Today’s parable, which follows directly after last week’s lesson in Luke, is part of an extended section in which Jesus and the disciples are traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem and Jesus is teaching along the way. He has lamented over Jerusalem, he’s talked about the nature and costs of discipleship, and he is trying to impart to his listeners what it means for God’s reign – what Bishop Michael Curry calls the dream or vision of God – to be realized.
When we talk about parables, we always remind ourselves that they are, on the surface, simple stories, but they always include a twist or a surprise whose unexpectedness causes us to pause, consider, and to re-evaluate our assumptions. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector fits this definition perfectly.
It's about two very different people who go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray to God. The first, a Pharisee, in effect lists his credentials – he tithes and fasts – and contrasts himself favorably with the other character, the tax collector. The Pharisee, does, in fact, show his commitment to his religion – he gives away a tenth of his income, and he restricts his food on two days out of seven. He is certainly serious about his faith practice.
Probably many of us, today, have negative associations with Pharisees because the gospel writers so frequently portray them as Jesus’ opponents and adversaries. For Jesus’ community, however, they were the local clergy – men (and they were all men) who led prayer, taught, and offered counsel to members of their congregations.
The other character is a tax collector, who, in his prayer, simply offers up to God that he is a sinner in need of mercy. We should not think of the tax collector as someone who was merely a bureaucrat from the Imperial Revenue Service. The way the Roman tax system actually worked was that different territories in the Empire were, in effect, put up for bid, with the contract going to the highest bidder, not unlike the way we here at James and Andrew put out a call for bids when we need to get the furnace replaced. We’re looking for the lowest bid, while Rome looked for the bid that would bring the greatest revenue.
The person winning the bid guaranteed the amount of his bid to the Roman authorities, and he would make money only if he collected more than that.
This arrangement worked very well for the Romans, but from the point of view of the local population, it had unpleasant consequences: it tended to attract rather unsavory characters, and they in turn were probably not too choosy about the methods they used to get their payments from local artisans or farmers. It’s safe to say, then, that those hearing Jesus tell this parable would have thought it was no more than the truth to hear the tax collector acknowledge his unworthiness as he looks down in shame.
So let’s rename this parable. Let’s call it the parable of the retired rector and the guy who runs a protection racket. When Jesus says that the second character was “justified” (or righteous, or saved) rather than the first character – when the parable nails the cleric but lets the creep get off scot free – we may be as offended as the original hearers might have been. But after we are finished being offended, we still have to ask what Jesus is trying to tell us.
There is no question that the Pharisee, or the retired rector, is a socially acceptable, good person. And there’s also no question that the tax collector, or the creep, is not. So one conclusion we might draw that Jesus thinks it doesn’t matter what we do, how we behave. Upright citizen or extortionist, it doesn’t matter. Of course that’s not the case.
What does Jesus mean when he says that the second character is “justified”? Does it mean that God is satisfied with a little humility and repentance? That it doesn’t matter if I’ve been a really bad person, as long as I admit it? That hanging my head in shame is enough? I don’t think that’s it either.
No one who reads the Bible could think that God does not care about what we do and how we act. In saying after saying, parable after parable, Jesus makes it clear that God cares passionately about what we do.
But God cares for a particular reason: the way we act, over time and in the many different situations of our lives, shapes who we are and determines our relationships with God, with other people, and with ourselves. If we consistently look to our own advantage we become closed off to others and toward God. God offers us grace, but if our hands are balled into fists and our hearts are closed, there’s not much room for grace.
That’s the Pharisee’s story. He is not a miser or a slacker in his religious practice, but he is quite satisfied with where he is. One of our vestry members observed, as we discussed this passage during our meeting this week, that “He’s really praying to himself, not to God.”
And he completes his self-congratulation by observing the inferiority of the tax collector. Yes, he is “better” than the tax collector; but that is not what he should be paying attention to. He should be paying attention to God; but his entire prayer is asking God to pay attention to what a wonderful person he is.
And what about that tax collector? Is Jesus saying that because he has said he’s sorry, everything is just fine? Or is Jesus, rather, saying that his acknowledgement of the wrongness in his life provides the first small opening through which the light of God’s grace can enter. I think that’s what we are supposed to see: not that the tax collector is alright as he is, but that he has started taking a turn toward the right direction.
And what about us, which is always where we need to go as we listen to Jesus’ words to his own listeners. How often are we the Pharisee, and how often the tax collector?
I have to tell you that as I have been sitting with this parable this week, I can’t help but think that we are a nation full of Pharisees right now. I look at our political and social divides, and I see and hear vast groups of Americans certain of the righteousness of our own values, our own positions, our assumptions and our solutions to the problems that plague our nation and our world. I don’t see much humility. Like the Pharisee, we love to not only pat ourselves on the back, but we love to trivialize and vilify not only the thinking of those on “the other side”, but to look with contempt on those neighbors themselves who take positions that offend us.
Now, I don’t think we do it in church, but I certainly see it in the belittling memes that show up on social media, and in the jokes and cartoons that make the rounds in email, that stereotype and make fun of those who don’t see things the way we do, and I confess that I sometimes smile at these before I catch myself. I hear the Pharisee routinely in our leaders in congress, including both the party that I vote for and the other one.
So as we head into this week, let’s work on paying attention to God and asking God for wisdom and generosity and humility. And for mercy on us, sinners.
Let’s work on asking God to open our minds and our hearts that we might be learners and reconcilers, and figure out how to reach across divides for the healing of God’s world.
In Jesus name and for his sake.
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