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Let me say at the outset that I think that the worst thing that could happen here this morning would be for us to leave here missing something fundamental about this parable. To go away from here thinking “Thank God I am not like that Pharisee!” The worst thing that could happen would be for us to miss seeing ourselves in this parable. The theme we’re looking at over these weeks of summer is “Dream of What Might Be”. What do the parables of Jesus teach us about life in the Kingdom of God? Let us not miss seeing ourselves as we consider the picture that Jesus draws of these two men in the temple praying. Let’s come before God in prayer as we begin. Let’s pray.
I want to talk a little to begin about what I don’t think this parable is about. I don’t think it’s about a juxtaposition between being saved or delivered or brought back to God either by our works – what we do – or by grace – God’s unearned love and mercy and forgiveness. I don’t think that’s a juxtaposition we were ever supposed to make. Both are involved in this whole Christ following business and both inform one another. It is not simply a diatribe against Pharisees either. I don’t believe that Jesus is dealing in stereotypes here. It doesn’t strike me as something Jesus would do. He always saw the person, didn’t he? Now the very word “Pharisaic” has come to mean something in our language. It’s used to describe a religious person who is smug or judgemental in their actions, particularly if their actions prove that they are much less holy than they pretend to be. Someone who is self-righteous.
What we mustn’t ever do is look to what Jesus said about Pharisees of his day and think “Oh yes they must have been terrible!” The words that Jesus spoke to the Pharisees serve as warnings to us today. At one point he talked about being white-washed tombs – looking so good on the outside and dead on the inside. He didn’t say these things so we could be here 2,000 years later going “Tut tut!” I don’t think Jesus would have been one to stereotype and I don’t think that this story is meant to be representative of pharisaical thought or belief of the day any more than I think that the tax collector here is representative of tax collectors of the day.
So a few words about both groups before we begin. Pharisees were a group of people who wanted to figure out what it meant to live out the Torah in their context. Sounds reasonable yes? The Torah was how the nation of Israel connected to God, how they knew God. Pharisees wanted to figure out how the Torah touched every aspect of life. They were serious about connecting with God. They were out on the streets - this is why Jesus was continually encountering them (unlike the Saducees who operated in the temple). We might even call them missional today. They observed the rules. They gave away money. They fasted. This all meant something to them. They were serious. One writer puts it like this - “After all, we can tell at once whether a person’s heart is in a thing when it touches his stomach or pocketbook. Business is business, and for many people, this is where sentiment and Christianity, too, stop. But not with the Pharisee! He fasted and sacrificed and cut down his standard of living for God.”
He was respected. It’s like the person who is a lifelong church member, attends services, gives faithfully. Prays. Serves.
Further away we have the tax collector. He’s further away because he’s not allowed to stand within the inner part of the temple. A collaborator with the occupying Roman forces. A traitor. One who is known for trying to get everything he can for himself. One who is known for fleecing his own people. An outcast. Often ex-slaves or people without homes or land seeing no alternative to make a living. Which makes me think that we always need to stop and consider circumstances which have left people where they are before we go to how distasteful it is.
How many of us have been in the position of thinking “God is lucky to have me on his side?” or “I’m doing really well in this!” How many of us have been in the position where we say “I’ve done something so bad or so vile there’s no coming back from this?”
We’re invited to see ourselves in these characters. It’s not simply a matter of seeing this story in terms of black and white, good and bad. Life’s never that simple.
To help us let’s look at the parallels between the two men. They are both seeking God where God may be found – the temple. They’re both serious about their seeking. They are both coming to God in prayer. They are both giving thanks – the tax collector in a more indirect way but still thankful to God for mercy. This is a sign of their seriousness. Prayers of petition (or asking for things) are usually where we begin with God. When we get to things like praising God or thanking God we’re getting into second level stuff.
Why am I going on so much about all these things before we get to the problem? Again I want us to hear what God has to say to us today. I want us to be able to see how sin can creep into the middle of a lot of piety. What the Pharisee does here is what humans have been doing since time immemorial. He’s dividing people up into camps. It’s what we do politically. It’s what we’ve done tribally and nationally. It’s what we do when we watch the World Cup – though sport is probably doing it in its most harmless form (apart from hooliganism and so on). The Pharisee is setting up an “our group good, their group bad” dichotomy. We the good. Others the bad.
And this is how sin creeps into the most spiritual of conversations between us and God. The Pharisee starts off very well “God I thank you that I am…” God, I thank you that you have made me more loving, more generous, more merciful, more you fill in the blank. “I thank you that you have done this God.” Instead of casting his gaze upwards, the Pharisee casts his gaze downwards – and he is looking down. I thank you that I am not like other people. Those people. You know what I’m talking about. This is the language that we use. “I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Luckily there’s someone nearby to serve as an object lesson while the Pharisee tells God what’s going on. I am not like them. He’s casting his gaze downward even as he’s praying upward.
The Pharisee is measuring himself by this downward look. It’s natural. It’s what we do. We like to compare ourselves favourably to others. It makes us feel better about ourselves. The whole celebrity gossip industry is built on this premise, right? They’re just like us! Or even better they’re worse than us. Look at how bad these celebs look on the beach or read about the latest affair or breakup scandal or custody battle or Twitter war etc. etc. etc. It makes us feel better about ourselves. It can even creep into our relationship with God; into our piety and we start to think “God’s really lucky to have me when I look down at these other people. I’m doing pretty well in this thing compared to them.”
On the other side, we have this rogue tax collector. Expectations are turned upside down in this parable. It would be something akin to saying a church deacon stood and prayed “Thank you God that I am not like them.” A little ways off a sex worker would not even look up to heaven but was beating his chest and saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This is how shocking this story was. This is not primarily a parable about how to pray, but it does teach us how to pray and we’ll come back to this in a few minutes. This is parable of God’s mercy. It’s a parable that reminds us not to rush to judgement. Paul put it like this in his letter to the Corinthians – “For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside.”
As one writer puts it, “We live between the future judgements we make now and the surprises which the last judgement will bring.”
What are we to do in the face of this?
This is what the tax collector is doing - figuratively speaking as he didn’t even feel worthy to look up literally. I mean looking up and comparing ourselves to the matchless holiness of God. Crying out “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Knowing by faith that when we do so we are receiving God’s welcome. Knowing this is not a cry of despair or wallowing in our inability to do the good we know we ought to do but knowing that this cry is met with the words “Welcome my beloved child.” This is what God does. God has mercy. We’re not to come before God comparing ourselves to anyone, not looking around us but looking only to God. The tax collector is not focussed on how great he is doing at this whole God thing but rather on his need for God’s mercy. We talked last week about being experiences of God’s mercy to others. We saw many examples of that happening this past week at camp. I know we’re going to see many more this coming week with our friends from New Brunswick. In order to be instruments of God’s mercy, we need to be coming to God often and meaningfully and asking for mercy.
This is a really good thing to pray every day. Lord be merciful to me, a sinner. We’ve printed cards with part of the 51st Psalm on them for you to take today. Keep it in a place of prominence. Pray it every day.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”
When we pray this prayer we’re being reminded that the source of our goodness, the source of our righteousness, the very ability we have to come before God in prayer in the first place is from outside ourselves. It’s a reminder that we’re called to extend the same mercy to others and not to stand in self-righteous judgement over them. This is the thing about prayer that this parable teaches us. Someone put it like this – “Prayer consists not in our telling God how things are but in allowing God to communicate to us the divine vision of life and reality.” For Luke, it’s the great reversal. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted. There is a warm welcome extended to those who recognize their need for something beyond themselves. For those who wish to condemn there is not. One of these men went home justified, Jesus tells us. The unspoken question here is, which of these figures are we going to be? May God give us an ever increasing awareness of our daily need for His mercy, a thankfulness for it, and a willingness to extend it to others. May these things be true for each and every one of us.