A few words from the slanty side of the pulpit today at West Fayette (NY) Presbyterian Church.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
We’ve all met them. In the office. In the family. Among friends. In church. Even on this side of the pulpit. Boisterous. Pompous. Always pointing toward themselves. They may have the right intentions, but somehow they come off as holier than thou. And it often puts us off.
Before I get into more detail on our reading – specifically our Pharisee and our tax collector, I was reminded of a story. So I am going to digress.
A Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Presbyterian minister are all best friends. They have this tradition of meeting up at a certain coffee shop and talking about this and that while they eat their collective favorite dessert, cherry pie.
One day, as the friends are enjoying their cherry pie, the topic of whose religion is true comes up and a long and tiresome discussion ensues. But by the end of it, no conclusion is reached between the three. The only thing they can all agree on is their God has many, many rules for man to follow and although these rules can at times seem arbitrary or even unfounded, it is not the duty of man to understand the purpose for any law of God, but rather it is the duty of man to follow the laws regardless of his understanding of them.
The priest contributes, “I believe lust is the most vile, disgusting sin of all and surely God must hate it as much as I do. For that reason I vowed to never, as long as I should live, act on my sexual urges. I have remained celibate my entire life to show my commitment to God.”
And the rabbi says, “Well that may very well be true, but it is my opinion the grossest assault on God’s honor is to work on the sabbath day, for not even did He work on that holiest of holy days, so who would I be as a humble human being to work on His day of rest? For that reason I vowed to always keep the sabbath day holy as long as I should live and to preach it to my congregation.”
And the Presbyterian minister added, “Both of you make fair points, but it is my assessment the pig is the most foul creature to walk the earth, for the spirit of Lucifer himself inhabited that dirty animal and anyone who would consume the flesh and blood of that beast should surely become as perverted and vile as the dark prince himself. For that reason I vowed to never eat pork as long as I should live and won’t allow pork barbecues as fund raisers at my church. This is how I demonstrate my devotion to God.”
With the three friends satisfied with their individual commitments to God, the priest, rabbi, and minister finished their cherry pie and went on to live very pious lives in their own separate ways. They continued to meet up every week at the coffee shop and eat cherry pie and had discussions for many decades until one day, the three old friends are stepping out of the coffee shop, laughing and wiping the cherry pie crumbs from the corners of their mouths when a bus driver loses control of his vehicle and crashes into the three men, killing them instantly.
The priest, rabbi, and minister find themselves standing at the pearly gates of heaven before St. Peter, who regrettably informs them there is a slight delay before they can get in. The men are understandably furious.
“This is outrageous!” says the priest. “I was so handsome in life, hundreds of women threw themselves at me but I remained committed to my celibacy! I resisted my lustful urges because I thought that’s what God would want!’ St. Peter just nods his head and shrugs his shoulders.
The rabbi says, “Think about all the money my congregation could have made if I hadn’t preached about mot working on the sabbath day! I’m talkin’ thousands of dollars down the drain! But I kept telling them to keep the sabbath day holy!’ Again St. Peter just nods and shrugs.
The minister says, “Just the smell of bacon sizzling in a pan is enough to get me salivating like a Pavlov dog, but not once in my entire life did I touch a single molecule of pork meat to my tongue! What is the meaning of this?”
And St. Peter says, “Look, gentlemen. There’s no denying you all lived very devoted lives, but unfortunately there’s an asterisk next to each of your names.”
The three friends look at one another in bewilderment before asking, “What is that? “An asterisk?” they ask in unison. “What does that mean?”
“It means your file needs special scrutiny and approval from the Boss Himself.”
“Should we be concerned?” asked the minister, with the priest and rabbi nodding in agreement.
And St. Peter says sheepishly, “Well the Big Guy isn’t really a huge fan of cherry pie.”
Okay. Okay. I told you I wasn’t a preacher. I like being a story teller … especially if I can connect the story with the message. Let’s see how I do.
You see, our three characters in the story were a little presumptuous about their faith. They were passionate. They picked one thing – lust/celibacy, not working on the Sabbath, and association with the devil through pork – and lived their lives accordingly. Their witness reflected their beliefs.
Now there is nothing wrong with that. Our lives should reflect our beliefs. But as we saw during their conversation with St. Pete, it became obvious they were passionate about their respective beliefs as it reflected their life.
That’s where a lot of us get in trouble, myself included. Our intentions are good, but somehow the light of Christ is usurped. I could have had many relationships, the women were throwing themselves at me. I didn’t work on the Sabbath, but I could have and made boatloads of money. I shied away from pork because it reminded me of Satan. I thought that’s what God would want.
That’s a lot of I’s and me’s.
That brings us to our Gospel reading. Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: “God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The Pharisee’s focus is on neither God nor the tax collector, but is rather on self. He uses the first-person pronoun four times in rapid succession – “I …, I …, I …, I …” In assessing his own character, he compares himself only to the worst elements of his society, and pronounces himself excellent by comparison.
The problem with that thinking is, when picking a standard by which to measure ourselves, we need to look higher. The only faithful standard is God. If we compare ourselves to God, our sin will be obvious and we will not be tempted to the kind of pride that taints this Pharisee.
In contrast, while the Pharisee feels too good to associate with common people, the tax collector feels too bad. He beats his breast – a Mideastern expression of extreme anguish. He simply and directly says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He doesn’t claim any virtue, and can hope only for mercy.
His prayer is much like the great penitential psalm: Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness. According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51:1-2).
Jesus sums up the parable by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified — referring to the tax collector — rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In this parable, Jesus does not tell us the tax collector offers to refund any ill-gotten money, as Zacchaeus will do (Luke 19:8). He does not say the tax collector will change his ways and become respectable. The tax collector brings no personal achievement to the table to bargain with God, and makes no offer to play the personal-achievement game. He has nothing to commend him, and makes no effort to become commendable.
His only virtue is his humility, which allows him to ask for mercy. God acknowledges his prayer, and he therefore goes down to his home justified.
What are we left with. A righteous man (the Pharisee) goes down to his house as unjustified/righteous and an unrighteous man (the tax collector) goes down to his house as justified/righteous. The point is obvious. Justification/righteousness is not something we can accomplish on our own. We can only receive it as a gift from God.
The perplexing offshoot of this story, however, causes us to ask whether personal holiness counts for anything. If rascals are justified ahead of saints, why not be a rascal?
The answer is being a rascal is not in keeping with who we are — with whose we are. Both Testaments emphasize the importance of personal holiness. Paul also addresses this issue at length in Romans 6. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector does not celebrate license but instead reminds us our salvation depends on grace. None of us — clergy included — have cause to tout our spiritual achievements. None of us have reason to be contemptuous of our fellow followers. All of us approach the throne of grace with empty hands.
On it’s face, the parable is a story about humility. But we also have to be careful. Pharisees are generally cast as foils to the message of Jesus in Luke. We can all too easily judge the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume the moral of this story is to be humble. There is good reason for this straightforward interpretation, as Luke seems to frame the parable in just these terms.
The difficulty is we might as well end up praying, “Lord, we thank you we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned we should always be humble.”
However, everything the Pharisee says is true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is righteous, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ.
So before we judge him too quickly, we might re-frame his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people …”, but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, “There but for the grace of God go I”?
The Pharisee is not speaking falsely, but rather just misses the true nature of his blessing. He has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He centers his righteousness entirely on his own actions and being.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knows he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.
This is the essential contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord’s benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.
This is what makes this parable so hard to preach or understand fully. As soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” you will find God on the other side.
Thus, the parable is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God — God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.
In the end, the Pharisee returns to his home righteous, but this hasn’t changed. He was righteous when he came up and righteous as he goes back down. The tax collector, however, goes back down to his home justified – strictly on the basis of God’s divine fiat and ordinance!
Can we ever get completely rid of the Pharisee in us?
It is so easy to feel superior to others in one way or another while being blind to our own shortcomings. Only by making the humble prayer of the publican our own can we be protected from this danger. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The moral of the parable is to find ourselves, yet again, with nothing to claim but our dependence on God’s mercy.
The good news is the role of the tax collector is available to all of us. We are all sinners yet beloved children of the gracious Father. The parable invites us to experience the freedom that comes with casting away our flimsy armor and throwing ourselves into the arms of God, who is already there, who has already found us, who wants more than anything to lift us up and lead us home.
But there probably won’t be any cherry pie.
And the faithful responds …
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER: Joy is a decision, a really brave one, about how you are going to respond to life. – Wess Stafford