October 23, 2022 Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Luke 18: 9-14.
9 [Jesus] 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
You’ve heard of a “trick question”? Well, this morning Jesus is telling something of a “trick parable”. The obvious intent is to point out the mistake of claiming self-righteousness while having contempt for others. The parable does quite clearly achieve this, for we would agree that the Pharisee is contemptuous toward the tax collector. But as we know Jesus’ parables tend to address issues that may not be obvious at the outset; there is nearly always an underlying, less evident lesson to be learned. The parable this morning is deceptively simple; that is, until a closer look is taken at the two characters and their positions in Jewish society.
First up is the Pharisee, thanking God that he is so much better than everyone else, especially the despised tax collector praying at the other end of the temple. It’s possible to focus only on the gospel writers’ negative portrayal of the Pharisees, as they are often shown to be in conflict with Jesus and his teachings.
And Luke continues this theme, as he portrays the “bad guy” in the parable as a contemptuous Pharisee, leading his readers to perhaps viewing him as representative of all the members of this group of interpreters of the Jewish Law. While it is true that Jesus did have many run-ins with several Pharisees, groups and individuals, he also dined with many of them. He debated theological doctrine with several and engaged in constructive dialogue with more than a few. It was the job of the Pharisees to bring people’s attention to obeying the many complex aspects of the Law of Moses. Observance of the Torah was integral to Jewish life; in fact, it was this adherence to the Law which set the Hebrew people apart from the rest of the Middle East, it was what they felt made them “holy”.
The Pharisees’ emphasis on interpretation of the Law was the basis of their many interactions with Jesus. He and they had similar aims, to foster a deeper understanding of the Law of Moses and clarify how one might live in accordance with it. It was only when Jesus approached these explanations from a divine viewpoint that the conflicts occurred. The Pharisees interpreted the Law from the point of view of humans, while Jesus as God-in-flesh proclaimed that the Torah was intended to serve God’s people and not the other way around. For the most part the Pharisees were well respected by ordinary Jewish people; it was only when the gospel writers used them as a foil for Jesus’ teaching that we have come to understand them to be the “bad guys” in the parables. Jesus’ hearers would have been aware that the Pharisee in this morning’s parable was an individual, and not necessarily representative of the group as a whole. It’s actually rather unfortunate that Luke and his fellow Scripture writers cast them in this role of villain so frequently; Jesus would likely not have considered all the Pharisees to be his adversaries. Let’s keep this in mind when we come back to the role of this particular Pharisee in Jesus’ parable this morning.
Next, we encounter a tax collector, ostensibly the “good guy” in the story, for he admits his sinfulness with his head bowed and striking himself in the chest. He is set forth as the one to be admired, as he stands alone confessing his need for God’s mercy. Well, to be honest, as a tax collector he would surely have engaged in quite a bit of activity that would warrant his pleas for God to be merciful toward him. A little background on the role of the tax collector in ancient Israel.
Pious Jewish folks were commanded by the Torah to offer a portion of what they farmed, fished for, herded, or received payment for toward the upkeep of the temple. This tithe also served to pay the salaries of the temple priests and the religious authorities. And it’s pretty certain that the Hebrew people gladly gave their offerings to the temple, much as folks today contribute when the collection plates are passed in synagogues and churches. Like church offerings today this temple tax was voluntary. The problem arose however, when other, more onerous demands were made against people’s earnings. Under the kings of Israel, there were also taxes collected to keep the government running and these were not voluntary. In addition, there were further levies placed on the people: customs taxes, import and export taxes, tolls, crop taxes, sales tax, property taxes, and others. And these were imposed by Rome, the foreign power that kept Israel under their rule for nearly 400 years. And we can be firmly assured that the Hebrew people greatly resented paying these taxes to their Roman occupiers.
The actual collection of these taxes, payable to Rome was done by members of the Jewish population; basically, by fellow Hebrews who worked for the Roman authorities. And the people of Israel hated them with a passion! These tax collectors were expected to collect the taxes that people owed and hand the funds over to their Roman bosses, but any additional monies they might collect, well, Rome didn’t have to know about. The system was rife with corruption and everybody knew it. The tax collectors would line their own pockets with whatever they could swindle the people out of. They were basically paid gangsters, and like I said the people despised them. Yet Luke presents this morning’s tax collector praying in the temple as somehow being the “good guy” in the story. After all, he did admit that he was a sinner in need of mercy. Well, like the Pharisee, we’ll come back to the tax collector’s admission of his sins in a moment.
So, now that we’ve delved a bit into the true nature of tax collectors and Pharisees, we should talk a bit about each of the two vastly different prayer requests that were made in the temple in Jesus’ parable. The tax collector, who everyone knew to be a cheating scoundrel, taking advantage of his poor neighbors is the one who appears to be contrite, asking God for mercy. At the same time, the Pharisee, who was looked up to as an example of piety and adherence to the Law, he is the one who is self-righteous and views the other with contempt.
The tax collector departs from the temple after asking God for mercy, for forgiveness of his sins. Jesus proclaims that he has been justified, that is brought into a right relationship with God. Here’s the first part of what makes this a “trick parable”; forgiven or not, we don’t know if he changed his behavior. Did he quit the dishonest tax collection business and find a different job, one that didn’t consist of stealing from his neighbors? Or, did he receive God’s mercy and continue in his thieving ways? The tricky part? It doesn’t matter, for God’s mercy and grace are dependent only upon God. The tax collector showed humility and begged for God’s mercy and he received it. How do we feel about this? If we are shocked at God’s willingness to grant mercy, if we doubt the tax collector’s sincerity, then we have become just like the Pharisee, who holds himself above those he feels are less pious than he.
The Pharisee, on the other hand gives thanks to God that he is not a reprobate like the tax collector, he is more holy than him and for this he thanks God. It is his position that the other has engaged in behavior that precludes him from receiving God’s mercy and grace, that he is too far gone for justification. The Pharisee has made the mistake of believing that he knows better than the God whom he professes to represent. Which brings us to the next “tricky” part; does this Pharisee actually consider himself to be better than the tax collector, or is he truly thankful that his pious actions will justify him before God? Is he praying with real thanksgiving, or simply out of contempt for the one he feels superior to? And either way, whether he is motivated by arrogance or contempt, his prayer is the more suspect one. He looks down on the one he knows to be unworthy of God’s mercy; or, so he thinks.
And all this brings us to the final “tricky” part of the parable. Jesus tells his disciples that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled”. At first glance this admonition seems to aimed at the self-righteous Pharisee, for he is the one in the parable who decides that he is more deserving of God’s mercy than the tax collector. “Thank you, God that I am not like him”, he prays. So, is Jesus telling his first disciples, and us that we ought to not be like this Pharisee, who judges others and thinks so highly of himself? Well, yes and no. For as soon as we find ourselves thinking that we’re not like this Pharisee, that we would never look upon another with contempt, we, in fact become just like him.
It’s not so much, “don’t be judgmental like the Pharisee”, and more like, “don’t be judgmental toward the Pharisee”. Because the minute we tell ourselves that we would never act like this contemptuous person, we then become that contemptuous person. The moment we even think such a thought, as soon as we judge the Pharisee, we stand convicted and are no better than him. It’s at that very moment that Jesus’ parable has done what he intended it to do. Jesus means to teach us several lessons about mercy, arrogance, and contempt. These are clearly laid out in the parable. But the true intent is for us to realize that we are neither beyond redemption nor above humility. For we are, as Martin Luther reminds us “sinner and saint, at the same time”. We are the tax collector who engages in immoral behavior yet confesses his sinfulness and asks for God’s mercy. We are the Pharisee who seeks to live a moral life yet looks with contempt upon others deemed to be unworthy.
And to each of these, and to us God promises love, mercy, and grace. And the “tricky” part of the parable isn’t really that complex after all. We are admonished to pray without reservation to the God who grants mercy to even the most lowly; and to those who envision themselves as above them. For, no matter the iniquity of our actions, the depth of our sin, or the extent of our brokenness, God’s mercy is freely given. And the true lesson Jesus intends for us is that we are challenged to live in ways that reflect this mercy. Perhaps that’s where the “tricky” part comes in to play after all.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and holy God, help us to recognize that we are all in need of your mercy. We know that none of your children are beyond your love, and that you are gracious to all, the high and the low. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who humbled himself that we might be exalted.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. Amen.