It’s a joke – right? Jesus starts a parable: “A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the Temple one afternoon to pray.” What an oxymoron. There’s gotta be a punch line coming somewhere. When Jesus finishes, no one laughs – just stunned silence. Here’s why.
Jesus calls out those who boast about themselves, while looking down their noses at others. That would be a Pharisee. Did you catch his prayer? He’s thankful God hasn’t made him a thief, rogue, adulterer or, and he glances over, “Like this tax collector.” People listening to Jesus would agree with him. Pharisees – good; tax collectors – evil. His prayer is modeled from one in the JBCP (Jewish Book of Common Prayer). The Pharisee is moral, devout. He fasts not once, but twice a week. And he tithes. Get that? It’s Stewardship season. Maybe we need to go recruit some Pharisees. But to us, getting called a Pharisee is not exactly a compliment you hope to receive.
The tax collector stands just inside the Temple doors – keeping his distance from the good people. As a pawn of Rome, fleecing his own people, he’s considered a traitor, a leech, and despised. He knows his status. He beats his chest, looks down at his feet, and begs for God’s mercy. To us he sounds humble, genuine and repentant. Jesus’ audience sees a con-artist – a hypocrite, praying what he doesn’t mean. And Jesus has the audacity to offend the insiders when he says God likes tax collector’s prayer, and he goes home justified. That’s shocking.
Actually, neither character is a winner. We will cheer the tax collector. Jesus is always for humility and a repentant spirit. Besides, this guy is short on friends – sort of a victim of religious prejudice and a bad job. Years ago I knew of a church, won’t say what kind, that wouldn’t let a person join because he sold alcoholic beverages – didn’t matter his character was good, or he was a God-fearing man. I also knew a member of that same church who asked a non-church goer to buy booze from this man’s store and quietly drop it off at their backdoor. All I can say is, “Thank you God, you didn’t make me like one of them.”
So what is the point? “Don’t exalt yourself. Act humble. Do a little chest thumping. Confess sin, and get right with God.” No, I don’t think that’s it. If we try to act humble, that’s the last thing we’ll be. Humility is an outcome of living close to God. Unlike Zacchaeus, a tax collector who meets Jesus, gets religion and turns his life around, our tax collector will probably be back at the booth in the morning. So is he genuine, truly humble? Is Jesus being too lenient with this guy? Jesus says nothing that indicates he’s amended his life. And the Pharisee – all he wants nothing more than a pat on the back from the Almighty, just in case God hasn’t been noticing how good he is. He doesn’t need mercy like that tax collector surely does. I hope no one leaves here today with a Pharisee or tax collector as your spiritual hero.
I think the point is worship and the God we worship. We are faithful people who come here to pray and worship – just like in the Temple. We know the Pharisee. We sometimes exalt ourselves, too – maybe spread gossip, look down at others, or walk past someone without speaking. If we’re honest we want others to think we are better than we know we are. Other times when people come to worship, and it could be us as, too – we feel broken, want to keep our distance, afraid to reveal ourselves, incapable of seeing ourselves with the love God does. We wonder if there is mercy for us. We who gather at this altar are complex and messy. That’s the way Jesus likes us – just as we are. Just come and be healed, forgiven, and restored to God. God has already justified us – Pharisee and tax collector, in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those who can’t accept such grace go home empty, relying on themselves, not God. God has enlarged the tent. Some Christians don’t like some that get in. Remember, condemning someone else conveniently blinds us to our own sin. We are both Pharisee and tax collector.
I am concerned that some of my priestly colleagues focus on the wrong things. You may have noticed, too. We can act like Pharisees. Wearing funny shirts, parading about in ancient Roman garb, insisting on being properly addressed, yet our churches keep losing members. We seem more concerned with form than substance. I recently read a song written by an Episcopal priest (thank God it was an Episcopal priest). No one else better make fun of us. Here’s how it goes: “There are priests who act like they think they were present at God’s creation. They sign photos of themselves, “To myself, with frank admiration.” It’s obvious they think their gifts are wonderful and just so fine! They write books with titles like this: “The Ten Greatest Priests in the World: and How I Trained the Other Nine.” Boy that nails it. Sing on dude. “Thank you God for not making me like thieves, rouges or adulterers, or like such self-righteous priests.” Yet if people can’t tell the difference between Jesus’ way and the world’s way, are we playing at being church. You do know what that’s called?
I’ve read your wonderful stewardship devotional thoughts recently. Many of you are grateful for the love you find here, for what God is doing through us at St. Paul’s. When I read this, it caused me to want to be your rector all over again. I would join here. Go share the good news you find here. Make disciples – we have the resources of God’s love for people who search and are hungry for what we have.
If you invite friends and non-church goers to join us – I don’t want you to worry that we are exalting ourselves for being so wonderful. By pointing our lives toward God, we exalt God, not ourselves. And maybe as others see a difference in us – following Jesus’ way, not the world’s, they will want to commit their lives to God, too. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? We welcome all – Pharisees, tax collectors and those in between, just like Jesus does.