The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
The Pharisee, raising his hands (and his voice), proclaiming how grateful he is to be WHO he is, and not that terrible tax collector, cataloguing all the things he does right.
The Tax Collector, bent low, eyes down, groveling, expressing his “being a worm” in front of God, whispering we imagine, beating his breast, a sign of his torment, aware of his lowly position and all the things he does wrong.
And the twist: Jesus says that the tax collector went home “justified”—that God heard the tax collector’s prayer, not the Pharisee’s.
Finally a parable that makes sense.
Finally a parable that although it might have
been a shock to those ancient people who felt you made yourself right in the eyes of God by some formula
(fasting, tithing, living a “right” life),
it seems perfectly understandable to us.
But whenever this happens with scripture, especially with Jesus’ parables,
I get this nagging feeling that I’m missing something. Jesus wasn’t just telling this parable to the Pharisees that seem to pop up wherever he is,
he is telling it to the disciples
—what are they going to get out of it?
Other than to say, “see, we’re doing the right thing and you aren’t. Nay, nay, nay, nay, nay.”
So let’s take a closer look at the parable itself.
Is it about prayer (as the title of my sermon might
Does it give us THE way we ought to pray?
I know that most of us were taught to
bow our heads and fold our hands—
but how about beating our chests?
I don’t think this parable is about what we should look like when we pray—prayer comes in many forms…
Head and hands uplifted
On our knees
Head to the ground
Holding a candle
Being active for justice
Maybe it is just my love of the musical Godspell (which I first saw when I was about 8) which makes me conflate this parable with Matthew’s discussion about how to pray (not in the open, but in secret). In Luke, both these men are praying in the temple, in the open, although the Pharisee seems to be down front, while the Tax Collector is hanging out in the back. So again, the parable is NOT about where we ought to pray. No, the big difference between these men is their attitude toward prayer, and their words in prayer.
The Pharisee is praying what sounds like a gratitude prayer—“Thank you God that I am not like other people.
Thank you God that I know how to be righteous.
Thank You God that You already know how good I
Thank You God that I fast twice a week.
Thank You God that I give the correct portion to the
ThankYou God that I am who I am.”
That’s kind of a gratitude prayer—except that the focus seems to be on the Pharisee and not God. God seems to be a foil for the Pharisee congratulating himself on how well he is doing. God seems to be somewhat extraneous. Bad Pharisee. That is not what we should be doing. We get it.
The Tax Collector is the one we are to emulate, right? But he is beating his breast—does that mean Jesus advocates self-mutilation, or at least “punishment of the flesh?” That doesn’t seem right.
The Tax Collector won’t even raise his eyes to heaven. He thinks so little of himself that he tries to be as small as possible, as humble as possible, as invisible as possible. Is Jesus suggesting we follow suit? That flies in the face of the parable of the persistent widow we just talked about last week. She was no shrinking violet, no wall flower.
Maybe it is more about what the Tax Collector says. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Notice that the Tax Collector does not say he is going to reform his life. He merely acknowledges that grace is God’s to give. And he asks for mercy. He is mainly focused on God, not on himself. And so Jesus comments “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”
OK, Jesus. So the parable is about our attitude as we approach God. WE are supposed to be focused on God. WE are supposed to ask for mercy. WE are supposed to remember that it is about God and not us. WE are supposed to be humble like the Tax Collector. Thank You God, we’re not like that Pharisee!
And Jesus says, “Gotcha.”
Because it’s not about us. It’s not about our humility or our lack of pride or our being justified by faith. It’s not about us; it’s about God.
And that is good news on this Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate those who went before us who lifted up the same message.
Luther nailed 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church
Door because he felt the church had gotten too caught up in formulas,
The church was too much about the church
and not enough about God!
Luther and Calvin and Knox and Wycliff and Hus
all preached that our salvation did not rest on
our ability or our character or our faith,
but on God’s good favor—
on grace, in other words.
It’s not about us; it’s about God.
So, although the parable seems to suggest that we behave like the Tax Collector,
fully aware of our status as “sinner”—
that also draws our attention back to ourselves,
and away from God.
ARRRGGGGG! This simple parable becomes trickier and trickier!
That feels more like the stories Jesus tells
where he claims
“to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” (Luke 8:9b)
As Professor David Lose says
“This parable—and indeed the whole Reformation—
was and is an attempt to shift our attention from
our piety or our passions,
our faith or our failure,
our glory or our shame—
the God who delights in
justifying the ungodly,
welcoming the outcast,
and healing all who are in need.”
(“The Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the Reformation” Working Preacher.com)
As we near October 31st,
The anniversary of the start of what we call the Reformation
may we spend a few moments,
alone and together,
praying in whatever way seems best in that moment.
And may that prayer leave time for us to let go of focusing on ourselves,
Instead may we be caught up and glory in the
Grace, mercy, joy, and love of God.
Then, we can truly say,
Seeing, we have seen.
Hearing, we do understand.
We are prayer-wise.
It’s not about us, God
It’s about You.