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Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost, October 27, 2013

When the characters in the parable come on stage, we know who to boo and who to cheer. We have all heard the negative characterization of the Pharisees in the New Testament and the positive characterizations of the tax collectors. So we boo the Pharisee and cheer the tax collector. But it was not so in Jesus’ time. The people listening to the story would have cheered the Pharisee and booed the tax collector. Pharisees were good people. They were a group of liberal Jewish laypeople who wanted to see the Torah observed not only in religious life, but in everyday life as well. They studied the Scriptures thoroughly and were able to counsel those who wanted a deeper connection with God by obeying the law. They obeyed the commandments and tithed their income. These were all good things. The Pharisees were a blessing to the Jewish community.

On the other hand, tax collectors were considered reprehensible. They collaborated with the Roman oppressor. They extorted additional money over taxes due from rich and poor and feathered their own nests with it. They were rich from their ill-gotten gains. They were considered unclean and not to be associated with.

So when the two actors come on stage, we have at first a black and white story. The Pharisees are the people in the white hats. They are the Dudley Do-Rights of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They may not rescue maidens from being tied to railroad tracks, but they do their duty and act righteously in all things. The tax collectors are the Snidely Whiplashes of the tale. They wear the black hats. While they may not tie maidens to railroad tracks, they do evil things to people.

The backdrop for the two actors is the temple. Both are praying. The audience thinks that the temple is a natural place for the Pharisee to be, and they wonder why in the world a tax collector would even come to the temple. The Pharisee prays first, a prayer of thanksgiving. And it is there that Jesus’ familiar reversal of the social norms of the time begins. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other people. He does not covet. He does not steal. He does not commit adultery. And he is certainly not like the tax collector, who is a thorn in the side of his people. Instead, he goes above and beyond the laws. He fasts twice a week, much more than the required fasting on holy days requires, and he gives a tenth of his income. The Pharisee is generous, and he is spiritually disciplined. Both of those things are virtues we would all do well to emulate.

But notice where the Pharisee is standing. He is by himself. The Pharisee believes he is doing all these things out of his own strength. He has done right on his own initiative, and he is a righteous person before God. The others he speaks about have done wrong before God. The Pharisee is not so much thanking God for the blessings he has received to be able to act in a righteous manner and to help others do so. He is cataloging his virtues and letting God know how lucky God is to have such an excellent example, such a worthy worshipper (E. Elizabeth Johnson). Not once during the prayer does he acknowledge himself as dependent on God for his salvation. Not once does he say, “I could not have done this without you Lord.” Instead he justifies himself. He separates himself from God; God cannot justify him because he has already done it. He also separates himself from his neighbor by making judgments about them.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector. He has been overcome by a feeling of remorse for the evil he is doing, and he has come to God with no defenses. His behavior is sinful in the sight of God; he can say nothing about his life that will justify himself. So he does the only thing he can do. In his guilt and shame, he throws himself on God’s mercy. He declares his dependence on God for everything. And God justifies him or makes him righteous.

Now the audience does not know what to think. All of a sudden, the black and white parable has blurred into shades of gray. The good guy has become the bad guy, and the bad guy has become the good guy, not because of their behavior, but because of their attitudes toward God. The Pharisee has exalted himself and the tax collector has humbled himself. Just like the story Jesus tells about people scrambling for high places at the dining table, he declares good things for those who humble themselves and bad things for those who exalt themselves.

The key to this parable is humility. Humility before God means total dependence on God for all that you have and all that you are. The Pharisee goes through the motions of righteous behavior, such as being generous, but he has disconnected his acts from his attitude. The tax collector, who has nothing to be proud of, goes to God with nothing – no defenses, no self-justifications. Humility also means accepting your neighbors as human beings loved by God, no matter how unrighteous their behavior. The Pharisee would have done better to be thankful to God that he did not practice the lawless behaviors rather than to point out the faults of others. The tax collector focuses only on his own faults.

One technique of theological reflection is to put yourself in the story and see who you are. This parable is a puzzle. We want to be like the Pharisee, but have the attitude of the tax collector. But as we think further, the puzzle pieces come together. We are Pharisees. We are the people who go to church, who do the committee work, who donate our income, who do good works. We are the people who do the liturgy, reach out to the community and invite others to be like we are. And we want to be like the Pharisee. We do not want to be like the modern-day version of the tax collector – the payday lender, the crooked politician, those other narrow-minded Christians. And boom! Now we are exactly like the Pharisee. We are judging other people instead of leaving that task to God. We can certainly condemn actions that are against God’s law, but we cannot demean other people, who are also beloved of God.

Humility is hard. I have a friend who has a pillow that says, “It is hard to be humble if you live in “a certain part of the metro area”. It is meant as a joke, but it is truly hard to be humble anywhere, especially if you have a catalog of legitimately good deeds you can be proud of. It is hard to be humble before God since most of us were raised in the individualistic culture of theUnited States. It is hard to be humble when you are running for office, going on a job interview or giving a paper at a convention. It is hard to be humble when we do not trust God, when we feel vulnerable because of a general feeling that God does not help with every situation. It is hard to be humble as Jesus was, following God’s will in every situation, even going to his death willingly to save the world.

Sometimes being humble is about acknowledging who you are before God, not as a sinner, but as a beloved child. Being humble does not mean false modesty, in which you downgrade your accomplishments or your person. Being humble does not mean letting yourself be walked all over by other people. Being humble does not mean trying to be like somebody else you consider better than you because our model is Jesus and our instructor is God.

If we leave this parable thanking God that we are not like the Pharisee, we have gotten the wrong message. God loves the Pharisee as much as God loves the tax collector as much as God loves each of us. Comparisons are dangerous; we need to leave judgment to God. Self-reliance is sinful; we need to depend on God. God has made each of us who we are and given us all our blessings. Sometimes we stray from God’s command for us – that we love God and neighbor. Giving thanks for our blessings and depending on God’s mercy for forgiveness and reconciliation make us righteous before God. And God’s mercy should be the biggest thank you in our lives.


     - The Rev. Ann Barker


Work cited:
E. Elizabeth Johnson, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4 (Louisville, John Knox Press, 2009), p. 215