United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“Standing Before God”

 Oct. 23rd, 2022

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore


       The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Such a simple story.  Such a profound message.  Such a gem in the crown of Jesus’ remarkable way of teaching by parable.  Let’s see what it can say to us, today.

       Jesus starts with two very well-known stereotypes of people in his society: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  For the common person in Israel, the “Pharisees” were the hard-liners, they were the religious policemen.  They were the ones trying to make sure that everyone else followed the rules.  And, of course, they were always talking about how religious they were.

       On the other hand, the “tax collector” was despised—for working for the Roman state, for often cheating people because of their power over others financially.  They were the local arm of Caesar’s government.  They were seen as a sell-out, and the lowest of the low (in ethical terms).  

       So when Jesus starts his parable with “a Pharisee and a Tax Collector go to the temple to pray…” we think we know who God is going to be pleased with, who God is going to justify (just like last week we thought we knew that the poor, defenseless widow would never get justice from a judge, especially an unjust judge).  I mean, there is no comparison in these people.  The Pharisee follows God’s law to the letter, Yeah!  The Tax Collector is a bad man—Booo.  We know how God will see them, judge them. 

       But Jesus, as he has done before, prods us to realize that our ways are not God’s ways.  And that what God wants, what God is looking for, when we stand before God, is our commitment to what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment—to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and might and strength—and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Or, as the prophet Micah put it: to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

       This is something that both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector would have known themselves.  For each time the Jewish people gathered for worship, each time to Shofar was blown announcing the arrival of Shabbat, the day of celebration of God, the Shema (found in Deuteronomy 6:4) would be called out: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

       The Pharisee has done much work towards fulfilling the law.  He does all the right things—or almost all.  He comes to the temple to pray.  He fasts (keeping his body and his mind focused not on excess but on what is needed to be whole).  He tithes to the temple (giving what is required, one tenth of his income, not an insignificant sum, I am sure).  But he comes before God and boasts of his accomplishments.

       Seasons of the Spirit suggests this story not found in the Bible as a way of zeroing in on the problem. 

     Jesus and his friends were ready to sit down and have lunch in the shade of an olive tree, but the ground was very dusty, so Mark pointed toward a large log a little way down the hill. “I could carry that up the hill, and we could sit on it!” he said, clearly pleased with this great idea.

     “It looks awfully heavy,” Peter warned. “Not for me!” Mark exclaimed. “When I was younger, I used to carry all sorts of heavy things for my father; I was the strongest of all my brothers, even though I was one of the younger ones!”

     Mark continued to talk about the time he had dragged a broken plough home, and the time he helped put a mill­stone in place for a neighbor, and the competition he won throwing heavy stones before he had even turned eight. The friends listened politely but were shifting on their tired feet, and Timothy’s stomach gave a large growl.

     But Mark talked on. Just as Mark was going around the group, flexing his arm muscle, saying, “Go ahead, feel it!”

     There was a loud thud behind him. Panting and sweaty, John stood over the large log with a grin on his face. “Let’s eat!” he said. Mark’s cheeks turned pink as he put his arm down.

     They all sat on the log and gave thanks for their lunch.   

       What Jesus is pointing out is that the Pharisee, although he has done many good things, he stands proud before God, thinking that it shows how well he has followed what God wants from us, and how much it elevates him above that horrible, little tax collector over there.

       Whereas the tax collector doesn’t have much to show for how he is living his life.  He doesn’t talk about fasting or tithing or even being religious.  But he does stand before God, although he won’t even lift his eyes to the Lord.  He recognizes that he has much to correct in his life and that he has done many things he is not proud of.  He doesn’t even enumerate what he has done.  He just knows that he needs forgiveness (while the Pharisee doesn’t seem to think he needs anything).

       We can imagine our tax collector might even echo the words of the 22nd Psalm that say, “For I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads…” (verses 6-7).  We hear only his plea to God as he beats his breasts in a sign of mourning his state, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

       And somehow, even though he may have nothing to show for his life, yet… and even though he has probably participated in breaking the law and God’s commandments… and even though he can barely bring himself to be in God’s presence, Jesus says, he is one who God will pardon, for he is the one who stood before God in humility, and in recognition of who he really was.

       So, the moral of the story is: be like the tax collector and not like the Pharisee, right?

       I feel the need to point out a few observations that might be missing in this sparse story, yet are necessary in our world, for they are contained in the good news to us from God.  First, this should not be used as an anti-semitic story.  Both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are Jews.  And, in a world where some are calling for us to be Christian nationalists, I need to say, Jesus was a Jew too.  In addition Christians over the years have read the stories in the Bible, especially the ones where the Pharisees seem to be the antagonists of Jesus, the ones plotting to get him in trouble, the ones insisting that Pilate crucify this troublemaker, and have placed a negative cast to all Pharisees, everywhere, and as a consequence, to the Jewish people themselves.

       The things the Pharisee lifts up—praying, fasting, giving, are all commendable things, things that are part of loving God and loving neighbor, things that are part of doing justice and loving mercy and walking with God.  What is not so great is using the things that are meant to be a thanksgiving to God to elevate our social standing, or to look down on anyone else.  When we stand before God, all else should fall away, even our egos, maybe especially our egos.

       Second, I lifted up the quote from Psalm 22 because sometimes we view the tax collector, and indeed anyone who is humble, as someone who has no self-esteem.  And the idea that the tax collector would be the one who God forgives is shocking in some respects.  The church has not had a great track record on this either.  There are too many people in our world who think they can’t even step into a church; that God wouldn’t want them in God’s presence; that they are worth nothing, they don’t deserve God’s attention, or God’s love.  And the church and church people have told them so, time and time again.   

       For shame.  God, in the creation story, looks at creation, including us, and pronounces us “good.”  We just stray from the path.  We do not have to grovel to stand before God, we just need to be humble.  We need to recognize how far off the mark we have become.

    I was fascinated to learn that the word humble has the same root as the word humus—h u m u s--as in the dark, organic material that forms in soil when plant and animal matter decays, and when put back into the soil greatly increases soil fertility and its overall health.  Humble is connected to humus, as Earthling is connected to earth. 

       We are to stand before God as we are, of the earth.  Full of both the potential to be life-giving, and the disappointment of failing to live up to our calling.  Humbleness does not mean beating ourselves up or declaring we are a worm.  Humbleness means seeing ourselves as God sees us—as worthy of healthy self-esteem, even as we are sorry for our turning away.  We don’t have to make ourselves small.  We can affirm that:  we are children of God; we have been given gifts to be used for the common good; and there is nothing, nothing, that can separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus.  Just as we are, we can come before the throne.  And as we acknowledge our failures, we receive mercy, and can turn, and try, try again.

       And third, as I played with this story, as I thought about Pharisee and tax collector, as I wrestled with who I might see myself as, I realized that maybe Jesus wasn’t intending for us to choose.  Maybe the split between Pharisee and tax collector is a false one.  Maybe we each are both Pharisee and tax collector at different times. 

       We can hold onto the spiritual disciple and faithful living that is the best of who the Pharisee is—would that all of us followed God’s law of love to the letter (keeping God in the mix in our lives, learning to take breaks from the things that threaten to overwhelm us, being generous with our time and our talents and our treasure). 

       But we need to constantly be on our guard when we become the worst of the Pharisee.  For haven’t we ever had a moment when we looked at someone else and thought “Boy, at least I’m not like THAT”?  Haven’t we as a church ever wanted to boast of the good things we do as a way of promoting ourselves above something else?

     Haven’t we thought that our way (of worship, of prayer, of singing, of being in the community, of welcoming others) was the best way ever?  Yes, we need to be careful how easily we dismiss that Pharisee as not being like us!

       And what about our tax collector.  He has much to teach us as well.  Don’t we sometimes hide our light under a bushel, not even thinking that our small gift, our small mustard seed of faithful living, would ever amount to anything in front of God?  Don’t we as a church say, “Oh, we’re such a small church.  There isn’t much we can do”?  God does not need us to minimize ourselves.  Let us stand on who we are and what we are doing.

       But let us never forget that we are not perfect yet.  We are not all we can be, yet, individually or as a church.  When we come before the throne of grace, it is because we need to see who we are, and ask help in becoming who we can be.  We talk about the throne of grace because we all need grace, amazing grace, grace that allow us to move past what has happened before (with appropriate changes in our lives and our world), and give us the push to head towards that vision of Shalom.  The time when the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.  The time when our world will be healed of all horrors.  The time when we all will be well and whole.  The time when Pharisee and Tax collector can sit down at table to share a meal.  The time when we all can fulfill the love commandments as we do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. 

       May that time dawn on our world soon.  Alleluia, Amen.