When Owen was three, his great grandmother gave him a set of small, colorful paperback books. They are ostensibly about little animals on a farm – a little pig book, a baby horse book, a young cow book. But the pig book is about a piglet that wants the mud all to himself, and the cow book is about a calf that thinks the other cows’ grass is better than his grass, and the foul wants to be the fastest horse of all. And all the books end with really obvious morals almost spelled out to absurdity: “the horse learned his lesson and never compared himself to others again”, and “the calf was grateful for what she had from then on,” and “the pig invited all his friends into the mud puddle and never resented having to share ever again.”
And on the surface, our parable today seems almost like one of these little books – with a really straightforward and obvious moral. Don’t be arrogant and think you are better than others.
Don’t be like that bad old Pharisee, instead be like that penitent loveable tax collector.
But this would be a misreading of this passage, and turning it into some kind of behavior modification tool would deprive us of the juicy zinger, the shocking twist that Jesus always had to his parables. And we’d miss the gospel message besides. So let’s take a closer look.
Because of our exposure to Pharisees in Sunday school and sermons past, we might forget that Pharisees were decent, good, admirable folks. Very devout, and committed. If you had a Pharisee on your church committee, you would be sure to get a lot more done than if you had a tax collector. The Pharisee would show up, give 100%, take joy in the work and recognize it as a sacrifice to God. A stewardship campaign’s dream, these guys gave a full 10% to the church and another 10% to the poor, consistently, none of this pledging and forgetting business. Truly a model citizen, he had certainly earned some kudos and admiration for his lifestyle.
The tax collector on the other hand, was known to be dishonest. He’d probably use the church committee as a way to rip people off – like an email spammer phishing for account information.
His job was to collect tolls for Rome, but he had to pay them in advance and recoup his costs, so the taxes he charged you were often much greater than you actually owed – you were paying his self-set commission as well. Generally a despicable kind of person, in a looking out for number, gritty kind of life. He and his “staff” of thugs made sure that the taxes got paid and their wallets got padded.
Without question the Pharisee is a better person – if your kid got lost in a crowd, you’d tell them to look for a Pharisee. And the tax collector is not a good person, and has probably stolen from all those he passes on his way to the temple that day.
So these two fellows go to the temple to pray.
It is already a surprise to see one of them there – not his usual stomping ground. If you saw him walking up to the door, you would probably assume it was about some unsavory business. But the Pharisee is naturally quite comfortable in the temple, and you might nod a hello in passing. This is his home-away-from-home. He strides in and takes a prominent place and begins to pray, confident that he belongs here, not even hesitating for a second. The tax collector barely gets in the door and finds a shadowy corner, sure that at any point he might get thrown out. He cannot even look up.
And when the Pharisee begins to pray, nobody wonders at what he says. He is telling the truth. He is NOT like all those other sinners or that tax collector – he has dedicated his life to doing good and following God. The name “Pharisee” means “set apart” – and he is truly thankful that his life gets to be dedicated to continuing the legacy of Israel, to worshiping God and living righteously. So here is Jesus’ big shocker this time – the one that God justifies is not the Pharisee, but the tax collector.
What is this story saying? Be humble? We all know that doesn’t work, you either are humble or you aren’t. It is impossible to take a self assessment about being humble, because if you think you are then you probably are not. So I don’t think this passage is about some kind of mustered-up humility.
Is the passage about judging other people? Perhaps. Certainly the way we treat other people affects our relationship with God, and shows something of our heart in the way that our isolated actions of piety cannot. But we get stuck there too. Because while the Pharisee is being a judgmental jerk when he shoots his prayer over his shoulder thanking God that he isn’t like that guy, the guy he is referring to is certainly a worse fellow overall. He cannot be said to treat people better than the Pharisee does – he is a corrupt predator by trade.
But this passage is not about morality. It is not about the virtue of one and the sin of the other. And this passage is not about humility and pride, even though it certainly illustrates the two. Jesus is telling us something in this parable about the nature of God, about the kingdom of God and how it works.
“Who is this God?” is the first question we should always ask of Scripture, “and what is God up to?” is the second. In this passage the answer is: God justifies sinners.
We are all a little uncomfortable when Jesus starts down this road. Suggesting that the last, the lost, the prodigal, and the deathbed confessions get in right along with the Sunday school teachers, meals on wheels volunteers and three-term deacons. We want to hear about God’s grace, but to a point. We certainly don’t want to leave the impression that how one lives doesn’t matter, that God would accept them anyway. We need to keep SOME sense of goodness and right living, some order to the universe, right?
Everyone knows that the Pharisee will say his prayer, and leave the temple to continue an upright and quality lifestyle and position of honor and respect in the community.
And everyone knows that the tax collector will be out the door and back to his shady business ripping people off. Even he know that, because he lives and works in a corrupt and sinful system, his way of life is not going to change, he is every single day guilty of personal and corporate sin that contribute to the pain and suffering in the world.
And he is the one God accepts.
Why? We ask. This seems to be backwards – it simply doesn’t make sense.
But for some reason, it is the way God works. It is who God has chosen to be. God is always to be found with sinners. “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick,” Says Jesus. “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
The gospel is nothing if not scandalous. God justifies sinners. God prefers sinners. But not because they sin, rather because they are honest about it. It is right there for all to see, impossible to deny or cover up, and everybody knows it. Jesus’ harshest words throughout scripture are for those who think they are better than others, those who don’t see their own sin and darkness, those who deny their own contribution to the darkness in the world.
Sin cannot be overcome, escaped, or avoided. If we spend our lives trying not to sin, we will fail. Human beings must recognize and acknowledge that we live in a state of sin. We can take responsibility for the things we do that treat others as less than human, the ways we further sin in the world. We can confess our own participation in this reality of sin and our need for a savior. But we can’t NOT sin. We are slaves to sin; we are trapped by sin, unable of our own power to keep from hurting others and ourselves. Karl Barth says it this way, “Particular sins do not alter the status of a person, they merely show how heavily the general domain of sin presses upon him or her. Sin is the sovereign power in the world as we know it. It is wholly irrelevant what particular form it takes in the live of each individual.”
The tax collector is telling the truth about himself. He is a sinner in need of forgiveness.
The Pharisee is telling God how good he is; he is seeking affirmation, not mercy.
His good works, rather than being an outpouring of his joy and redemption, they are his currency, earned and counted, held up to God in attempt to convince God of his worthiness, and ironically exposing his sin in his very act of prayer by his contempt for another.
All of his efforts and sacrifices cannot loose sin’s hold on him.
We are the tax collector and we are the Pharisee. The truth is, we are all sinners. None of us is worthy, no not one. So do we come to God as the tax collector does, ‘God have mercy!’?
Or do we come to God as the Pharisee – ‘But see how much better I am than others’?
God justifies sinners. And only when we can honestly face our own sin will we receive the mercy, forgiveness and acceptance of God.
I was raised in the church – a pastor’s kid with all the answers, true and ardent faith, and plenty of arrogance to go along with it. The goal of our Christian life, I grew up thinking, is to become more good, more godly. But through the years those whom I have known whose faith seems deep and rich, those whose lives are an example to me of wisdom and love, they are not somehow better than human, generically “good.” Rather, they are people who are extremely aware of their need for God, and they live in deep and surprising honesty of their weaknesses and their sinfulness. They are both humble and confident, truly authentic. For Christians the goal of “holiness” is really the goal of “honesty” with ourselves, others, and God. I could try all my life to be good, I suppose with some success and plenty of failure. But what is really intriguing to me, what feels more difficult, and scary, and demands tremendous bravery, is the goal of living honestly.
The church is not the gathering of those who are good. It is not a club for the holy. The church is the community of justified sinners, forgiven sinners. Sinners who tell the truth about ourselves, the world and God.
We are here not because of what we do, but because of what God has done and is doing. God forgives sinners and is redeeming the world, and invites regular sinful people to be part of that. Not because we are worthy, we will never be worthy, but because God loves us and works with us despite our unworthiness.
We come to the temple not to be better people, but to be whole people. In God’s presence, in God’s mercy we are a people restored and forgiven, a people given a place and a purpose.
May we live in stark awareness of our common humanity, face our sinfulness and rejoice in our redemption. May we live honestly, in gratitude and hope for God’s mercies that are new every morning for us and for our world.