9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 NRSV)
A few months ago I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the invitation of a friend. What struck me was the honesty and transparency of those working the program. They don’t excuse themselves for anything. They want something better for themselves than what can be found in a bottle.
But what struck me the most was their humility. Someone would announce that they’d been sober for one week. Another for 20 years. No celebration. No “atta-boys.” They are very clear that they didn’t remain sober for any amount of time by their own abilities. They’re sober because they have to rely on their higher power.
As I drove home from the meeting that night I couldn’t help but think about this parable of Jesus’ about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The tax collector is probably a thug. He’s a Jew who works for Rome collecting tolls,tariffs and customs. Rome doesn’t much care how he collects the money as long as they receive it on time. Whatever he can extort for his own fees is his own business. His reputation keeps him on the fringes of Jewish society. He’s aiding and abetting the enemy and using his Jewish roots to get rich.
When I see the phrase “tax collector” in the gospels I don’t think of our own IRS. I think about organized crime.
It had to have been difficult to be a Pharisee in the first century. These were highly educated men with admirable piety. They were skilled at Biblical interpretation and lived a modest lifestyle. Their faith was strong probably because they prayed often.
Pharisees refused to swear allegiance to Caesar which would have gotten them into a lot of trouble. They believed in some kind of an afterlife and divine judgement after death.
They were the progressive thinkers of their day. And they walked a fine line keeping Rome happy so they could continue to worship in the temple. It must have been difficult for them.
In a conversation with a seminary professor many years ago, he challenged us when he said, “Whenever you read ‘Pharisee’ in the gospels, substitute that word with ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Methodist’ or your own faith tradition’s identity.
Yep. That’s us. Working hard at understanding our faith. Struggling through the difficult times. Helping others in times of sorrow or difficulty. Trying to do the right thing. Trying to live right without hurting others. There are hundreds of thousands of us out there in the world trying to make a difference; trying to make a living; trying to be somebody.
Did you notice the number of times the Pharisee says “I” or “me?” His piety isn’t of God or from God. He’s done it all by himself. It isn’t that he’s not greedy or unjust or an adulterer. In fact, he fasts more often and gives more to God than is required by law.
The problem is that he’s relying on his own acts to justify himself. Justification comes from God. And his hard work and attitude are getting in the way of his relationship with God. Unlike the alcoholic or addict, he can’t see that he is totally dependent on God.
While the Pharisee stands tall and looks up to heaven, the tax collector stands to the side, looking downward and beating his chest. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He has nothing to offer God but himself and his sinfulness.
He stands before God with no excuses and no expectations. He receives a new identity.
Where are you in this text? Chances are you’re not much of a tax collector! But how do you judge tax collectors? You see them everywhere: undocumented aliens, gays, lesbians, transgender, black, white, male, female, Democrat, Republican…Who do you judge harshly without seeing their humanity first?
Who do you judge as beneath you while you stand before God and give thanks that you’re not like them?
How often have you exalted yourself only to be humbled?
We don’t live by our own righteousness. We don’t justify ourselves before God; we present ourselves naked and sinful before the Creator and seek mercy and give thanks.
We don’t justify ourselves. We live and breathe and have our being by God’s mercy.
And perhaps the good news is that when we seek mercy and give thanks, we go out into the world with new identities that others can see and want to be a part of it.
All glory and honor be to God.