How many times have you heard the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector? Probably a lot. It comes up in the lectionary’s schedule of readings every three years, so you can do the math to figure out how many times it might have been the subject of a sermon you’ve heard. Stories that we’ve heard many times can go in one ear and out the other without making much of a dent because we’re so familiar with them. “Been there, done that. Nothing new to see here.” So, let’s try to put ourselves in the place of the people who heard this story the very first time it was told—people who would have been surprised and entertained, and maybe even a little horrified by it.
Luke doesn’t tell us exactly where Jesus was when he told this story. The last time Luke had mentioned Jesus’ location, he simply said that Jesus was “on the way to Jerusalem, going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” The next location Luke will mention is the outskirts of Jericho. Let’s just pick a spot along the roadside. Maybe Jesus and the disciples have decided to take a break in a place with a little shade and a spring where they could rest their feet and have a drink of water. So, find a comfortable spot for yourself, maybe under one of those trees, or leaning against a rock.
Just make sure you’re close enough to hear what Jesus might say. You’ve been travelling with Jesus long enough to know that he’s likely to tell a story or two. But so often he tells his stories to his disciples. So, you want to find a good spot where you can hear him, even when he’s not speaking to the crowd in general.
Sure enough, today he’s directing his attention to the disciples. First, he told them some kind of confusing and, frankly, scary stuff about the coming of God’s kingdom. Then he told a great story about a widow who kept bugging a nasty judge until he gave her the justice she deserved. Now he’s ready to tell another story.
Luke tells us that Jesus directed this parable to “some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Wait. What? He’s talking to the disciples! You mean some of them feel that way?
Jesus begins, “Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. The other was a tax collector.”
If we had been sitting there listening to Jesus, we would have responded differently to this information than we do now. We automatically put a black hat on any Pharisee that shows up—often unfairly. The Pharisees weren’t a uniformly anti-Jesus group. They weren’t all a bunch of self-promoting hypocrites. They were a group of Jews who were passionately devoted to maintaining the sanctity of Torah observance. The Torah—the Law—was the gift that God had given the Jews to mark them as God’s people in the world. But the Roman occupation and, even more, the Greek culture that had begun to permeate their world, threatened to weaken observance of the Law and, with it, the community of faith.
So, the sect of the Pharisees had developed to preserve the God-given gift of Torah observance by following it to the letter. And they didn’t take any chances where the Law was concerned. Where the Law said to give a tenth of the first fruits of their harvest, they tithed their entire income. Where the Law said to fast once a week, they fasted twice a week. They even maintained a physical distance from anyone who might cause them to be disobedient to the Law or draw them into the political fanaticism that swirled around them.
Those guys took their divine inheritance seriously, and largely they were the objects of admiration, not the scorn that we typically heap on them with our 21st century hindsight. Sure, some of them probably thought their devotion to the Law made them better than everyone else, but not all of them did. So, as 1st century listeners, we would identify the Pharisee in the story as the good guy. We would quickly plop a white hat on his head.
But then things get a little murky. The Pharisee was being faithful to what his tradition called him to do. We read part of it in our passage from Deuteronomy. The problem was that he had forgotten the intent of the law he was so carefully following. The point of following the Law was both to honor God and to care for others, especially the vulnerable—the widows, the orphans, and the aliens, who in Scripture represent the voiceless, the friendless, and the stranger. The Pharisee of the story had forgotten that and, instead of loving them, he considered them to be of no account.
Apparently, this particular Pharisee is one who thinks he’s better than everyone else. He is more focused on the “what” of his faith than the “why.” Luke doesn’t tell us whether he was praying so others could hear him or not, but he tells us what the Pharisee was praying: “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; I give a tenth of all my income.” That white hat looks little dingier than it did.
But that tax collector. Tax collectors were scum. Maybe the crowd even booed when Jesus introduced him into the story. Tax collectors were often Jews who collaborated with the Romans by collecting the taxes that kept most people mired in poverty. And, worse, many tax collectors enriched themselves by taking advantage of Roman incentives: as long as the Romans got what they were owed, they didn’t care how much more the tax collectors added on top for themselves. So, tax collectors were seen both as political traitors and as thieves who preyed on their own people. No question here: the tax collector gets the black hat.
And then comes a surprise. The tax collector stands apart like the Pharisee, but out of shame, not pride. He’s so ashamed, he won’t even look up toward heaven to pray, as was customary. He beats his breast in his grief, and he has only one thing to say: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The black hat begins to slip a little.
Then comes the real surprise. Jesus says, “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.”
In typical “Jesus” style, the tables have been turned. The one who seemed to be a shoo-in has been left behind. The underdog has won. And Jesus has given us—as both 1st century and 21st century listeners—a lot to think about.
First, there’s that troubling detail about who Jesus was telling this story to: the disciples. he wasn’t talking to a bunch of Pharisees who had been giving him a hard time. He wasn’t even talking to the crowd at large, where there were surely some who thought more of themselves than they should have. He’s talking to those who have committed themselves to him. Apparently, among those followers of Jesus, were people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Which means that some of us may be in the same boat, and Jesus knows it. Maybe we’re more like that Pharisee than we think.
We don’t want to get too close to those whose lifestyle we don’t approve of. We look down our noses at the guy who has just unloaded an even bigger TV so he can watch the games while his kids wander the neighborhood unsupervised or at the woman who has just gotten divorced for the third time. We’re suspicious of the teenager who slouches by without acknowledging our presence or the person who thinks differently from us about our shared faith.
“Boy, am I glad I’m not like them,” we think—or say. I raised my kids right. I was careful with my spending. When I got married, I made it work. I’m not a fundamentalist religious nut—or a liberal religious nut.” We shake our heads, we roll our eyes, we purse our lips, forgetting that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
In fact, this story almost draws into becoming contemptuous Pharisees ourselves! As we read the story, we may think, “I’m glad I’m not a self-righteous jerk like that guy!” If we do that, we become self-righteous jerks like that guy! Instead, I’d like to suggest that we look at the Pharisee differently. I’d like to suggest that we look at him not with contempt but with compassion.
Did you notice how many times the Pharisee used the word “I”? His prayer was all “I this” and “I that.” You’d think that this was a sign of how important he thought he was. But it turns out that people who use the word “I” a lot don’t feel that way at all down deep. Researchers at the University of Texas found that people who use the word “I” the most are more insecure and feel they have less control and lower status in any given situation. Since they’re unsure of their position in a group, they focus on themselves. They need to prove their worth, because they’re not sure they are worth much.
Could it be that the Pharisee of the story, and the Pharisees we know, feel much more insecure than they are consciously letting on? Are their “I’s” revealing their fear that the world they know and treasure is falling apart? Do their “I’s” reveal an uncertainty about whether they are valued by other people and justified in God’s eyes?
Their “I’s may indicate that they are looking for a way to soothe the discomfort they are feeling. In the phrase “they trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” the Greek word for “trusted” can also mean “tranquilized.” Maybe it wasn’t pride that caused the Pharisee to act the way he did so much as a deep anxiety and worry about who he was and where he fit in the world. Convincing himself of his own righteousness may have been his way of self-medicating those feelings of anxiety and insecurity. Is it possible that the Pharisee who trusted in himself was actually tranquilizing himself with his self-righteousness and his contempt for others?
The Pharisee needed healing for his “I’s.” But, really, he and the tax collector shared the same condition. They both were suffering from a need that only God can fill—the need for security, the need to be loved unconditionally, the need for forgiveness, the need to be assured of their own salvation. The difference was that the Pharisee had come to rely on his own works to fill that need. The tax collector knew that he could rely only on God and God’s mercy.
Jesus gave us the key to being made right before God, and I would suggest, with others. It’s to humble ourselves. First, we humble ourselves before God. We acknowledge that it’s only by God’s grace that we are made whole. We get down off the pedestal we’ve built for ourselves out of all our good deeds, and we look up at the cross of Jesus. That is where our salvation comes from.
But then, we look around. We look around to all the people that Jesus loved and commanded us to love. That may be a tax collector. That may be a Pharisee. It may even be ourselves. And as we look around, we humble ourselves before others, knowing that we, no less than they, “have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, [and that we] are now justified by God’s grace as a gift.” With that assurance, we share that same grace-filled love and compassion that God extends to us.
Jesus ended his parable with a warning and a promise: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” We, as his 21st century listeners, we can hear something in these words that the original listeners couldn’t. We hear a challenge to be different and an assurance that we can be different. We know what Jesus did for us on the cross. We know what God gave us in the resurrection. We know what we are able to be and do through the power of the Holy Spirit. We know, that by God’s grace, our “I’s” can be healed and our shame removed. We know that we can look up to God with child-like confidence and reach out to others in Christ-like love. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young