If you had to place yourself as one of the men who went up to the temple to pray, who would you be? Would you be the Pharisee or the tax collector? At a first glance it could be easy to place ourselves in the role of either the Pharisee or the tax collector. Who of us, after all, has not felt a tinge of pride as the sun shines through the stained-glass windows onto us? Who of us has never thought, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people: my neighbor who is on his boat on the lake this morning instead of attending worship, or my friend who votes in the other political party and who does not understand your will for our nation? I attend worship every Sunday, participate in Christian Education, serve on two committees, and tithe.” Maybe, we are like the tax collector. We call on God only after the situation or problem we have becomes too overwhelming for us to attend to it ourselves. Regardless, of which of the two men we immediately identify with, our first instinct is to put them into two distinct categories: the Pharisee, the self-righteous villain, and the tax collector, the Jewish citizen turned Roman empire employee. Yet, if we read this morning’s gospel text carefully, I think that Jesus intended for these two men to be considered together and not as separate entities. In fact, Jesus begins the parable by saying, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (v.10).
New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson argues that the audience of Jesus’ parable are the Pharisees. The gospel offers the following narration, “[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…” While I agree with Johnson, it is important to realize that by extension we are also a part of Jesus’ audience. We are not mere bystanders; we have lost our innocence and Jesus’ parable pricks our hearts as it must have the hearts of the Pharisees who first heard the parable. Found among us and within us are those who “trust in themselves” and on occasion, “regard others with contempt.”
If we listen closely, we share the same impulses as the Pharisees. We too distinguish and separate ourselves from those within body of Christ. We look with contempt upon those who label us as “heartless conservatives” or “mindless progressives.” We look with contempt upon those who prefer to read from the King James Version or Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message. We distinguish and separate ourselves from those who prefer more recently released songs to the more historical songs found in our hymnals. We might distinguish and separate ourselves, by standing a little taller, or sitting straighter in the presence of single parents, the divorced, those trying to survive on public assistance, those with a criminal history, or those amid the battle of addiction. We are not all that different from the folks in the crowd who first heard Jesus’ parable.
The good news is that Jesus’ parable was specifically designed for those of us with Pharisaic tendencies. Jesus begins, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Before we cast any further judgement, I want to propose that both the Pharisee and the Tax collector in the parable are a caricature, they are a composite sketch. One of the distinctive features of a Pharisee is their immense piety. In fact, it is surprising that a Pharisee would go to the temple to pray because the center and focus of the Pharisees is the family and home. Pharisees believed in the priesthood of all believers, so it would not have been necessary to travel to the temple altar to pray for a Pharisee. This Pharisee, though, prays at the temple. The tax collector cannot be a Pharisee, given the Pharisees’ contempt for him. As mentioned earlier, the tax collector is a Jewish person who is required to pay a certain amount of tax for an assigned district to the Roman Empire. The tax collector can keep any money above what he owes, and he is able to collect the money for taxes in any way he sees fit. My suspicion is that the Pharisees would have immediately noticed that Jesus was sketching a caricature of them. It had enough resemblance that they could recognize themselves, but it was not a true or completely accurate representation of them. The same holds for the Tax collector. That neither one is as bad or as good—as they are drawn.
The Pharisees lean in as Jesus says, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” We know from the Pharisee’s prayer that he keeps the commandments: he does not steal, and therefore is not like the thieves. He is a just person, and is therefore not a rogue, and he does not commit or adultery, or make his living by collecting from his neighbors in order to pay off the Roman Empire. If we are honest, we’ve thought the same thing. We’ve caught enough episodes of Cops to realize that sometimes we are better off than those people. We might have faces of persons tracking through our minds right now—thanking God that we are not like this person or that person. One theologian remarked that the Pharisee’s prayer provides a “negative identity.” Such a person who finds their worth and value by attacking and criticizing another is neither a good or bad person, but a dangerous one.
At this point we know more from Jesus’ short narration than from the words of the Pharisee, that he was “standing by himself.” Maybe we should read this as if he had positioned himself according to his rank. Perhaps, the indication of the pharisee’s “standing by himself” speaks to one of our bishop’s greatest concerns for the church. Bishop Webb thinks our churches have become like silos—standing alone—when we ought to function like bridges that ought connect our churches to other churches, and our churches to our communities—where our lives, reflecting the gospel, intersects with the needs of our world—forming people into Christian community with God’s love, grace, and mercy.
The Pharisee’s prayer shifts, from the negative, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” to a more positive tone: “’I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’” Just imagine what would occur in our lives if we were as dedicated and committed to fasting on Mondays and Thursdays, from food, social media, from gossiping, from complaining… How different would the conversations at our finance meetings be if everyone of us gave a tithe, “a tenth of all our income”? No wonder why the Pharisees were honored and revered by most people in their day; they set the bar high and continually cleared it. This more positive tone in the prayer plays out in our lives. There is nothing wrong with admitting we’ve made it to church three weeks in a row, or that we participated in the various Sunday School lessons offered throughout the year, or that we have taken the steps to simplify our lives. Those are wonderful things to celebrate. But the difference, is that everything the Pharisee named—he was able to accomplish on his own and “by himself.” His life never seems to intersect with anyone else– especially the tax collector.
In the parable Jesus says, “But the tax collector [also a caricature] standing far off, would not even look up to the heaven but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” That’s it—he only has one line with seven words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In When God Whispers Your Name, Max Lucado tells of a Rabbi that wept every morning as he left the house to pray. The Rabbi wept as if he would never see his children or his wife again. When asked why he weep, the Rabbi answered, “When I begin my prayers, I call out to the Lord. Then I pray, “Lord have mercy on us’ – who knows what the Lord’s power will do to me in that moment after I have invoked it and before I beg for mercy.” The Tax collector is never identified as being ritually unclean, but we are told he is “standing far off.” Some say he was “standing far off” from the temple in desperate need of God’s mercy. Or could it possibly be his location has less to do with the temple and more to do with his relationship to the Pharisee? While both the Pharisee and Tax collector pray and are heard by God as the same time, their lives never intersect.
Perhaps, one thought too much of himself and the other not enough. Perhaps, one felt entitled and the other unworthy. But their lives never seem to intersect. A problem that reaches into our own American culture—someone once referred to what we are experiencing in our contemporary culture as “bowling alone.” People might to still bowl—but prefer to bowl alone than in a league of other people. This impacts the whole of our society. Our lives seldom intersect with others. Even as an introvert, I know this notion of “bowling alone” is detrimental on so many levels, but especially in the life of faith. The good news is that we don’t have to buy what our culture is selling. We don’t have to pick up what our culture is putting down. “Two men,” Jesus says, ‘went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a Tax collector.” They are a caricature of extremes, but their lives intersect at the point of needing God’s mercy. If we are honest, that is where our lives intersect with this parable. Sometimes we resemble the Pharisee more than the Tax collector, and at other times we are more like the tax collector than the Pharisee—but at all times we need God’s mercy to have and to be what we could never be or have on our own.
At the end of the parable, what Jesus says is ambiguous at best in the Greek. We have no doubt heard Jesus say, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…” But Jesus very well may have said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified more than the other.” We expected the Tax collector be justified. However, Jesus’ parables usually provide us with something we haven’t expected, a twist or a turn that catches us off guard.
What if through the parable Jesus is teaching us that both the Tax collector and the Pharisee—and not just the tax collector alone has been justified? What if this is a lesson on the nature of God’s mercy—that extends even to those who we don’t think deserve it? That God’s mercy intersects every life: the conservatives and progressives, those that can quote Scripture and those who cannot, the rich and the poor, those with religious titles and those with secular jobs. The mercy announced by the gospel intersects with our lives—some of us may be humbled, some of us may be exalted—but none of us will be left alone by God. Our common denominator is the mercy of God that moves within us. What if we took the silos we have made and fashioned them into bridges—where our lives touched by God’s mercy—may extend that mercy into our communities so that we can live and worship together?