Sunday 27 October 2019
We are trained to think that Pharisees are bad people. Jesus and his disciples encounter Pharisees numerous times in the gospels and in Acts, and they are almost always the bad guys, the villains, the people who are opposing Jesus. So when we hear that word, Pharisee, we immediately have a negative reaction. We expect a Pharisee to be up to no good.
But that’s not really the way that people would have thought of Pharisees in Jesus’s day. In general, Pharisees were pretty highly regarded. They were people who placed a special emphasis on holy living. They took their religion seriously, didn’t just pay lip service to it. And they tried to make their religious practice relevant to real life. It wasn’t just for the priests in the temple. Religious practice should be something that everyone can do, as part of their daily life. That’s what the Pharisees taught. That’s what they practiced. They took the Bible seriously, and they tried to live it out as best as they could.
In Jesus’s time, they weren’t really the religious establishment, either. That was the Sadducees. They were the one’s who were priests and religious officials. They were the well-connected and well-to-do. The Pharisees were well-educated, but they were much closer to the ground than the Sadducees, much closer to the people. By the time the gospels were being written, things had changed a bit. Once the Jewish temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, the entire religious structure had to be reimagined, and it was the Pharisees who took the lead in the new order of what would become Rabbinic Judaism. That’s part of the reason Pharisees are so often cast as the bad guys in the gospels, not because they were such a threat to Jesus, but because they were a threat to the early church a few decades after Jesus. But in Jesus’s own time, Pharisees would not have been universally despised, like the gospels seem to suggest that they were.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, really were despised. It’s not just that they collected the taxes, it’s that they collected the taxes for Rome. They were agents of an occupying empire. They were collaborators. They helped the empire to keep its control. And, in general, they put pressure on the ordinary people to pay their taxes much more than on the elite. The elite had all sorts of ways of getting out of paying taxes, but the poor had few ways to resist. And so tax collectors were despised because they squeezed money out of their neighbors in order to prop up the very system that oppressed them.
So when Jesus’s audience hears the beginning of his parable, they aren’t expecting what we’re expecting. “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and one was a tax collector.” They would hear that introduction and know who was good and who was bad. Of course the tax collector is going to be the bad guy. Of course he is going to be the villain. And of course the Pharisee is going to be the upstanding moral figure. Of course he is going to be the holy one. That’s the expectation when Jesus introduces a Pharisee and a tax collector.
And if you don’t already expect for the Pharisee to be the villain, he doesn’t immediately seem that terrible. Here’s what he says, “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.” He maybe seems a bit arrogant, but not terrible. The first thing he does is give thanks to God. He doesn’t take credit for the holiness of his life. He gives God the credit for it.
And the things he says about himself are pretty good. He isn’t thieving. He doesn’t cheat other people. He has no record of financial irregularities. He can be trusted in financial dealings. That’s a good thing, right?
He isn’t unjust. That means he treats people right. He’s fair. He’s virtuous. He’s ethical. That’s a good thing.
He isn’t an adulterer. He’s faithful. He doesn’t have any record of sexual misconduct. No MeToo issues. That’s a good thing.
And he’s not like a tax collector. That is to say, he hasn’t sold out his own people. He hasn’t sided with the empire that is keeping everyone down.
If we put those things together, we’ve basically established that the Pharisee can pass a background check. No financial malfeasance. No sexual misconduct. Generally trustworthy. This is the kind of person that we would want to be involved in ministry.
So those are the things that this Pharisee isn’t. What about the affirmative things that he does? He fasts twice a week. Fasting isn’t something that Protestant Christians tend to do very much these days, but historically it is an important part of the faith. John Wesley typically fasted twice a week, on Wednesday and on Friday. One of the things I had to promise when I was ordained is that I would recommend fasting, both by precept and example. It’s a spiritual practice that is meant to help us learn to live with less and to be thankful for small things. It helps to curb our greed and to keep us in balance. It shows and builds spiritual maturity. All of that is good.
And the last thing about the Pharisee is this: he gives a tenth of everything he earns to God. He tithes. That’s what I’m supposed to be encouraging all of us to do, isn’t it? That is the Old Testament standard for giving. That is what most of us are striving for. I say it’s the Old Testament standard, because the New Testament actually has a higher standard. Jesus says that his disciples need to sell all of their possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow him. I think most of us are happy to stick with the Old Testament on this particular topic. And that’s the standard that this Pharisee lives up to. He is generous, more generous than most people, both back then and today.
So when we really look at him, this Pharisee is a pretty good guy. He’s the kind of guy you would want in your church. He’s the kind of guy you might want on your city council. He seems to be generally a stand-up citizen. He does just what you would want someone from your faith community to do. He seems to be quite virtuous. He is admirable. He is a good role-model. By all visible standards, he is precisely what we would want in a follower of God.
But that isn’t the point that Jesus is trying to make here. Like he does so often, Jesus upsets our expectations. Jesus flouts our normal standards of decency. Because this upstanding Pharisee is not going to be the hero, the model of virtue at all.
Jesus introduces a second character: the tax collector. We’ve already established that he is in many senses a traitor to his people. He is a Jew who works for the Romans, who brutalizes his own people so that Rome can get paid. In his prayer, he doesn’t thank God for anything. But he doesn’t say anything good about himself, either. He simply identifies himself as a sinner and he asks for mercy from God. That’s it. He doesn’t repent of his sin. He doesn’t promise that he will do better in the future. He doesn’t quit being a tax collector. He just asks God for mercy. He asks God not to punish him for the wrong things that he has done.
And Jesus say, “I tell you the truth, the tax collector went home justified by God, but the Pharisee didn’t.”
I’ve got to tell you, this a hard one. Because, in general, I would encourage people to be more like the Pharisee, not more like the tax collector. Be honest, don’t cheat people, be faithful to your spouse, practice spiritual disciplines, give generously, tithe even. The only thing that this Pharisee seems to do wrong is that he looks on himself more highly than other people. But even that he only does in his heart. It’s not like he goes around town saying that he’s better than everyone else. It’s just in this silent prayer to God that he rates himself as better than people who are obvious sinners. Do none of us ever thank God that we aren’t like obvious sinners: that we aren’t caught up in crime, that we don’t abuse others, that we are regular church attenders? If you’ve spent your whole life living on the straight and narrow, it’s pretty hard not to be thankful that you haven’t had to deal with all of the natural consequences that go along with living an obviously sinful life. If that’s his greatest vice, I don’t know that I have any ground to fault him.
And then look at the tax collector. Certainly it is good that he admits his sin and asks God for mercy. There’s no doubt about that. But I wouldn’t encourage people to look at him as a model for prayer. If you spend all of your time in prayer just beating up on yourself, that doesn’t seem particularly healthy. There’s is definitely a place for acknowledging one’s own sin, and sometimes that’s going to lead to really strong feelings of regret and remorse, sometimes even a kind of self-loathing. But I wouldn’t want anyone to stay there, to stay in a constant state of self-hatred. That’s part of what Martin Luther was trying to escape. He spent so much time focusing on his own sin, confessing over and over, punishing himself, that he could never accept God’s grace, he could never move forward. His great breakthrough was in accepting that God’s grace is more powerful than any of our sins, that God has the power to work good even out of very flawed people. But I don’t see any of that kind of realization in this tax collector. I don’t really see any repentance or any acceptance of God’s grace.
But this isn’t a competition over who is living the most holy life. Luke tells us exactly why Jesus told this parable. “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.” Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.
Of course we should strive for holy living. Of course we should strive to be honest, faithful, virtuous, pious, and generous, like that Pharisee. Of course we should. But that should never give us an excuse to look on others with disgust. That Pharisee did so many things right, but when he went to the temple to pray, he thought he was so much better than everyone else that he didn’t need anything from God. The tax collector just asked God for mercy. And God is merciful. It is part of God’s nature to be merciful. What Jesus says is absolutely right. Only one of those men went home from the temple justified by God. Only one of them asked God for mercy and justification.
We are saved by God’s grace alone. That is the message of the Reformation. It is not anything that we do that makes us holy in God’s sight, it is God’s own act of grace in us. And it is only by God’s grace that we are justified, only by God’s grace that we are sanctified. God’s grace embraces us before we even know to look for it. God’s grace sets us free and heals us when we are in the depths of hurt and sin. God’s grace shapes and molds us so that we can be better disciples of Jesus. None of us have any room to boast. None of us has graduated past a point so that we are no longer in need of God’s grace. And none of us has fallen so far that we are beyond the reach of God’s grace. Thanks be to God, who never looks on us with disgust, but is always overflowing with grace and love.