23 Pentecost, Proper 25 – October 23, 2016
Jesus tells another parable about prayer, this one intended for those “who trust in themselves”. With this in mind, the Pharisee’s actions and words make him the obvious fall guy. We picture him as loud, arrogant and too sure of himself. We hear his self–satisfied prayer: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
It’s easy to shudder when we hear these callous words. But here’s the catch: with these simple words, Jesus has drawn us into the story. It is tempting to think, “I am so glad I am nothing like that Pharisee and don’t offer conceited prayers like that. Praise God that I don’t think as highly of myself as he does.” But, when we start thinking like that, we sound suspiciously like the Pharisee. Without offering any explanations, Jesus has made his point. It is too easy to belittle others with our thoughts and actions while thinking too highly of ourselves. Too easy.
Then there is the tax collector. It’s tempting to transform him into a Disney–type character who is humble and down on his luck, and who won’t even look up at God. We assume that we should be cheering him on as the “good guy” in the story.
But here is where the story gets tricky — again. The tax collector couldn’t even lift up his eyes to God. He beat his chest in contrition and wallowed in guilt and shame. And if you knew anything about tax collectors in Jesus’ day, you would say, “For good reason.”
They were among the most hated and despised members of the Jewish race. They ranked somewhere just below murderers. They were unwelcome in the synagogue. Their money was not accepted by other Jews. Their word was not admissible in a Jewish court of law. They were, for all practical purposes, outcasts.
This was due to two reasons: They were notoriously corrupt, and, as far as the Jews were concerned, they had sold out to Rome.
The cost of running the Roman Empire was high, and the people were expected to pony up. But to add to their burden, tax collectors could set the rate at whatever level they could get by with, and whatever they collected over and above what was due to Rome, they kept for themselves. Driven by greed, tax collectors exploited the people and became extremely wealthy as a result.
And back to this Pharisee that we love to hate. Well, he really was a good man. He followed not only the written law of his people, but its centuries of interpretation. The written law told Jews to fast one day a year. The Pharisee fasted two days a week. The written law told Jews to tithe one tenth of everything they earned for the Temple. The Pharisee also tithed on everything he bought, just in case the man who sold it to him had evaded the tax. He was not so much bragging, as he was telling about all the laws he has followed and obeyed to ensure his righteousness. He did the right thing. He went over and above. He was a good man.
Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One was the best of his people; one was the worst. One gave freely twice what the law commanded; one extorted twice what the law allowed. One fasted, one feasted, one lived in abstinence, one lived in opulence. One raised his people up to God; the other crushed his people under his foot.
And Jesus says that the tax collector, the worst, went down to his home justified rather than the other. What does that mean? What made the difference?
It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; actually, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason, he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.
Here is the important contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord’s benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as he is desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.
This parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly. Anytime we draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, we will find God on the other side.
You see, when you recognize you are justified you receive all of life back as a gift to be treasured rather than a goal to be accomplished. Think of the difference of seeing everything around you not as something to be earned, achieved, or protected but rather to be received as a free gift, delighted in, and shared with joy and abandon. Self-worth, dignity, purpose, and most especially the people around you – all these are gifts God gives as our adoring parent. And the people around us are, particularly, seen as precious children of God who are simultaneously recipients of God’s favor and love and deserving of our respect and care as well. In light of God’s penchant to “justify the ungodly,” to quote Paul, there is no “other,” as all differences between us pale in comparison to the recognition that we are kindred recipients of the love and grace of the eternal God.
The children’s story Old Turtle and the Broken Truth gets at this nicely. In it, the truth of the universe comes to earth but on its way, is broken in two. One half – that we are special and deserve to be loved – gives strength and happiness, but over time it leads to arrogance and disregard for others. Only when we discover the other half – that all others are also special and deserve to be loved – can we live into the peace and goodness of the universe (and, we would add, of God!). This is the heart of justification, the empowering word that frees us from insecurity and despair and then frees us again to share that same good news and love of God with others. Recognizing that we are justified has the ability to provide our central identity and to shed light on all our decisions and choices, particularly regarding those around us.
The difficulty about justification, it is that it runs so contrary to our culture. Our impulse to stress the need to justify ourselves through our accomplishments, wealth, youth, or possessions. But perhaps that is why there is so much anguish. Because the goal of being self-made, self-sufficient, and impervious to need is a myth, even a lie, one that is a crushing burden to carry and is routinely exposed by any illness or loss. We are dependent, vulnerable, finite creatures and as difficult or painful as that may seem to admit, the moment we do – perhaps at times in a flash of desperate insight not unlike the tax-collectors’ – we are freed from the burden of self-justification. We can see ourselves as beloved of God and recipients of an amazing gift, and sent forth to love and care for all those around us.
Two men went to the Temple. One went up and returned righteous – and there is something to admire about that – but the other returned justified, and in the face of justification all we can do is give thanks. Amen.