[Scripture readings for the day are reprinted in full at the end of this post.]
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – talk about a story that’s right up my alley! At one time or another I have been both a Pharisee (of sorts) and a tax collector (literally). And I stand before you today as living proof that God cares for both Pharisees and tax collectors. And if God cares for someone like me, then for certain God cares for you!
So looking at our Gospel reading for today (Luke 18:9-14): Jesus tells a parable that Luke says is directed at people who trust in their own righteousness and look down on others, and Jesus uses a Pharisee as an example. So this parable is pointed at Pharisees, but it is not necessarily just about Pharisees. People without religious training can act like Pharisees too. In fact listening to people who are so sure of their own righteousness, while putting others down, I think is part of what’s made all of us all so sick of the upcoming election.
But getting back to the Pharisees: I have known a few in my day. I’ve been sorely tempted to become one, (although I wouldn’t have thought of it that way at the time). Where it comes to Pharisees this is what I’ve experienced:
- Pharisees are motivated by fear. (both in Jesus’ day and now.) Pharisees are very keenly aware of sin, and the seriousness of sin, and of God’s judgement on sin; and they are afraid of God’s judgement and so they’re afraid of anything that might cause sin. They’re even afraid of the appearance of sin. And all this fear gets pressed down and shaken together and then sometimes explodes in the form of anger at ‘sinners’ who are seen either as sources of temptation or as the cause of the decline in society’s morals.
- In their fear, Pharisees turn their focus inward – on the little groups they’re a part of. They lose sight of the needs in the world, and they fail to see the pain that sinners feel at their own sin. They forget (if they ever knew in the first place) (for example) that drug addicts hate the drugs they’re hooked on… that prostitutes hate their customers… that most people who are caught in sin would welcome a way out it if they could find one. Pharisees don’t see the needs. They lack empathy, and so they judge.
- Pharisees also, as Jesus points out, love money. Not necessarily because they actually enjoy the things money can buy, but because poverty doesn’t look good. Plus money makes it possible for them to move in the social circles they want to move in.
- And the sins Pharisees preach most strongly against are the very sins they’re most likely to fall into. For example, in Jesus’ day the Pharisees were all about observing the Sabbath and keeping it holy. This law had a practical, nationalistic side to it: because the Romans (who occupied Israel) didn’t observe the Sabbath; God’s people did. So Sabbath observance was the mark of a loyal Israelite. Kind of like standing up for the national anthem at a ballgame. It wasn’t so much about the object of worship (God and/or country – which often tend to get conflated in a Pharisee’s mind), as it was about conforming to expected, traditional standards of behavior. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day got on Jesus’ case about healing people on the Sabbath – but they saw nothing wrong when they themselves spent an entire Sabbath afternoon making plans to kill Jesus. As if that was a permitted use of the Sabbath! Pharisees are capable of the most amazing feats of hypocrisy… and they rarely if ever see it.
As for modern-day Pharisees, I’m sure we all can think of few. Personally when I read about Pharisees in the Bible I tend to think of them as the televangelists of the ancient world. It’s not a perfect parallel but it works on a number of levels. Like them, the Pharisees were well known, supported by the people, highly regarded by their bands of followers, legalistic, and looked pretty clean on the outside. For a while.
Back in the early 1980s I did some volunteer work for a ministry headed up by a man who once worked for televangelist Jimmy Bakker. Many of you here will remember the scandal Jimmy and his wife Tammy Faye fell into back then. One day I got up the nerve to ask this friend what happened – what really happened behind the scenes? (My friend had left the Bakker ministry shortly before everything broke loose.) He said this: “it got to the point where there was only a handful of trusted people around Jimmy and Tammy Faye – only about five or six people. Nobody else could get close to them. Not their congregation, not the public, not me, and – as became obvious – not their accountant. Those of us who could have warned them something was wrong were not allowed into the inner circle.”
The problem with Pharisees – the core problem – is that they rely on human strength and human righteousness instead of on God and on the Holy Spirit. And what a powerful illustration this is of how that works out!
As a postscript to that story, Jimmy Bakker has since renounced his former teachings. He has admitted, publicly, that the first time he ever read the Bible all the way through was in prison; and that doing so he was confronted with mistakes and false teachings he had fallen into. In the late 1990s he wrote this:
“My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray. I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet.”
That is true repentance. And praise God, salvation can come to even Pharisees. Remember that whenever you feel like you’ve made the worst mistake of your life. There’s nothing God can’t forgive, and there is no place so low that God’s mercy can’t reach.
Which brings us to our tax collector. (I love it when Jesus talks about tax collectors!) Speaking as a local tax collector, if you want to ‘win friends and influence people,’ becoming a tax collector is not the way to do it! As a tax collectors I am required to uphold the law, whether I like it or not, whether I agree with it or not, whether I think it’s fair or not. I have seen the struggles of some of our senior citizens trying to keep the taxes paid on their homes. And there have been days I’ve gone home from the tax office saying “God forgive me.”
But compared to Roman times, tax collecting today is an honorable profession. At least I know the taxes I collect will be spent on the town and in the school where the taxpayers live. In Jesus’ day, taxes were collected by and for the Romans – and there was no guarantee money collected in Galilee (for example) would stay in Galilee. It was more likely to end up in Rome.
And tax collectors back then were basically traitors to their own people. They were Israelis who were paid by the Romans to collect taxes from their own countrymen.
As Americans we have never known what it is to pay taxes to a foreign government (except for in the 1700s when we had that little tea party in Boston Harbor). We have never known what it is to be conquered (I pray God we never will). We have never known what it is to have a neighbor or a friend working for the enemy and extorting money.
These tax collectors in Jesus’ day were basically collaborators. They collected more than the Romans told them to, and got rich on the backs of their families and friends. They sold themselves for money. That’s why the Bible refers to them as “tax collectors and sinners”. They knew what they were. They knew what they were doing. They were about as low as you can go.
But one day one tax collector decided – for whatever reason – to get right with God. So he went to the temple. He didn’t raise his hands in prayer, he didn’t even look up as he prayed, but ‘beat his breast’ and said “oh God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The tax collector didn’t make excuses. He didn’t try to bargain with God. He just appealed to God’s mercy.
Our God has a heart that is quick to answer a prayer like that. God declared this man righteous. And Jesus wasn’t ashamed to be seen with tax collectors like him (even though the Pharisees criticized him for it). It’s no surprise the tax collectors loved Jesus so much and wanted to around him all the time!.
So to sum up the parable: The prayer of the Pharisee is full of pride, self-dependence, and self-righteousness, lacking in charity and compassion. Theologian Charles Simeon writes, “The Pharisees… were extremely diligent in the observance of outward duties: but, while they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, they were as far from the kingdom of God as if they had been openly profane.”
The tax collector, on the other hand, humbly stands at a distance, admits his faults, and trusts in God alone. And the result was: the tax collector goes home justified by God; and the Pharisee does not.
There’s one more thing that we haven’t looked at yet in this story: context. The context of this story – the big picture – is the kingdom of God.
In the passage from Luke we read today, in the chapter immediately before it, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God is coming. And this parable is, in part, an answer to that question – as well as a warning about something that may prevent people entering into the Kingdom of God.
Our Old Testament reading from Joel also speaks of the Kingdom, and Joel gives us the big picture back-drop against which this parable plays itself out.
The passage from Joel begins by saying to God’s people ‘be glad and rejoice in God, because the day of the Lord is finally coming’. God says, “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten… you shall eat and be satisfied… your God has dealt wondrously with you.” The prophecy continues, “my people shall never again be put to shame.” Twice God says that: ‘you shall never again be put to shame’.
And then Joel’s prophecy turns very dark. It talks about how terrible and frightening the day of the Lord will be. The Kingdom will come, he says, in darkness and in blood; and ‘those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved’ and ‘among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls’. (Notice there’s a mutual calling here: God’s people call out to Him, and God calls to His people; calling in both directions, the calls meeting each other.)
When we read Joel’s description of the coming Kingdom, and then look at the Pharisee and the tax collector, their story takes on real clarity.
First, the parable is full of shame. The Pharisee shames the tax collector. The tax collector shames himself. To be alive in this world is to know shame. But the prophet Joel says the day is coming when God’s people will never again be put to shame.
Second, held up against the backdrop of the darkness and destruction at the end of this world, the Pharisee’s words sound a bit ridiculous. He says: “God I thank you I’m not like other men. I fast twice a week, I gave away a tenth of all my income…” How on earth is that going to benefit anybody when the world is ending?
But listen to the words of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Isn’t that what any sane person would say when they’re witnessing the end of the world?
Third, Joel gives us the same good news Jesus preached – and it is this: “I will restore the years the locust has eaten.” Some translations say “I will repay…” but the actual verb here is shalom… ‘I will bring peace, I will bring wholeness’. In those very places where we have been injured… in those places where the world has ridiculed us for our faith in God… in those places where we could find no answers to the question “why?” – God will restore, and will give us shalom, and will take away our shame. Jesus himself, who was shamed with the words “The King of the Jews” nailed above his head – will at last claim his kingdom.
Phariseeism is, at its roots, a lack of courage of convictions and a lack of real faith in God. A Pharisee fails to trust God’s heart or to grasp God’s truth. The tax collector on the other hand appeals to God’s heart, to God’s loving-kindness (his hesed). He knows that salvation, forgiveness, and mercy belong to God alone.
So our take-aways for today:
- For those of us who are called to minister or to leadership in God’s church – and for all people – pray that we escape the temptations of Phariseeism. Pray that God will save us from that question which has no good answer: “am I being humble yet?” Pray we stay focused on Jesus.
- Pray we don’t waste time comparing ourselves with others, that instead we are honest with God and trust in God’s mercy.
- Pray we keep our eyes on the prize. Our goal is to be with Jesus in the coming kingdom of our God. The coming of this kingdom is the Good News we share. And this goal infuses everything we say and everything we do in life with meaning and purpose.
- Praise Jesus for His boundless love and mercy, and thank God for God’s promise that one day we will never again be put to shame.
Joel 2:23-32 23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.
Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 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!’ 14 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.”
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) – Pittsburgh, 10/23/16