Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday October 24, 2010 Proper 25
Text: Luke 18: 9-14 The Pharisee and the Publican
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Jesus has managed to do it again. He’s put the bottom rung on top and in the process offended nearly everyone with his story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Almost anyone listening to Jesus would have known the Pharisees. They were the religious special forces of their day. The elite religious practitioners, devout beyond question. The very name Pharisee derives from the root that mean “pure.” Members of this religious renewal group were “true believers” who sought purity in everything observing the law with great rigor, mastering their appetites, sacrificing in significant ways and taking care to avoid all contacts with the impure. In short, the Pharisees were very, very good people – squeaky clean and strongly principled. They were the kind of people you might look for on your board or vestry, the point about giving 10% of their income being quite attractive to development types and stewardship campaigns.
Oiling down the others side of this parable, is a tax collector. One wonders why Jesus has to employ such a mismatch here to make his point. It is not really a fair fight, as no other occupation was more despised than tax collectors. Tax collectors were sleazy opportunistic citizens whom the Romans used to collect revenues. It was an ugly and corrupt business. People, who stooped to this kind of public extortion were despised and regarded as scoundrels and traitors. They were profiteering individuals for whom no decent human being had any respect.
It is no surprise that the Pharisee is found in the temple praying. This was an important part of their life as spiritual elites and the self-congratulatory prayer Jesus places in their voice was also vintage Pharisee style. Jesus is not really giving them a bad rap here. It is just the way Pharisees were, a bit spiritually pleased with themselves and not afraid to engage in a bit self-promotion masquerading as 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 and give a tenth of my income.” The Pharisee prayer is about himself which may give us pause to consider how much of our prayer is actually about us.
The first surprise in the parable may be that the tax collector was in the temple precincts at all. The second unusual element is the posture of contrition that Jesus ascribes to the tax-guy. As a rule tax collectors did not feel welcome in the temple, being scumbags and filth and as a group they were not noted for their self-reflective and penitential practices. The words that Jesus puts in the publican’s prayer are astounding, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” It is to be sure one of the most potent and dead on prayers ever uttered.
The real shock of this parable comes, however, when Jesus proclaims that the tax collector is the one who is really made right with God. “I tell you this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” If you had been there when Jesus drew out the point of the story, you would have heard a gasp from the listening crowd. How could he say such a thing? Did Jesus really mean to suggest that God of all righteousness, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the Wisdom of the universe would be more pleased with this opportunistic mobster over the moral uprightness of a man of God? It is a colossal shame that the biblical account fails to give us any juicy details about the moral outrage or public outcry about such an obvious reversal of accepted moral values. It just doesn’t make sense. It ain’t right. For many, Jesus was quite obviously confused or off his meds when he uttered this parable.
At the center of this parable is one of those mumbly jumbly theological words, “justification.”
In printer’s language to “justify” means to set type in such a way that all full lines are of equal length and flush both to the left and right: in other words to put the printed lines in the right relationship to the page they’re printed on and with each other. The religious sense of the word is very close to this. Being justified means being brought into right relation. The Apostle Paul says simply that being justified means having peace with God (Romans 5:1). He uses the noun “justification” for the first step in the process of salvation. (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Buechner )
Jesus’ surprising claim that the wretched Tax Collector is the one that is put into right relationship, or to use Paul’s language finds peace with God is the wonder and beauty of the story. And it is, if we are honest, one of the things we most desire ourselves, peace with God.
But this kind of conclusion of the story is a bit too easy, is it not? Is it really ok to write-off the Pharisee in this story. The Pharisee really is a morally upstanding person, in fact some of us have spent our life trying to be him or someone like him. One biblical interpreter says, “you can tell a person who is serious about his or her religion when it affects two things: the stomach and the pocketbook. These were both true of the Pharisee. Fasting is difficult spiritual discipline that is never easy or pleasant. The Pharisee’s spiritual practice of tithing is profoundly counter-cultural for any day. Giving up a significant portion of your financial resources voluntarily out of loyalty and affection for God is a significant religious act. Money, after all, is a form of power available to human beings that enables us to do and have any number of things. To give up control over a significant portion of our money shows a spiritual development and trust that is significant. Do we really want to conclude from this story that morally upstanding people don’t rate with God? What would the world be like without people like the Pharisee? Doesn’t the world need people who order their lives along the lines of justice and honesty and try to use their power responsibly?
For Jesus to suggest that the Pharisee with all of his concern for purity was actually inferior to the Tax Collector, a man who had no real spiritual track record, and was simply begging for mercy in a time of crisis seems unfair. We do not even have any real indication that the Tax Collector intends to amend his life, change his scumbag ways or really begin flying right. His only virtue appears to be that he cried out in desperation for mercy in a time of need. How can someone who seems to be so much a part of the problems in the world end up finding favor with God?
The Pharisee cultivated a rich spiritual life and had reached a high level of moral maturity. He was able to control his physical impulses and had mastered his money instead of allowing his money to master him. The real problem with the Pharisee seems to be that he took his eyes off the real goal of the spiritual life. The goal of the spiritual life is to grow into the likeness of Christ not convince yourself that you’re somehow better than others. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven is a way of saying happy are they who know their need of God. Instead of continuing to live in the surprise of having his life caught up in the purposes of God for the whole world the Pharisee began to compare himself to other people. To put this into a sports analogy for those who can’t wait to get home for a little Sunday afternoon football. The Pharisee “took his eye off the ball,” or he “tried to run before he caught the ball.” The Pharisees failure was getting distracted from the ultimate goal of having his life bent toward God. His life began to be bent toward himself and in doing so he began to think too highly of himself, to look down on the spiritual journey of others. He became complacent about his own journey his own need for growth. The Pharisee for all of his zeal succumbs to the sidelong glance instead of staying centered on the adventure of the journey called the kingdom of God.
The tax collector’s simple desperate prayer is probably something we can relate to on some level. We’ve all probably been quite close to there at times in our lives. The moment we realized that our actions or our words had nearly destroyed something we loved, a relationship, a career, our health, our reputation, what we thought of as our future. Or the times in our life that we’ve felt like an imposter or a failure. Jesus’ surprising words about the man crying out for mercy remind us that our sins, our failings are not the only things that matter in our lives. There is something larger, the everlasting mercy and enduring patience of God to draw us more fully into life-healing relationship. With God the future is always more significant than the past. God is far more interested in what we can become than in our failures. God will not hold our past against us when we take the first steps toward embracing God’s new creation within ourselves.
Jesus had a way of writing into the story of the gospel those whom we would write out of the story. I believe that is happening here in Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The most interesting character in this story is not the self-righteous Pharisee or even the penitent tax collector. The most interesting character here is God. Both men, at prayer, revealed through their prayer different images of God. For the Pharisee, God is the one who gives us certain rules that we are to follow, and the Pharisee has been successful in following those rules. For the tax collector, God is a God who gives certain rules for us to follow, and he has been a disastrous failure at following those rules. But, what if God is not like that at all? What if God is not the giver of rules, the setter of high standards for us to meet, but rather the one who loves us, the one who is gentle with us in our self-righteous smugness, as well as in our moral defeats? What if God is not one who is impressed with our great piety? What if God is rather a God of steadfast love and mercy? In short, what if God is like the one who told this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector?
No matter who you are or what you’ve done, God wants you on his side. There is nothing you have to do or be. It’s on the house. It goes with the territory. God has “justified you,” lined you up. To feel this somehow in your bones and realize that there is nothing you can do to earn it is the first step on the way to being saved. This is the good news!
I wish to acknowledge my debt to Fredrick Buechner and John Claypool for their thoughtful commentary on this parable that inspired and informed this sermon. May we all find the deep well of God’s mercy in our lives knowing that we have peace with God.