Oh man…. Another week and another parable where I don’t like the characters. What is it with Jesus! What about a nice widow, or a caring shepherd, or a good Samaritan, or a generous father…. These people this morning make me really uncomfortable. The parable for this morning is called ‘The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector’, but if we wanted to be more actuate, it really should be called ‘The Parable of the Self Righteous and the Self-Hating Sinners. Listen to the message found in 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.” (The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.)
Well, one thing you can be certain of is that if there is a Pharisee in the parable, the person will not be portrayed as a person we should emulate. And in this morning’s parable, that holds true. Jesus tells us of this Pharisee, this educated leader of the Jewish faith who goes to the temple to pray. And as the Pharisee makes his place in the temple, he looks around at the other people gathered there and feels pretty good about himself. In fact, the Pharisee, thank God that he is not like the other people who are not as holy as he is. He is righteous in his behavior. He is not like the thieves, the rogues, the adulterers, or the tax collectors who are also there praying. His behavior is good. He is not a sinner. He tithes a tenth of his income to the temple and he fasts twice a week. And he is grateful to God for his righteousness. I think that many of us would have been intimidated by this man’s feelings of superiority and secretly hated him!
And in the temple with this prig of a person who thinks he has it all together, is a man who is aware he does not. The tax collector is bent over in the corner, not able to even lookup. Because of his self-loathing about his career, he beats his chest and cries out for God to be merciful to him, a sinner. Notice, this enemy of the people of Israel, this employee of the Roman Empire, does not say he is going to quit his job and take up farming (we would applaud him if he did)…. but he realizes that as a tax collector (as a sinner) he needs God’s mercy.
I don’t want to see myself in either of these people, do you? But by telling the story, Jesus invites us to enter into that process as we seek its meaning. Jill Duffield says in her exegesis of the text that there is a rawness to the text that makes us, who are Presbyterians, very uncomfortable. We Presbyterians like to intellectualize and are more comfortable with emotion under check. We are more comfortable with equality as a general concept as long as we don’t have to get up close and personal with it. So we disdain the way the Pharisee feels superior to the others. We know that our faith says that all are equally loved by God and we are to do the same. And we are fine with that. Intellectually…. But we don’t want to get all up close and fuzzy about it. We like the concept of unconditional love, as long as we get to be first in line when it is being handed out. Perhaps you don’t have to wrestle with this sin…. but it seems to be a prevalent one. The generous donor to the hospital who voices good health care for all, but couldn’t they get the best healthcare because of their generosity. We love the symphony, but shouldn’t our donation give us better seats? These are the Pharisee and these people are us. Jesus even warns us of the smugness we feel when we know we are doing good and helping others. The warning is to do good for the right reasons and not be seduced into feeling you are the better person for having done good things.
Sometimes we need help in remembering this. That person on the street on which we pass judgment is holding a sign that says he is a veteran and we realize there but for the grace of God go our loved ones who served in Viet Nam, the Gulf war, or other places with unrest. Who are we to judge a person who could have PTSD fighting for our country? Immigrant families said to be using poor judgment on entering our country but who are we to question and judge why a woman would choose to take her children across boundaries and into this country and ask for asylum for the safety of her family. Being a follower of the God of Love, is to accept first and leave the judging to God.
I have told you about a woman named Blanche that was a member of the last church I served. Blanche was a member of actually several churches in the Cleveland area and with her membership came an expectation to be given meals and rides from each one. Blanche smelled, she wore galoshes all year long, and she had one coat and one dress. She carried a cane but she carried it as much to thrust it at people as to help her with her mobility. And she thought nothing about disrupting a church event or meeting if she needed someone’s attention. People complained…. they had trouble getting her odor out of their cars after they gave her a ride. She never said thank you or seemed in the least bit appreciative. She never paid for her monthly luncheon at the Presbyterian Women’s Meeting (which must be one of the deadly sins!) and people worked hard not to have to sit next to her. But I gave Blanche credit… In spite of the mental illnesses that prevented her from blending, she learned how to live in the community. And there were others who felt as I did, that Blanche was our gift. Blanche was our own parable from Jesus. She was a reminder that we are no better than the first person to whom we feel superior. Blanche was with us to help us not be the Pharisee in this parable feeling superior to another of God’s children.
But, if I am going to be truthful with you about this parable, I must say that even though I don’t like the Pharisee, but I don’t like the tax collector either. And it just isn’t his emotional display at the temple, of beating his chest and wailing to God that makes all the Presbyterian hairs on the back of my head stick up! The thing I don’t like about the tax collector character is that even though he knows his sinfulness, he knows exactly who he is and how bad he is, he does not change his life. The Tax Collector feels the pain of his life but does nothing to alter who he is. He just leaves and goes home. …As though admitting you are a sinner is all that you have to do. Perhaps it is that the whole wailing and beating his chest thing looks like a show to me. But maybe, Jesus says, this tax collector just admitting who he is, is indeed the first step to change.
And we learn that this is exactly what Jesus was talking about. Jesus, says when you put the two people side by side and compare them, it is the Tax Collector who humbles himself and who will be justified before the Pharisee is, as the Pharisee did not even see his sin.
And as I said…it is a troubling parable, but again that is what they are meant to be. Jesus told these stories not to comfort us but to make his message alive in our lives. They are to unsettle us, they are to change us, and help us to see the message as our message too. And dear friends, we continue to make the church God’s message for this time, these are the uncomfortable issues we must face. We are always reforming. Amen