standards or scales, about human theories or philosophies concerning God and heaven.

“I tell you, this man went down to his house having been justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be put to shame, but the one who humbles himself will be lifted up.” God acts contrary to human expectations. The Pharisee expects favor and gets condemnation. The tax collector expects condemnation and gets mercy. And nothing has changed. It is still the sinner who leaves justified.

Ash Wednesday drives home God’s way of acting. Ash Wednesday could care less about human standards or scales, about human theories or philosophies concerning God and heaven. Ash Wednesday confronts us with our true nature, our mortality, and marks us with the only escape from it: the cross of Christ.

All men, women, and children, with their carefully crafted opinions and false hopes, are ashes and dust--and to ashes they will return. With death our mouths will be stopped. There will be no more time for excuses or convenient theologies or philosophies. All those are as dead as the sinners who craft them. This is a somber day with a solemn reminder.

This Lenten season, minor keys invade our lives. The poetry of the season flows from our lips as we sing of death, another’s death, but one that is meant to be the death of us as well, so that we might live.

As the Pharisee and tax collector entered the temple, men saw one thing, and Jesus saw another. Christ sees more clearly, though. He stands at the altar and the pulpit, masked in bread and wine, and in the person of a sinner called to declare sinners saints, and looks out. He sees not one sinner, but a horde of them, and He calls them to death, to make His death their own, to be crucified with Him and live through faith, which, like our salvation, is pure gift.

Dust we are, but God breathes life into dust.

Dust we are, and miserable sinners. The ashes that mark our foreheads are not for show. They are a preaching, a frightening reminder and yet at the same time a confession of hope. Dust we are, but God breathes life into dust. As in Genesis, so today. With the breath of His absolution, the lifeless are called to live. They are justified, knowing they cannot justify themselves. They are declared righteous in Christ, knowing they cannot be righteous on their own.

That is Ash Wednesday. Christ, the immortal who died for the mortal. Christ, your death in order to be your life.