Sunday October 27, 2019
Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
Preacher: Kate Jones
So Jesus has been throwing some pretty tough parables our way, and this week is no exception! Today we have a parable about two people going to the temple to pray. The Pharisee seems to have a pretty high opinion of himself, and he prays, “Thank you, God, for not making me like those guys over there. Thank you for making me a good and holy person. Not only do I do all of the things that you want me to, but I go above and beyond in how I pray and in what I give to the poor.”
The Tax Collector, on the other hand, hides away in a corner. He keeps his eyes turned downward, afraid to look up in case he accidentally made eye contact with God, and he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
I invite you to consider, digging deep into your heart – in your life, do you relate more to the Pharisee, or more to the Tax Collector?
For me, on first reading, I really don’t like the Pharisee. I don’t like the tone of self-satisfaction in his voice; I don’t like his smugness; I don’t like the way that he looks at the people around him as being less worthy, less human. The tax collector, on the other hand, he seems to be able to see himself with clarity. He knows where he stands in relation to God. On first reading, this is the guy that I can get behind.
But what if we were to dig a bit deeper into who these people are, who are praying in the temple. The Pharisees, no matter what impression we might get of them from the gospels, weren’t necessarily the bad guys. The Pharisees as a group made faith accessible to everyone. Anyone could make themselves holy, anyone could come into relationship with God through how they lived their lives. And so maybe there is a bit of a heartfelt prayer of gratitude mixed in with the smug self-satisfaction. “Thank you, God, for giving me the means to draw close to you.”
Then there is the humble Tax Collector who prays for mercy from God. And believe me, the Tax Collectors needed mercy from God. In this world system, Tax Collectors were agents of the Roman Empire. Rome required a certain amount of money to be extracted, I mean collected, from the local population, and so they would contract out the work. And without a doubt, it was lucrative work! Because if the Tax Collector could squeeze more money out of the people than he needed to pass along to Rome, then he got to keep the excess for himself. He wasn’t paid a salary by Rome, but he got to demand from the people whatever amount of money he thought that he deserved.
And so from the perspective of the people of the day, Tax Collectors were the lowest of the low. Not only were they agents of the invading and oppressive Roman Empire, but they were also usually scoundrels getting rich off of the backs of their own people, because who but a scoundrel would want to be in this line of work?!
Two people praying very different prayers in the temple, but interestingly enough, they are both praying from the Psalms, the ancient prayers and songs of the Israelite people. The Pharisee’s prayer echoes Psalm 17:
If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
if you test me;
you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
As for what others do, by the words of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped. (Psalm 17:3-5)
The Tax Collector’s prayer, on the other hand, echoes Psalm 51:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)
So maybe there are more layers of complication to this story than there appears to be at first glance. A good person giving thanks for what God has given to him; and a scoundrel and a thief praying to God for mercy. Maybe I need to reconsider who I relate more with. Maybe I can relate more to the Pharisee in this story?
I find that both of the characters in this short story that Jesus tells to be complicated people. With the Tax Collector, his wrongdoings are obvious on the surface – he cheats and exploits people on behalf of the Empire in order to get ahead himself, but he has good self-awareness and recognizes that he his nothing next to God. The Pharisee on the other hand – he is living a good life, worshipping God and giving to charity; but he seems to lack insight into himself – he doesn’t seem to understand that he isn’t God!
I think that I mentioned last week that as humans, we tend to like judging, and that is exactly what my tendency is to do with this story. I am trying to judge which of these two people is worse; I’m trying to figure out which one I want to associate with, and which one I want to condemn.
A story has been told about a preacher who preached on this parable, preaching about the awfulness of the Pharisee – about his lack of compassion for his neighbour, about his smugness, about his inflated ego. And when the sermon was over, the preacher turned to the congregation and said, “Let us pray.” And the preacher’s pray began, “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisee in this story…” And as soon as his prayer began, this preacher was guilty of the same sin he was accusing the Pharisee of.
I wonder what this parable would look like if we were to view it through the lens of grace rather than the lens of judgement? What if, instead of trying judge, instead of trying to figure out which of these two people was the worse sinner, we were to see them as God’s beloved children, whom God has forgiven, and whom God loves unconditionally, not because of anything that they have done or anything that they haven’t done, but simply because they are beloved?
At the end of this parable, Jesus tells us that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus doesn’t say that the Tax Collector is a good person, worthy of love and forgiveness, who will be raised up above the Pharisee. And at the same time, Jesus isn’t saying that the Pharisee is a vile and evil person who is going to be knocked down below the Tax Collector.
I read this verse instead as a great leveller. Yes, the proud are going to be knocked off their high horse, and yes, the humble are going to be raised up, but that brings both of them to the same place in relation to God. We are all human. None of us is God. Only God is God. And God loves everyone equally, with God’s whole heart. More love for you doesn’t mean less love for me – it isn’t a zero-sum game. We are all God’s beloved children, whether we relate more to the Pharisee or the Tax Collector in today’s story.
To quote the Pulpit Fiction Podcast this week, “to place grace in a pecking order is to not understand grace.” In God’s world, there aren’t some who are more beloved than others.
None of us is perfect – we are all human and we all fall short at times. To quote the perhaps infamous words of Paul writing to the church in Rome, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) No one in the history of the world has been able to fully love God and fully love our neighbour 100% of the time.
But in God’s eyes, that doesn’t matter. We are all God’s beloved children. There is no pecking order in grace because there is enough love to go around. If we were to finish that quote from the Apostle Paul, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24).
God loves you. The grace that was extended to both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is extended to each one of us here. We are all human – none of us is God – but God loves each one of us, and calls us beloved child.
Thanks be to God!