Luke 18: 9-14
The parable of the pharisee and tax collector
I don’t know about you but one of the places where I’m at my worst in is the grocery store checkout line. While I try so very hard to resist, I sometimes can’t quite help comparing what’s on the belt in front of me and the other people’s purchases. I’ll see that the person in front has piled up boxes of junk food, lots of chips and overly processed microwave meals and I’ll think, look at me, I’m buying vegetables! I must be a far better person that him. Similarly, there used to be a show on TV where a woman would come and help couples get out of terrible debt. Now, Jen and I are pretty good with money so we didn’t need to watch this show but we did anyways. Why? Well, maybe that we called it the “smug show” might give you a hint about what we took from watching.
Maybe this is why today’s reading is a bit of a challenge for me. Once again, I’m hearing Jesus tell a parable and I’m left wondering which character represents me. Am I the repentant tax collector or the boastful pharisee?
Here we have this pharisee walking on up to the temple, singing to himself, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble.” He’s on his way to pray. Yes, anyone could pray anytime, but there was still this belief that in the temple, you were closer to God and so just maybe, there’s a better chance that God will hear you. Maybe he’s also there so that people can see him being so very holy. It’s fine and all to be a good person but it’s even better if others notice. He prays loudly that he fasts twice a week and that he tithes, giving ten percent of his income to charity. He also thanks God that he’s not like this tax collector who’s prayer is far more simple, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Now let’s not be too hasty judging this guy. Maybe you might even start to think, “thank you God that you didn’t make me like this pharisee,” and in so doing, become the pharisee yourself. And why shouldn’t the pharisee feel some pride. He’s actually going above and beyond Jewish law. He’s required to fast once a year on the day of atonement but he’s fasting twice a week. That takes some pretty serious spiritual discipline. He’s also giving ten percent of his entire income. By law, he’s supposed to tithe the fruits of his fields but he’s also handing over a portion of that salary he takes from being a teacher, as well as that gift shop he owns on the promenade that does so well with the tourists during festivals. And being a pharisee, he’s opposed to the Roman occupation and insists on obeying the law of his people, no matter how difficult it is when forced to also follow Roman law.
He’s also comparing himself to a tax collector who’s praying for forgiveness and so he should. Unlike the pharisee he’s colluding with the Romans, using their unjust system of taxation to line his own pockets. He’s betraying his own people and bringing shame to himself and his family. While I may not have proclaimed it so loudly in the middle of the temple, I’d be feeling pretty smug as well, I too would be pretty thankful that I’m not like this low life extortionist.
So I guess that settles it. I’m probably much more like the pharisee than the tax collector. I try to obey God’s law. I tithe all of my income. While I don’t fast, I have devoted my professional life to spreading the Gospel. Why shouldn’t the Pharisee be proud? Why shouldn’t I? I know that many of your lives are marked with good deeds and generous living so shouldn’t you feel a bit of pride?
Absolutely you should! So then, what is Jesus talking about here? Well, maybe a more contemporary example would be the rise of nationalism around the world. Any of you who have studied 20th century history will recognize the term and know that it had a big part to play in World War 1 & 2. Nationalism is like patriotism but taken to an extreme. Patriotism is the love of ones country and so maybe I could be called a patriot – I love Canada and am proud to call it my home. Nationalism’s most obvious quality though isn’t love of one’s own country but instead the hatred of everyone else’s. Everyone else must become like us and if they don’t, they’re backward fools who are so dangerous we would do well to eliminate them. Besides that, where do they get off putting their country on top of our natural resources.
Patriotism allows for relationships between countries but nationalism can only lead to isolation and hostility. In the same way, this pharisee has gone past pride. It’s not that he’s proud of his accomplishments and his relationship with God’s law but his pride has has moved to the equivalent of nationalism – he has hubris. When you have hubris, it’s not that you are a good person but instead, everyone who doesn’t meet your high standard is garbage. I can be proud and be in relationship with others. If I have hubris though, I divide humanity into a stark division between who are like me and failures.
It’s happened a couple of times that I’ve been in that grocery store check out and I’ve noticed that I’m the one with a bunch of less than healthy food. I’ve been the one with a ton of cheese and ice cream and have wondered what other’s have thought of me. Would they know that during the summer for the most part I eat from our garden but we still haven’t grown an ice cream plant? What if people don’t know the whole story. Will they look at me with the same level of judgement that I’ve viewed others?
Yes, tax collectors were making a living in a way that hurt so many. But what’s the rest of his story. What if he was unable to feed his family? What if becoming a tax collector was his best opportunity to not watch his children starve? What if this was his one chance to escape crippling and unjust debt that was owed to the so called good people? Would we be so quick to judge? Maybe he really is simply an opportunistic jerk taking advantage of his own people but we can’t know.
This is so important for us as we try to live in community, maybe especially as a church. While we might not be a big church, we are a diverse group of people. Each and every one of us has our own story – some of which is public knowledge but I’d bet that every one of us has an aspect of our lives, past or present, that we’d like to keep to ourselves. We can’t fully know each others life stories, never mind the story of this very day. Maybe there’s someone we meet here who we judge as pretty darned grumpy – do we know about the phone call he got early this morning saying he’s losing his job? Maybe there’s someone who gets really emotional at the slightest sign of conflict – what we might not know is her years of being bullied at school. Behind a bright smile of a seemingly confident person lurks the terror that others will find out he’s dealing with mental illness.
When this pharisee came to the temple he was so distracted by his own greatness he didn’t even notice that the tax collector was bowing down in anguish before God. What if he offered the tax collector the benefit of the doubt, what if he paused to think that there might be more to his story than meets the eye? What if he took his job as one who teaches of God’s grace and offered this grace to one who so obviously needed it.
Only God knows your entire story, and God still loves you. Should that not be a sign to us all that maybe we too can give each other the benefit of the doubt? Shouldn’t we have the humility to admit that we don’t perfectly know each others stories? Shouldn’t we always be ready to error on the side of love?