The Pharisee & Tax Collector (The Parables of Jesus)
The Parables of Jesus: The Pharisee & Tax Collector
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • August 21, 2016 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
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Introduction - The Pharisee & Tax Collector
I’m continuing this morning in the sermon series, “The Parables of Jesus.” As Pastor Nigel mentioned last week, parables serve as metaphors which do more than explain meaning, rather they create meaning. With this view, a parable is just not a delivery system for an idea, but it constructs a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence.
Today’s parable is found in Luke 18:9-14.
9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13“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.’ 14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
As we approach this parable, Luke has already added his commentary for how we might interpret and understand this parable. It’s difficult to avoid the straightforward, simple interpretation. “Jesus is offering this parable as a cautionary tale for those who are confident of their own righteousness and look down on others.”
Hearing this, we might hear ourselves say, “Lord, thank you that I am not like those other people: you know, the hypocrites, the overly pious, the self righteous, or even like the Pharisee in this parable. I’m so glad that I come to church every week, listen attentively to the sermons, and apply them and the scriptures to my daily life. God, I’m so glad that I also learned the lesson that I should always be humble.”
We should be mindful to avoid the kind of “self-congratulatory righteousness” reading of the parable that the parable itself seems to condemn.
That’s right. What happens when somebody is self righteous is they are actively comparing themselves to others and measuring themselves as a better keeper of the rules.
If that doesn’t resonate, it may be helpful to think of times when you believed that you understood the rules better than everyone else around you. Like how other people drive? How they cook? How others save or spend their money. Playing Pokémon, don’t fight in gyms, just collect Pokémon. Ever found yourself correcting the way someone cleaned the floors? In computer science, it’s simple, don’t use spaces to indent, use tabs, it saves times and is cleaner.
It can be easy to just judge the Pharisee for being self-righteous, assume that is the point of the parable, and move on, but there’s treasure buried in the field of this parable.
Let’s take a moment and break it down a little.
11The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ (Luke 18:11-12)
It may be helpful to note that everything that the Pharisee says about himself is true.
Remember the Pharisees were at the top of the heap when it came to observing the law. The Pharisees didn’t just keep the law, they constructed a wall around the law. For them, the law could be best understood as a “garden of flowers,” you could easily trample the flowers in the garden, if you weren’t too careful, so to avoid that possibility, it would be better if there was fence around the garden that would actually prevent you from ever damaging a flower, or breaking a law. This construct was formed out of necessity, remember, the Pharisees are the religious leaders who are most concerned with restoration of God’s good and holy rule, it’s the longing that we all have, the return of the King to rule his creation. They believe that the only way for God to return to his creation was through a strict adherence to his Law. You might say that the Pharisee had the best intentions in their approach to the Law. Add to this that Jesus, himself, tells us that if we intend to inherit the kingdom of God, our righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees and Scribes (see Matthew 5), something that many first-century hearers would have assumed was impossible. So, the lesson of this parable cannot be just, “Don’t engage in the practices that the Pharisees practice.” And at the same time, it cannot be pattern your life after that of the tax collector.
Jesus is telling this story just like he did the story of the Good Samaritan, he’s trying to shift our focus. He wants to grab our attention. If we read the story, already realizing that the Pharisee was in the wrong, then’s what’s the point of the parable. The parable just confirms our prejudice, “the Pharisees they are all just hypocrites.” Instead, Jesus is inviting us to pay attention.
11The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ (Luke 18:9-14)
The Pharisee is in the temple, but he has set himself apart. This could be because he fears becoming defiled. If he touches the clothing of someone who is ceremonially unclean, he becomes defiled too. Therefore, as he understands and observes the law, he must keep his distance. From this place, he offers his prayer. Now the prayer he offers isn’t really for himself, is it? It seems likes a mini-sermon, an unsolicited ethical homily that seeks to point out to those around him just how far they have fallen. But before we condemn the Pharisee, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder to ourselves, if we have ever uttered a similar prayer ourselves. We might not open our prayers by comparing ourselves to others and condemning their failures, we might open with,
“I’m grateful, I’m just so blessed.”
“I’m just grateful that I have a good head on my shoulders.”
“I’m so grateful that my parents taught me...”
Or the classic,
“There, but for the grace of God, go I?”
Maybe the issue with the Pharisee and his prayer isn’t that he is speaking falsely, but that he doesn’t recognize the true nature of his blessing and his standing before God. It’s as if he has completely removed the role of mercy in his life. It’s as if he is living in a true meritocracy. He locates his righteousness entirely within his own actions and being.
Let me push in here for just a moment...
If it’s a true meritocracy, then there’s really no need for God at all. God is just a formula that we master, do this, get that. Do that, get this. This isn’t a relationship, this is a transaction;and it put us back on the salvation ladder. Every rung we reach on the salvation ladder represents all of our efforts to reach God. All of our striving, our hard work, our excellence, our perfectionism. It’s the result of the false narrative that says we earn our way into favor with God. Remember if you earned it, it’s not grace, if you earned it, it’s not mercy, if you earned it, it’s not forgiveness. It’s just a payment. Your good works do matter to God, and he does want you to do them. They just need to flow from a life that’s connected to him already, they flow from a place of appreciation for what God has already done for us.
Think of it this way, if I spend my mornings walking through my house opening the blinds to let in the sunshine and assuming my house has lots of windows, this could take a lot of effort, time, and energy. I could actually start to resent the effort needed to bring in the sunshine. I could also falsely assume that is only through my effort that the sun shines in the house. Certainly, in one sense that’s true, but should I boast that it is my effort and my effort alone that brings the sun streaming in? No, of course not. The sun, the light it produces, and warmth it brings, is a gift.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness.
13“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.’ (Luke 18:13)
It is reasonably well-known why tax-collectors were despised. In one sense the tax collectors were representatives of those who had given up hope – hope that God would rescue and restore their people. Instead of holding out, resisting, or fighting the Empire, it seemed as if they had surrendered and joined the “hated other.” The tax collectors were colluding with the very power from which pious Jews sought God for liberation. This explains why they were excluded from fellowship, why their charitable gifts were returned, and why they were often blocked or prevented for atoning for their sins in the temple. So, this tax collector comes to the temple understanding his place, position, and status. He has done nothing of merit; much to offend the law. For this reason he stands back, hardly willing to be recognized, utterly throwing himself on the mercy of the Lord.
Here is the essential contrast. The Pharisee makes a claim to righteousness based on his own merit, his accomplishments, while the tax collector relies entirely upon the mercy and kindness of God. The Pharisee appears to assume that his righteous is the result of his own efforts, which leads him to the point of despising others. In his mind there may be only two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he finds himself in the right category. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn't so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his position, place, and status to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands back is his own great need. He therefore stakes all his hopes and claims, not on anything he has done or deserved, but entirely on the mercy of God.
I don't think it's an accident that this exchange takes place at the Temple. As you entered the Temple grounds, you were intimately aware of who you were, and what status you had, and what you could expect from God. There were, at the Temple, what we might call, "insiders" and "outsiders," and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood.
This is what makes this parable so hard to preach. Indeed, what makes this parable a trap. For 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. Whether our division is between saints and sinners or between the self-righteous and the humble, when we divide humanity into winners and losers, we are doomed. Totally doomed! We’ve missed the point, it’s as if we are canceling mercy. If there’s no mercy available for them, then certainly there’s no mercy for us.
Anytime we draw a line between who's "in" and who we think is "out," this parable asserts, “You will may find God on the other side.” This is a hard pill to swallow, isn’t it? When we read the parable this way, the parable escapes even its own narrative setting and reveals that it is not about self-righteousness and humility, any more than the parable is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, and this may be shocking, this parable is actually about God: because it is only God alone, who can judge the human heart; only God alone can determine who is justified and who isn’t. Only God can in the end, ultimately show mercy, since it is only to God that we really owe everything.
At the end of this parable, the Pharisee leaves the Temple and return to his home righteous in the eyes of the Law. This really hasn't changed; truthfully he was righteous in the eyes of the Law when he came up to the Temple. The tax collector, however, will leave the Temple and go back down to his home justified, that is, accounted righteous by the only one who grants mercy, the God of Mercy!
How did this happen, especially given that the tax collector makes neither a sacrifice nor offers any restitution for his sins? On what basis then is he named as righteous? On the basis of God's divine fiat and sheer mercy!
One final observation:
The Pharisee is "standing by himself" while the Tax Collector is "standing far off." What has that to do with relationship and who's in and who's out in God's kingdom? In Luke's Gospel Jesus is breaking down the barriers that separate God's people. Could it be, once again, that the Pharisee and the Tax Collector need each other in order to fully understand themselves in the presence of God? Could it be that God mercifully restores us to each other, and for each other, in community?
As we attempt to approach and incorporate this parable in our everyday, we can only do so to the degree that each time we try to interpret it we find ourselves; over and over again, with nothing to claim but our dependence on God's mercy.
Consider who you might be holding at arm’s length, someone you may be passing judgement on, and consider what offering them mercy instead of judgement would look like and feel like to you? And if you are willing as the Lord give you an opportunity to offer mercy.