“Two men went up to the temple to pray, “said Jesus, “one a Pharisee and one a tax collector.”
How many of you, whether you have heard this parable before or not, would have been able to tell me from the very first line, who the good guy and the bad guy would turn out to be in this story?
Before you even heard their prayers, were you team Pharisee (anyone?) or team Tax Collector?
Yeah. I’m not surprised.
What may surprise you, though, is that when Jesus said: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector,” the people in the crowd would have had an equally strong reaction to these two characters.
Only their assumptions would have been exactly the opposite of yours. When Jesus told them about the Pharisee’s prayer:
'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.'
It’s highly likely that the people in the crowd that day would have fallen all over themselves praising the Pharisee. Yeah. “That’s right,” they would have said. “Those Pharisees, they are such good men.” “The best we know.” “They are the ones who practice what they preach.” “I wish I were as good as a Pharisee.”
It would have been obvious to them who the hero of this story was, because the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were the very definition of holiness. They worked incredibly hard to follow the Torah right down to the last detail. If they erred at all, in was on the side of caution, going above and beyond what was expected.
They were loved and esteemed amongst their own people, a people who wouldn’t have even been thrown off by the tone of this particular Pharisee’s prayer, because that was just how you prayed.
You know how evangelicals often pray using words like, “Father” and “just,” as in “Father God, we just praise you, we just thank you Father God, and we just want to ask you…”
And you know how progressives go to great pains to keep our prayers as gender neutral and inclusive as possible? Such that I end up saying things like: “May God makes God’s face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.” Because that’s not awkward at all.
Well in the Jewish tradition there are speech patterns people conform to when they pray, as well. In several traditional Jewish prayers it is not unusual to thank God for what you are by thanking God for what you are not - not necessarily as a way of denigrating others but as a way of thanking God for putting you in a position where you can live a faithful life.
Amy-Jill Levine offer the example of a Qumran Thanksgiving Hymn that reads: “[I give you thanks,] Lord, because you did not make my lot fall in the congregation of deceit, nor have you placed (me among) hypocrites, but you have called me to your kindness, to your forgiveness” (p. 201 Short Stories by Jesus).
It’s both socially acceptable and expected to thank God for what you are not, and if we’re honest, thanking God for what we are not, is the sort of prayer people like you and I engage in all the time.
I mean honestly, who here hasn’t at one time or another thanked God that you are precisely who you are as opposed to that other person, over there, on the other side of the highway who just got rear ended, or pulled over, or has a bumper full of MAGA stickers?
Thanking God for escaping a negative fate is actually pretty standard practice. “But for the grace of God…,” we say, and friends, that is precisely how the people would have heard the prayer of the Pharisee in this parable.
He is the good guy in their minds. He may not be perfect, but not for lack of trying, and he is certainly better than a tax collector. Especially a tax collector who is going up to pray at the temple.
Because any tax collector on his way to pray at the temple isn’t just a tax collector, he’s a Jewish tax collector. Which wasn’t great. You see back in Jesus’ time a Jewish tax collector, at least in the eyes of his fellows, was the worst kind of tax collector of all because he was a sell out.
The man in today’s parable is the obvious bad guy because he makes his living by skimming as much as he can off the top of the taxes he collects from his own people for the sake of their enemy, the evil Roman Empire. He bleeds his own people dry, strengthens their oppressor, and makes himself rich in the process.
Traitor. Scum. Bottom feeder. Opportunist. You couldn’t say enough bad things about a tax collector in Jesus’ day, and believe me, people tried. So when Jesus says:
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!' The people would have responded, “yeah, he should be so lucky.” “I wouldn’t look up either if I were him.” “He should beat himself: he’s a crook, a thief, a liar and a traitor.” “So what happened to him Jesus?”
“I tell you,” Jesus said, “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.”
“Yeah! No! Wait! What?” the people would have said. “That’s not where I thought he was going with this. Is that where you thought he was going with this? Shoot. That Jesus, he’s just always turning it around.”
And he was. That is what Jesus did best. He turned the tables on people’s expectations so effectively and so consistently, that if you look up the word “Pharisee” now, you will find that the second definition completely contradicts the first.
“Pharisee: 1. a member of an ancient Jewish religious group who followed the oral law in addition to the Torah and attempted to live in a constant state of purity. 2. A hypocrite.
Amazing, is it not; the power of a story like this to reshape the very meaning of words? But even more amazing is the response this story elicits in us, because I think if we are honest than our first reaction when we hear Jesus’ conclusion is to distance ourselves from the new bad guy.
I don’t want to be like the Pharisee, “because they’re not fair you see.” I was taught to sing that in Sunday school. Anybody else? Yeah.
This story has had such an impact on our consciousness through the ages that you probably already knew you didn’t want to be like the Pharisee whether you were familiar with this story or not, which unfortunately kind of takes the punch out of it.
So much so, that when I sat down to write this sermon my first thought was that I needed to update it; come up with modern day examples for Pharisees and tax collectors that would recapture the surprise of Jesus’ original story.
I played around with scenarios involving Ukrainians and Russians, Republicans and Democrats, activists and lobbyists. I tried to think of people who appear to be good but are really bad and people who appear to be bad but are really good. I toyed around with names like Elon Musk, Liz Cheney, and Tom Brady.
I went round and round in my head trying to figure out just how to frame this before it hit me, you can’t do it. You can’t modernize the parable by picking out new really bad good guys, or really good bad guys because the moment you do, you become that which you are trying hardest not to be.
In plain English: we all want to be good. Right? We all want to be humble and repentant like the tax collector, rather than self righteous and hypocritical like the Pharisee. We don’t want to be condescending and look down on other people like he did, except that the moment I say I don’t want to be self righteous, hypocritical, and condescending like that Pharisee - guess what? - I am looking down on someone.
“Thank you, God, that I am not like him.”
I may hide it well, but deep down, and I’m speaking personally here, this story has taught me that I am self righteous, hypocritical, and condescending. I do divide the world up in my own head between the people I like and the people I don’t, the people I agree with and the people I think are idiots, people who can drive and the people who need to get off the road.
Yeah, never drive with me through the rotary if you want to maintain your good opinion of me.
There are a great many people in this world who I love and respect and a number of people who I don’t. Here I thought I was a pretty good person, but it turns out I’m really quite judgmental. Who knew?
Jesus! Jesus knew. His parable is so ingenious because it makes me want to be humble, but in the process of engaging with it, he gently teaches me that I am anything but. It’s brilliant. It makes me realize why Luke didn’t have to specify who the people were in the crowd that Jesus was talking too - you know, the people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” - because the truth is we’re all in that crowd, whether we realize it or not.
And so, in order to teach us that exalting ourselves at the expense of others is one of the silliest, most destructive, and ultimately pointless activities we can engage in as children of God, Jesus invites us all into the story and lets us do it again. He reveals just how easy it is to judge and distance ourselves from one another in the hopes that we might see our sin, just as the tax collector did, and simply repent.
Because, you see, you can’t repent until you realize that you need too. You can pray. You can come before God with thanksgiving for making you as good as you are and leave it at that, or you can lay yourself open to the reality that no matter how good you are, you still have a long way to go.
Have you ever tried to forgive someone who didn’t know they had offended you? It’s pretty hard to do. Likewise, have you ever managed to apologize to someone you didn’t know that you had hurt? Probably not. It’s very hard to receive forgiveness for sins you haven’t acknowledged, very hard to fix the things inside you that you don’t even know are broken.
Well, this story is so important because it helps us realize that deep down, no matter how good we are, no matter how hard we try not to judge and distance ourselves from one another, we’re all still at least a little bit broken in this regard… probably because we’re all at least a little bit scared.
Like I said before, we all want to be good because we all want God to love us, but deep down, I think most of us are afraid that there might not be enough love to go around. I think that’s why we put others down, whether we realize it or not.
We all know, thanks to Hitler, that there are people way worse than us, and we all know – thank you Gandhi - that there are people way better. Most of us would be content to be like a child of Lake Wobegone, you know, above average. But what Jesus wants you to know is that you don’t have to play this game, because the game you think you are playing doesn’t even exist.
We are not in competition with one another for God’s love. We don’t have to impress God to get God to love us.
In fact, we don’t even have it in us to impress God because anything and everything inside us that God approves of, God put there first. God doesn’t love some of us more than God loves others of us. God just loves us. That’s the real scandal at the heart of this parable and the scandal at the heart of the gospel itself.
“But wait!,” some of you might be saying - “didn’t Jesus say that the sinful Tax collector went home justified rather than the righteous Pharisee, because all who humble themselves will be exalted and all who exalt themselves will be humbled?”
Amy-Jill Levine points out that like most of us, even translators tend to get caught in the trap of thinking life is a zero sum, either/or, “there can be only one,” kind of game. It turns out that the phrase “rather than,” can just as easily be rendered “alongside,” "because of,” or “on account of.” You can choose to read it in such a way that the tax collector is justified and the Pharisee is left in the dust.
But you can just as easily choose to read this in such a way that the righteousness of the Pharisee - all of his fasting and praying and generosity - was enough to make up for or cover over the sins of the tax collector such that they both went home justified. You can choose to believe that God just loves both of them no matter what (p208-209, “Short Stories by Jesus).”
“But that’s not fair!” we, and the people in the crowd might think. And it’s not. The gospel isn’t fair. The gospel is good.
God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, makes the sun to shine on the good and the bad. God looks for any and every way to bless us whether we deserve it or not.
So let us not judge one another, feel the need to compete with one another, or waste time comparing ourselves to each other, but instead let’s look around and give everyone we know a break. The reality is that nobody’s perfect. God knows this and God loves everybody anyway.
God loves us and God isn’t going to run out of love. There isn’t a limited supply of grace or forgiveness. God’s acceptance is not being doled out on a first come first serve basis while supplies last.
It is not a prize reserved for the most deserving. Grace is a gift freely given to anyone and everyone. To receive it, you need only acknowledge that you need it.
All Jesus is trying to show us today is that we all do: the Pharisees and the tax collectors, the Ukrainians and the Russians, the lobbyists and the activists, Democrats and Republicans, even Christians…actually, maybe especially Christians.
And if God can forgive them, whoever “they are,” know my friends that there is and will always be, enough grace for you too. Amen.