Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Sermon: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

(As preached to the London Eritrean Lutheran Congregation)

Jeremiah 14. 7-10 &; 19-21

Psalm 84.1-7

2 Timothy 4.6-8 & 16-18

Luke 18. 9-14

Jesus told them a story: "Two men went up to the temple to pray. One of them was a Pharisee. The other was a tax collector."  Beyond that what do we know about the two men? The original audience would have identified them both immediately and understood their background. But what do we know about Pharisees and Tax Collectors? Possibly less than we think.

Centuries of Christian interpretation have led us to think of Pharisees as the bad guys, but this isn’t entirely fair. They are often presented as Jesus’ opponents in the gospels certainly, but we need to remember that they were society’s good people. We know that the Pharisee was a religious leader; a pious man who took his religion very seriously indeed. He stood in the correct posture for prayer in the temple, arms raised and head lifted. Jesus’ disciples would not necessarily have been critical of this man.

And the tax collector? Now, again, because we know how Tax Collectors were looked down on and how Jesus dealt with them generously, we usually see them as the good guys but actaully tax collectors were crooks: this man was a Jew who earned his living by working for a foreign government, collecting taxes from his own people. For years he had collected high taxes from his Jewish neighbours to give to the Roman government. He gave the Romans their flat rate on every head, and made his money by charging over the odds and keeping the difference for himself. Basically, he is a con-man, a traitor, and a lowlife. He is hated, he is guilty and he knows it.

So, we have on the one hand the Pharisee who was one of the most respectable people in the Judaism of the time and on the other hand we have a tax collector who is a fraud and a turncoat, despised by his own people.

Surely there’s no competition here in terms of God’s favour: it’s obvious isn’t it? The man of God verses the crook.

Are we missing something  here?

Jesus told them a story.

Who?

Jesus told who a story?

We need to go back to the middle of the last chapter to discover that Jesus was talking to his disciples. This isn’t one of those situations where the crowds of followers and bystanders were dogging their steps and demanding wise words and signs and wonders. No. This was quite intimate: just Jesus and his friends. Now Luke, our Gospel writer, often tends to show us the Disciples as weak and confused and, while it doesn’t do to over-speculate we can imagine the scene: the disciples are gathered around Jesus and he is telling this story. Perhaps they are at rest after a long day; perhaps sharing a meal; perhaps gathered around a fire. "And he told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt."

But are they hearing the same story that Jesus is telling? Is there a gap between their hearing and understanding?

Are they hearing the same story that Jesus is telling? Is there a gap between their hearing and understanding?

Which of the two men in the story would a group of Jewish men be most likely to think of as having God’s favour – the pious and religious Pharisee or the thieving tax collector?

The clues are in the prayers each man prays:

In the Pharisee’s prayer, he has nothing to ask of God. He’s basically giving God a progress report. As far as he can tell, he’s got it all under control, and he’s happy about it: “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, unrighteous folks, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there.”

The Tax Collector, on the other hand , keeps his head lowered as he comes into the temple and stands some distance away . We don’t know why his guilt has got the better of him today, but there he is in the temple, full of remorse, beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He doesn’t even promise to reform. All he does is ask for God’s mercy.

Remember as you are considering this, that we already know the story and its outcome. We know what they didn’t. We’re familiar with the story: so familiar that maybe we don’t consider that the message may not have been quite so obvious to the disciples.

Did you consider that Jesus was setting them up when he told them this story? Did you consider that Jesus’ summing up of the story would have shocked and perhaps even offended them?

What if Jesus had started the story differently? Two men went to the temple to pray. One was insufferably arrogant, assuming himself to be superior to ordinary people. The other stood afar off and humbly acknowledged his sinfulness before God." That’s the contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon God's grace. It's clearer now which of these two models Jesus was calling them to adopt.

The surprise ending of the story is that the Pharisee, who gave a wonderful performance in the temple, went home empty. He came asking nothing of God and he went home getting nothing from God. The tax collector, dodgy character that he was, showed up empty handed asking for God’s mercy, and went home justified and in the right relationship with God.

So what? O.K. It’s an interesting story, but so what? What has this to do with us? And this is always the issue for me: I have to make the stories of Jesus real to me; I must find an application otherwise the parable remains just a story Jesus told but without the power to touch or challenge me.

Luke presents the disciples as weak and confused and likely to misunderstand his teaching.

That surely couldn’t be us too, could it?

Well actually it could. After all, we’re Disciples and we tend to think we understand the story. But are we hearing the same story that Jesus is telling? Is there a gap between our hearing and understanding? "Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt."

So, baring that in mind, how do we understand the story? We may hear this parable as a lesson on humility: don’t be proud like the Pharisee; go home and be humble like the tax collector. Doesn’t that sound like good advice?

But isn’t that a trap? If that's the moral we take from the parable we may have missed the point: we take a parable about God’s amazing, unconditional grace and acceptance, and turn it into a story about how we can earn or merit God’s love by being better people. We’ve got the answer now. If we can just be humble like the tax collector and not be puffed up with pride like the Pharisee, then God will accept us and love us. We may even find ourselves praying, “God, I thank thee that I am not like the Pharisee.” The tragedy and the irony of trying to make ourselves worthy of love through our supposed virtues, even the virtue of humility, is that we end up casting a sideward glance at others and measuring ourselves against them. If I need to earn God’s love, then I will have to be better than the others.

The contrast is not between tax collectors and Pharisees, but between those who trust in themselves and despise others and those who know that they are sinners, the proud and the humble. Other Pharisees may well have prayed for God’s mercy just as this tax collector did, and other tax collectors could have thought quite highly of themselves and despised Pharisees. Even some Christians have been known to think so highly of themselves that they despise others.

No, the Pharisee and the tax collector are the same. They both need God’s love. The difference is that the Pharisee doesn’t know it and the tax collector does. The tax collector went up to the temple with nothing to show for himself. His hands and his heart are empty and he knows it, and so he has room to experience the good news that there is nothing we need to do, nothing we can do, to earn the grace and love of God.

Ours isn't so very different from the world Jesus was born in to. It was to both worlds, theirs and ours - the worlds of those who trust in ourselves that we are righteous and regard others with contempt - that he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. This parable serves now as then as a word of judgment on all those times when we would compare ourselves with others and declare ourselves righteous or those others somehow unworthy. Anytime we try to draw a line between who's "in" and who's "out," this parable tells us that we’ll will find God on the other side, for as soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee, on the other side from God.

In our New Testament reading this morning we see some of these ideas developed by St. Paul. The passage from the Second Letter to Timothy shows that in some ways Paul resembles both the Pharisee and the tax collector. Like the Pharisee, he boasts of his accomplishments. He has competed well; he has finished the race; he has kept the faith; he has earned a crown of righteousness. Paul never denies the character of his commitment or the extent of his success. But like the tax collector, he knows the source of his ability to accomplish these things: “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” According to Paul, all the glory belongs to God.
St. Paul shows us the way: this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.

If we can hear God's judgment in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, then beating our breasts and saying, "God be merciful to me, a sinner," is surely not a bad response.