Today’s gospel is a parable. Now usually, parables leave us shaking our heads or feeling confused. But this parable feels kind of right, doesn’t it? The obnoxious, self righteous holy man is put down while the humble, penitent tax collector is raised up.
Beware. If a parable feels just right, then we’re not getting the lesson.
So let’s give it another look. I’ll edit it to more common language:
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and while they judged everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed all about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and quietly said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
I really wish we could all get into a time machine and zoom back 2000 years so we could sit and hear Jesus tell us this story. His audience is ‘certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust’. It’s possible that he is addressing Pharisees.
Now, the Pharisees were deeply religious people, doing their best to follow God’s law so they weren’t all bad. But our Pharisee today raises himself up by putting others down and that has got to be a sin. He just crows; “I am SO much better than everyone else.” Who does he think he is to be judging everyone else?
Well, I think this guy is an example of a bad Pharisee, not really representative of his group. People in that day respected the Pharisees and would have expected this man to be a careful follower of the law. At the same time, they would be shocked to hear that a tax collector would even dare to show up in a Temple. When they hear this story, there are two jarring things, right off the bat: that the Pharisee is so self righteous in his prayer and that the tax collector prays at all.
When I hear this parable, I find that I feel superior to this obnoxious, boastful Pharisee. If I think; “Thank God I’m not like that nasty Pharisee!” then I am doing exactly what he is doing! I am raising myself up by putting him down.
So what about this tax collector? A Jewish tax collector in this ancient world would have been hated in his community. The taxes he collected would have supported the oppressive, invasive Roman empire. He was a Jew who collaborated with the Romans, with unclean Gentiles. He was reviled!
But reviled or not, today’s story ends with Jesus saying: “I tell you, this person (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee.” When Jesus talks about being justified, it means that person is made right with the Lord.
I read versions of this parable updated to tell of a Pope and a pimp going to pray in the temple. How about a Bishop and a drug addict? Remember, it would be the pimp, or the drug addict who go home right with the Lord, not the Pope or the Bishop. It is really hard to tell it so that we can capture the shock value of the verdict Jesus draws: the ‘bad’ person is justified, while the ‘good’ person is not. This reminds me of the parable of the prodigal son: the good son stays behind and does all the work while the bad son goes off and blows his inheritance through wild partying. Who gets rewarded by the father? The bad son!
Personally, I think what really got to Jesus was the way these two men prayed. Now listen again to how the Pharisee prays: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else, or even like this corrupt tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ Man, it’s all about him, isn’t it? And what exactly is his prayer? He starts by saying thank you, but then he just lists how great he is, in case God hadn’t noticed. He reminds me of Ted Turner who said, “If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect!” The Pharisee may be righteous but he is SELF righteous. He has determined that he is good, not God.
Meanwhile, across the room, kneeling, head down, beating his breast, the tax collector quietly prays: ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ Mercy, mercy. That’s his whole prayer. He recognizes his failings and knows that the only thing he needs is God’s mercy.
The Pharisee has trusted in himself, while the tax collector knows that he cannot claim righteousness. So he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, knowing his only righteousness can come through God’s mercy.
And so our story ends with Christ’s praise of the humble, penitent tax collector: “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” Confucius writes that “humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” St. Augustine builds on that when he asks: “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”
We must remember that it is only through God’s grace that we find mercy. The tax collector knew this. I’ll tell a story about someone else who found this out:
A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates. St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."
"Okay," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart."
"That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points!"
"Three points?" he says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service."
"Terrific!" says St. Peter, "that's certainly worth a point."
"One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
St. Peter says: ”Fantastic, that's good for two more points.”
"TWO POINTS!!" the man cries, "At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!"
St. Peter smiles: ”Come on in!”
Let us pray:
Today, we come before God, humble as we seek mercy and thankful for God’s grace. We pray to be nothing more than vessels through which Jesus can work in the world. We pray to walk humbly with God and know that it is only through God’s infinite grace that we can do anything. Almighty God, grant us grace to hear your Word. Grant us grace to lay aside our tendencies to blame others, to compare ourselves with others, to justify ourselves. Grant us grace to turn towards your love, toward the paths you have prepared for us to walk in in assurance of that love.