October 23, 2016 The Rev. Dr. Thomas F. Johnson
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
When I was reading this Gospel passage, I first noticed that Jesus was telling a story. It’s not a historical event; it’s a story, and so the characters are overdrawn, portrayed in almost comic or symbolic terms.
In telling this story, Jesus is aiming at his audience. He is talking to some of them, not all of them. He was intending to provoke and challenge the worldview of a few of his listeners. Luke describes this audience in two ways.
First, Luke says, they are trusting, not so much in God, as trusting in themselves, confidently self-assured, that they are righteous, that is, that they have a right standing with God. They know that they must be well pleasing to God, because when they look within themselves (a limited data sample to be sure, and highly self-referential, apparently not open to external validation from any other source) — when they self-assess, nothing disrupts, there’s no blip on their internal radar screen, no hint that anything at all may be wrong.
But second, Luke notes, that these same people, present in Jesus’ audience, were not only self-confidently righteous, they had also divided up the the world into we who are okay and everyone else (the Greek text simply says “the rest”) who are not okay! They regarded others with contempt (spiritual condescension, as worthless, lit. “as from nothing”.) They didn't just discount others; they didn’t count them at all.
Now remember, these are real people, whom Jesus had often encountered as he moved around Galilee and Judea. He couldn’t seem to get through to them. Jesus’ message resonated with social outcasts, the poor, women, and other marginalized people, but with these self-understood religious elites, he hit a brick wall. So he tells a story to rock their worldview, a simple story about two guys.
These two fictional men, caricatures in a way, exaggerated in the telling to make a point more clearly and emphatically - these two clowns were alike in some ways. They both went to church. They thought they needed to go — one, because it was the thing to do, and the other because it was the only place he knew where there might be an answer. So, they both went to church. Maybe they’re here today. We don’t know.
Another way in which these two characters were alike is that they went to church for a good reason: they went to pray. Now, there are a lot of other reasons to go to church. “We have coffee hour this week; we have to go!” “We signed up to be greeters.” And you’ve heard the story about the man whose wife woke him up on Sunday morning and told him he needed to get ready to go to church. But he said that he didn’t want to go. “None of my friends are there, and, besides, the sermons are boring. Nevertheless, his wife said, you have to go. “Just give me one good reason,” he demanded. “I’ll give you two, she said. “One, the sermons mean a lot to people. If you just listened to them, they might help you. And two, you're the pastor.” Yes, there’s more than one reason to go to church.
Now, these two guys were alike in a couple of other ways. They both stood when they prayed, which proves they were Episcopalians. And, when they each prayed, they addressed God. That’s a good start. Their two prayers begin in exactly the same way: “O God.” Annie LaMott, the sarcastic and semi-profane Christian writer, says that there are only two prayers we need to know: “Thank you,” and “O God, help!” Well, here in this story, we get a version of both of these basic prayers.
But otherwise these two were quite different. The Pharisee was a member of the most respected sect of the Jewish people. He was patriotic and not a collaborator with the Roman occupiers. He was religiously devout, a leader, and looked up to as a person of authority.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was despised. He was an unpatriotic traitor, a collaborator with the Romans in collecting the hated and oppressive taxes, enriching himself with whatever extra he could collect at the expense of others. Not devout or pious, he was looked down on, by all accounts, of no account.
It is fitting that the text says the Pharisee was standing by himself, because that is how he saw himself, separate. Indeed the word Pharisee means: one who separates himself from others. He favored private, rather than community, religious practice. Or perhaps he just preferred his own company to that of others.
And he was praying. Some of the earliest manuscripts say he was praying to himself, even though his prayer begins, “O God. “At least he appeared to be praying to God, and indeed to be praying a prayer of thanksgiving, “O God, I thank you.” But the rest of his prayer, in Jesus’ story, is all about, not what God has done, for which the man might be thankful, but what he himself has done. And he doesn’t ask for anything; perhaps because he felt he didn’t need anything.
What is he thankful for? Quote “That I am not like other people.” That’s actually putting it mildly. The Greek text literally says, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humankind [repeat]. And what did he think of the rest of us? He says we are cheaters, dishonest, and immoral, like this disgusting tax collector.
And then he offers God, us, or perhaps, himself, evidence that he is not like other folks. And maybe he is right! He fasts twice a week. I don’t even fast between meals! He tithes all of his income. Well, hey, give him a St. Stephen’s pledge card and sign him up! But, that’s it. That’s a pretty meagre list of evidence that he is not like the rest of humanity. Frankly, we don’t like him. So, maybe we could pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.” Wouldn’t that be ironic!
And then, there’s the tax collector. He too is standing at a distance, away from others, but for quite different reasons. He feels radically unworthy, unfit for the company of the community, apparently ashamed to be in God’s holy house (but, hey, he did have the courage to come). Two gestures reveal his inner condition. He was unwilling to lift up his eyes to God, which shows his genuine humility, and he kept inflicting himself with blows [let’s all do it right now - look down and beat your chest - twice is enough]. Was he trying to punish himself for his sins? Did he feel hopeless?
Well, not quite, I say that because he kept praying, and he kept praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He asked for something - mercy. The other man asked for nothing, as if he needed nothing. He already had everything, and even God, right where he wanted them. But this other, sinner-man, knew himself well enough to know that he needed grace and forgiveness.
And Jesus, to the dismay and offense of his audience, said, “I tell you, this man went home from church right with God and not the religious man.” He went home “justified,” that is, forgiven, put right with God by God. You don’t get to justify yourself, congratulate yourself, or pronounce your own forgiveness. In our tradition, that’s what a priest does, speaking to us in Jesus’ name, and not on their own authority, but on the authority of the one who loves us and died for us. We know we need mercy, and it is God who declares, because of Jesus, we and all our sins are forgiven.
Then Jesus finishes his story by stating a general rule, the validity of which is backed by the character of God. Because of who God is, we can count on the principle that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled” and “all who humble themselves will be exalted,” sometimes in this age, but for sure in the age to come, where there will be both mercy and justice, and a good and gracious God who will make it all come out right.
So, where are we in this story? Are we Jesus’ listeners, who trusted in themselves that were already righteous and didn’t need what the tax collector asked for? Are we more like the tax collector who confessed his need for mercy and went home forgiven? Or, perhaps, we are at times a bit like this Pharisee, a little too sure of our own well-earned rightness and maybe, once a while, justifying ourselves with the thought — surely we are better than the people who are never here, never give, never serve, and whose so-called values are way worse than our own good ones.
I am quite sure the earliest Christians saw themselves as the forgiven sinner, but we Christians, a few generations later, became more like the Pharisee, sure of their own orthodoxy and condemning those who differed from us in belief and practice.
Whenever I read this familiar story, I am tempted to pray, or at least to think, “O God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.” And in so praying, have I not become like him?
One last story. Yesterday, as I was driving home from Oregon through Port Townsend, I saw a silver Toyota with two bumper stickers on it. Here’s what they said: “Check twice for Zombies” and “If anything can go well, it will.” I suppose if you like Zombies and want them in your life, they are sense together. Otherwise, they are a fine illustration of Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier’s famous quote, “We are all seething with contradictions.”
Well, there’s probably a little of both of these bumper stickers in all of us, a little fear, a little hope. Just as there is a little of us in both the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Lord, have mercy.