Theme: Appearances are not everything
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, help keep our good deeds in perspective as we never lose sight of your command to help others; keep us ever mindful of needs of others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Ray Pritchard shares this with us: “When you read the story about the Pharisee, a number of specific statements are made about his piety. Please note this. Everything the man says about himself is true. For instance, when he says, ‘I thank you that I am not like other men,’ indeed he wasn’t like other men. He had a standard of morality that was far above the standard of that day.
“When he said, ‘I fast twice a week;’ it happens to be literally true. The Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday of every week. When he says, ‘I give tithes of all I possess,’ he means he tithes on the gross and not on the net. He went beyond the Law of Moses. That’s no big deal; all the Pharisees did that. And when he says, ‘I am not a crook,’ he really isn’t a crook.
“When he says, ‘I am not like this filthy tax collector’” he’s really not like that guy. When he says, ‘I do not commit adultery’” he really doesn’t commit adultery. He is faithful to his wife. When he says, ‘I am honest, I am faithful, I am zealous for my religion’” he means it and every word of it is true. He truly is a genuinely good man. When I read his prayer, I am reminded of that country song that says, ‘Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.’
“What we are to understand is this. When he prayed he was telling the truth. When he said, ‘Lord, you’re lucky to have a guy like me, because I’m one of the best guys I know,’ it was really true. He really was a wonderful guy.
While he prayed, people would be standing around watching. And they would say, ‘He’s a fine man.’ While he prayed, they probably applauded. He was the kind of guy you’d want living next door to you. A good citizen. A law-abiding man. A good, religious kind of person. If he were to come to this church today we’d love him because he would be faithful, loyal, and give us a lot of money.” We’d probably elect him to the vestry. “He’s just that kind of guy. He looks really good on the outside. Everything he says about himself is absolutely true.”
We are still in a section of Luke that contains sayings of Jesus. Today is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. First, a note about these two groups. Pharisees are one of the two leading religious groups in Jesus’ day. They were very focused on the Law of Moses and the keeping the Law of Moses. And they were very obnoxious about making sure that all Jews followed the Law of Moses, they interpreted the Law of Moses liberally so it would be accessible to all the people.
Tax Collectors, in general, were contractors of people licensed by the Roman government. Rome demanded a certain amount of money from the licensees. The licensees, in turn demanded so much from their collectors. The collectors were not paid for their work. It was expected that they would tack on a commission to what they collected. Tax collectors routinely accepted bribes.
Of course, some tax collectors abused the system and charged exorbitant rates. They were hated because they took money out of Judea and sent it to Rome. They were typically Jews who were agents of the Roman Empire. That made them traitors in the eyes of many people. So, the issue wasn’t paying taxes. It was where the money was going.
Luke introduces the parable by saying why Jesus told it. It was for people who think of themselves as better or more moral than other people and then look down on others.
We have heard of people who talk over and over again about how good they are and that everyone else should be like them. Then a number of years later that person gets involved in a sex or money scandal, or both. We might say that Jesus has known them for a really long time.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are both in the temple for prayer. When we read, “in the temple,” it refers to the temple grounds. Only priests were allowed in the temple building. Jesus places them in the temple, I think, because the temple was the central place of worship for Jews then – not the only place, but the principle place. It was more holy than any other place. God is near there.
Jesus then gives us a contrast of prayer. The Pharisee recounts to God all the great things that he does, just in case God missed anything. You never know, maybe God isn’t always paying attention to just us and no one else. The Pharisee is like the small child who does something and yells to the parents to look at the child. The tax collector makes a convenient contrast between him and the Pharisee. He is not like that tax collector over there.
The tax collector did not feel he was good enough to even be in the temple, let alone to look up to heaven. He was so sorry for what he had done. The tax collector offers a simple prayer of confession.
We typically say a prayer of confession in the General Confession. We are not being faithful to that prayer if we don’t recall when we have been infected with pride and ask for God’s mercy. We need to do what the Pharisee did not do. An accounting of our good thoughts and deeds are not appropriate. An accounting of where we failed to make the grade is in order. Then we are reminded in the Eucharistic prayer of how Jesus’ blood was given for the forgiveness of all our sins.
Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head. It is the tax collector and not the Pharisee who will receive God’s favor. No matter how righteous the Pharisee is, he is not worthy of God’s favor if he ill treats someone else, if he sees someone else as inferior, even if that person has deserved contempt. We can pray three or more times a day, we can tithe, but if we even think bad thoughts about someone else for any reason, then God will not like us very much.
Each of the gospel writers treats the Pharisees differently. In Luke, Jesus is close to the Pharisees. Luke’s hearers would be surprised by the outcome of the parable. Jesus is trying to make a point. He is not engaging in stereotyping.
This parable is also about the justification of the ungodly. Notice that the tax collector never repents. For all we know, he doesn’t change. This parable lacks moralism. The Pharisee gives a prayer of thanksgiving. It is a prayer we do not do often enough. The Pharisee’s prayer is a classic Jewish prayer. The tax collector’s prayer is also traditional. His prayer resembles a psalm of lament. What is strange is having this prayer come from the lips of a tax collector. Jesus’ justification of the tax collector is shocking.
The tax collector simply trusts in God’s mercy. If a tax collector can gain God’s mercy, who can be excluded?
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift of humility, that we may we may not put ourselves over others, helping people be better without condemnation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Text: Luke 18:9–14 (NRSV)
9 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.”