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Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Quite a set up Jesus gives us this morning. The scrupulous, squeaky-clean religious man vs. the morally bankrupt, turncoat tax collector.

Now Jesus, the storyteller, sets the figures into action.
"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' " (18:11-12)
Such a good man, eh?

His entire prayer is about himself. He thanks God -- not for blessings -- but that he isn't a sinner like others. He reminds God of how pious he is -- fasting and tithing. I'm sure he believes that God is pleased.

Pharisees developed the practice of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays to intercede for the nation as a whole, which far exceeded the requirements of the law in this regard. They scrupulously tithed or gave one tenth on everything they acquired, even down to the herbs in their garden.

As Jesus tells the story, I can almost hear a titter of laughter sweep over the crowd. They all recognize the type of Pharisee Jesus is describing.

However, I don't think they were ready for his description of the tax collector.
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' " (18:13)
The tax collector's prayer is remarkable and short. First, he addresses God, just as the Pharisee had done.

Next, instead of telling God all the good things about himself, he describes himself as a sinner. He makes no excuses for his behavior, offers no mitigating circumstances. He is confessing his sinfulness before God and taking full responsibility for it.

Finally, he asks for mercy, using the Greek word that asks for compassion and pity for one in tragic circumstances rather than forgiveness from one who has been wronged - an obviously humble and repentant request.

I imagine the crowd growing curious about where Jesus is going with this story.

Jesus wastes no time pronouncing judgment:
"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God." (18:14a)
Can you imagine the impact of these words of Jesus on the crowd? I can imagine that the Pharisees must have been outraged and livid with anger. The rest of the crowd must have been left amazed, curious, wondering.

And then, Jesus delivers the point of the parable:
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (18:14b)
I can only imagine that any tax collector or prostitute or thief or adulterer or anyone considered "unclean" or a "sinner" who might have been standing within ear shot of Jesus must have been weeping with joy for Jesus declared that it was possible for them to be forgiven, to be "justified" before God.

I can only imagine how today's hearer would receive these words of Jesus. I have no doubt that those who think they have it "right" would be outraged and those whose sins are ever before them would rejoice.

But, who are those who think they have it "right"?

Well, a confession: I do, sometimes. I can get to feeling pretty righteous and proud of my spiritual discipline. I pray. I work hard. I try to do good work for my family and for those Jesus teaches me are my 'neighbors'.

Is Jesus trying to say that piety and obedience have little or no value? No, I don't hear that. Rather, I hear this parable attacking with a vengeance any pride and sense of superiority that a sense of piety and obedience may foster.

There are those who feel that their class status or economic wealth or prosperity are signs of God's favor. They work hard. They play by the rules - well, some of them have participated in making the rules that work decidedly in their favor.

I'll leaving you with a few quotes I came across this week which have helped me put this parable in a modern context.

The first is from Jonathan Cohn, Senior Editor of The New Republic, arguing in favor of a tax on the rich, in an article which appeared in that publication on l0/17/10:
"Yes, a good work ethic will take you far. And I know many well-educated professionals convinced that nobody works as hard as they do . . . But I've met many people at the bottom of the income ladder who work just as hard, for far less reward."

"Between 1980 and 2005, the richest 1% of Americans got more than four-fifths of the country's income gains. Does anybody seriously believe that the other 99% didn't deserve to take home a much larger share?"
And this, from Tom Brokaw, noting in the New York Times that some crucial issues are absent from election campaigns this season:
"Notice anything missing on the campaign landscape? How about war?. . .Why aren't the wars and their human and economic consequences front and center in this campaign, right up there with jobs and taxes? No decision is more important than committing a nation to war. It is, as politicians like to say, about our blood and treasure."
Perhaps it's time we all started to pray like the tax collector.

Perhaps its time for us all to have a little more humility. Offering no excuses. Taking responsibility for our own actions - or, inability or unwillingness to take action. Asking for mercy and compassion in at least in equal measure to the mercy and compassion we offer to others.

God, have mercy on us, for we are a nation of sinners - who are loved and justified by a God of Love and compassion.

It's time we started acting like it.


Lisa Fox said...

Amen, Elizabeth. I wish I'd seen this before I preached this morning. I might have been even more pointed. ... A fearful thing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Indeed. I'll have to read what you preached once you post it.

Lisa Fox said...

Elizabeth, I know you moderate comments ... so delete this if it's off base.
My sermon on the Pharisee and the tax collector is at

It's a modest sermon, as suits our rather diverse parish.

I loved your take on today's Gospel!

walter said...

Mother Elizabeth,

It is about that special time we Christians call kairos to finish pray as zelous pharesee and start pray as turncoat tax collectors: God have mercy on us, for we are a nation of sinners who are loved and justified by a God of Love and compassion. This is a time of starting acting like it: love is unrepeatable and love is not deductive (ref. Karl Rahner' anthropological conversion). We pray the anthropological conversion of the Mysterium Unum in the Old and New Testament. It is awesome to recieve God justification in the acknowledgment of our sins..

Buffalo Shepherd

Doorman-Priest said...

I enjoyed reading this. I had a slightly differnt take. Pop over and see if you have a minute.

smartalek said...

Thank you for a most timely reminder.

Malinda said...

Thank you for this - it will, with appropriate credit, find its way into my teaching on servant leadership and the study of the parables to come in the spring.