Here's an aside: I went surfing through Google Images, seeking an image that conveyed the image I have of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. But not one of them fit the mental image I have. (The one I used above was the least bad.) Too bad I have zero artistic ability! I'd love to see what Doug/Counterlight would do with this story.
For better or worse ... here's the sermon.
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Grace Episcopal Church, Jefferson City, MO
October 24, 2010 - Lisa Fox
The Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jeremiah 14: 7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84: 1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18: 9-14: Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The season after Pentecost is also called “ordinary time” in the church. We spend roughly half the year (from Advent through Eastertide) focusing on Jesus’ life, nature, and ministry. After Pentecost, we turn to the life, nature, and ministry of the church. We focus on our “ordinary” life as and in the church: who we are called to be, and what we are called to do.
In last week’s Gospel, we learned that we are “to pray always and not lose heart,” and Jesus illustrated that point with the story about that persistent widow who finally got justice from a judge who didn’t care about God or people. We heard about the importance of persistent prayer.
Today’s lesson from Luke immediately follows the one we heard last week. In it, Jesus tells of a Pharisee and tax collector who went up to the temple to pray. In it, he teaches us how we are to pray, and we hear about the peril of presumptuous or self-righteous prayer.
Our lesson opens with a bang: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
I don’t know about you, but that opening makes me squirm a bit. I recognize that I have sometimes been – perhaps too often been – one of those who “trusted that I was righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I suspect I’m not alone in this. We church people try so hard to be faithful, but it’s easy to fall into the sin of self-righteousness.
Perhaps that accounts for the findings of a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. It found that many youth and young adults are turned off by church because “they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental.” [Note 1] Ouch! That’s a hard pill to swallow.
So we’d better listen closely to the story Jesus told “to [those] who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
First, let’s set the scene: To whom did Jesus tell this story?
We might like to think Jesus used this story to berate the Pharisees, for they seem to be the “whipping boys” in many Gospel stories. But the text doesn’t support that. No, he was still talking with the whole motley crew to whom he told the story we heard last week. His audience included his disciples, along with many others: men and women, Gentiles and Jews, "saints" and "sinners." He was speaking to all the people who had gathered around him – extending from his closest friends to his sharpest critics.
Second, let’s look at the characters in the story.
It’s a simple story with only two characters. From all we have read in the Gospel of Luke, we are set up to recognize these two characters – to think we know all about the self-righteous Pharisee and the wicked tax collector.
Nowadays, we tend to use the term “Pharisee” as a pejorative term for a person who is judgmental, self-righteous, “holier than thou.”
But that’s not who the Pharisees were at first. When they emerged from the scholarly class some centuries before Jesus’ birth, they were progressive reformers! Unlike the ruling Sadducees, they argued for recognizing the gifts of people outside the priestly caste, and urged study of written sources and oral tradition beyond the Torah. The Sadducees were the fundamentalists who held power, while the reformist Pharisees worked to open the teachings to a wider group.
By Jesus’ time, the Pharisees had become powerful insiders of the Jewish establishment. They remained devout and passionate about their faith. But something had changed. Their teachings had morphed into an elaborate system of laws and an obsession with “purity.” They had built a wall around the Torah, excluding all other interpretations and all other people.
So who was the tax collector – that stereotypical emblem of The Sinner? Tax collectors worked for the Roman occupiers and were generally despised by the Jewish people. Most tax collectors didn’t just collect the prescribed tax for the Roman Empire; they collected more than was owed, and pocketed that extra money for themselves. The Jewish people hated the tax collectors, both for their complicity with the Romans and for their routine thieving.
But Jesus didn’t hate tax collectors. He called one of them (Levi) to be his disciple. When Jesus attended a banquet with Levi and other tax collectors, the Pharisees were scandalized that he called the outcasts, the despised. He built his movement from the castoffs of society.
Now let’s look at the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The Pharisee was “standing by himself.” He prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
This is this a prayer?? Seems to me the Pharisee is reciting his résumé to God. His only gratitude seems to be that he isn’t like other people.
The tax collector, too, was “standing far off.”
Notice that both men stand apart from the gathered community – one from fear of contamination, the other from his sense of unworthiness. Sadly, by standing apart, they also physically distance themselves from the center of the temple, where the “holy of holy” resides, where God was understood to be present. What a tragedy for both of them!
When the tax collector prayed, he wouldn’t even look up to heaven (as was typical for Jews at prayer). He just beat upon his chest, saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The tax collector’s prayer is stark in its honesty and spare in its simplicity. Can’t you just hear the voice of a soul that longs for God? This social and religious outcast longs for union with God, for God’s acceptance and love. But his sense of sinfulness and unworthiness leaves him nearly wordless.
But that’s ok. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “Prayer is not an asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” [Note 2]
Throughout Scripture we hear stories that prove God loves “broken people”: outcasts … the sick … the weak.
As I read the tax collector’s prayer, an echo of scripture came to me, and I found it [Psalm 51:17]:
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
The tax collector is one of those “broken and contrite” ones who dare not even look up to God … who can only pray: “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The Pharisee asks nothing of God, while the tax collector boasts nothing before God. The Pharisee compares himself to the tax collector, but the tax collector seems to compare himself only to God.
So we shouldn’t be surprised to hear Jesus say this about the tax collector: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." That is, the tax collector went down from the temple in a right relationship with God. God heard the words of his heart, just as he hears ours.
But why wasn’t the Pharisee justified after his prayer? Does his lack of humility or his confidence in his own virtue exclude him from God’s grace? Does the fact that he proudly separated himself from others signal that he has separated himself from God as well? The parable leaves us with those dangling questions.
Where has your imagination focused while pondering this story? What judgments have you made?
Did you catch yourself favorably comparing yourself to that nasty ol’ Pharisee? I did. That’s how I’ve read this story my whole life.
Don’t we tend to look upon that Pharisee and say to ourselves, “Thank God I am not like him!”?
But isn’t that exactly what the Pharisee did, when he looked at the tax collector? Lord, have mercy!
That’s an important lesson for us. We are just as vulnerable to pride before God and contempt of our fellow creatures as the Pharisee was. We sin when we choose to separate ourselves in various ways … from God … from the community of faith … and from the world outside these red doors.
Dear people of Grace, as you’ve pondered these Scriptures with me, have you identified that Pharisee within yourself? Have you heard the cry of the tax collector in yourself?
The Pharisee in us is trying hard to keep the rules, drawing sharp distinctions in the letter of law. She is trying to stay away from all that she thinks is unclean. Whether from fear or judgmentalism, he is standing aloof from people inside and beyond this church. But the Pharisee in each of us earnestly wants God’s favor.
The tax collector in us thinks she’s such a miserable sinner she cannot hope to be loved by God. He thinks he can’t even approach God. She believes she’s not “good enough” to offer service here at Grace. He believes he doesn’t have anything of value to offer in service to this faith community or the world.
What’s the Gospel saying to Grace Church?
Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are here within our walls, and both are standing outside our doors. Both are keeping themselves separate, but God wants to bring them all within the community of faith. Some are just staying away. Some are here, but standing aloof. When I read the Gospel, I wondered why the people in the temple didn’t take the Pharisee and the tax collector by the hand, saying, “Move up higher … Come a little closer, friend.”
It’s our job to do that …by opening our doors and hearts, offering hope to the hopeless, showing acceptance, extending forgiveness, encouraging one another, welcoming the use of people’s many and diverse gifts. In a word, we need to love the Pharisee and the tax collector as Christ loves us.
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Image from here: http://iamthewordthecomforter.blogspot.com/2008/12/i-am-writing-this-topic-for-my-grandson.html [NB: Image is ca. 260 x 408]
1. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: http://pewforum.org/Faith-in-Flux.aspx
2. Young India, 23 Sept. 1926
In my preparation for this sermon, I relied mostly on these published sources:
* New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke
* New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: “Pharisees” article
* New Oxford Annotated Bible
Some of their words may appear here verbatim, but no plagiarism is intended. I simply lost track – through the several drafts of this sermon – of which words were mine and which came from those very fine sources.