By the Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
October 28, 2007
Read: Luke 18:9-14
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It would be so easy to read and hear this parable and understand it simply as instructions for prayer. In other words, we are to be like the tax collector who sits at the back of the church (which many of you already do) and pray the magic words, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”. We would also like to think that we are off the hook because we are not Pharisees. Or are we?
Jesus often criticizes the Pharisees in the bible and so we have come to think of the Pharisees as the bad guys and in the case, the tax collector as the good guy. This, unfortunately, robs the parable of it’s power. The Pharisees genuinely try to uphold the Torah, their bible, in a world where Roman power and Samaritan neighbors tempt people to compromise. Pharisees genuinely try to please God. Tax collectors, on the other hand, collaborate with Romans and steal from Jews. For example, a tax collector might send you a bill for $1,500 in taxes when you truly owe $1000. The tax collector pockets the extra $500. It was a common occurrence in that time, in that world.
So, Jesus’ listeners are greatly surprised at this great reversal the parable tells. We need to recover that surprise! This parable is about the justification of the ungodly. The justification of the ungodly. So what is Jesus telling us?
In her short story, “The Lame Shall Enter First”, Flannery O’Connor tells of a widowed father named Sheppard; his grieving son, Norton; and an older boy named Rufus Johnson. Sheppard meets Rufus as part of his Saturday volunteer work as a counselor at a reformatory for wayward youth. Sheppard recognizes an intelligence in Rufus that makes him think the boy is redeemable, even though Rufus is outwardly bitter and struggles to come to terms with a misshapen foot that causes him to limp. In an effort to overcome what Sheppard perceives as his own son Norton’s self-absorbed grief, and out of a desire to save Rufus from himself, Sheppard brings Rufus into his home. Over time, it becomes clear that Rufus in not about to be reformed by the do-gooder, Sheppard. The police show up at Sheppard’s door on more than one occasion while Norton, Sheppard’s own son, begins to deal with his grief in increasingly strange ways. When Rufus begins spouting bible verses to Sheppard’s grieving son, Sheppard becomes more disconcerted, yet tries not to show that he has lost faith in his project of redeeming Rufus from himself. Toward the end, when Sheppard gives up his quest and finally looks for an opportunity to be rid of his young houseguest, the police show up at his door again, this time with Rufus in tow. Sheppard lets the police take Rufus off his hands, but not before Rufus indicts Sheppard and tells him “he ain’t right.” Rufus, the ruffian Bible quoter, with the bad foot, knows that God will accept him, for the lame shall enter first. But, says Rufus to Sheppard, you are nothing more than a “big tin Jesus”.
In this troubling story of O’Connor’s, there is a powerful reversal and a painful recognition. Try as we may, we cannot redeem others, much less ourselves. There is only One who can save, and we can only throw our sinful selves at the feet of this One’s inscrutable mercy. We “ain’t right,” and only God can make us so.
So, the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector shows two different types of men praying to God. The Pharisee stands by himself, separating himself from sin and sinners. He builds a wall to keep sinners out. Jesus, on the other hand, reaches out to redeem sinners and bring them inside the fold.
The tax collector also stands far off, but for a seemingly different reason. The Pharisee feels too good to associate with common people, but the tax collector feels too bad. The tax collector knows that he is a sinner. He was beating his breast in anguish. The tax collector’s prayer is simple and direct. He can’t claim any virtue, and can only hope for mercy. And Jesus tells us that this man went down to his home “justified”. He was not just forgiven, but also given the gift of a new relationship with God. It is a new beginning. He was justified.
For those who understand word processing programs, you know that the words, or lines, are justified. We most often see printed material as left justified, in other words the lines are all even on the left side. Right justifying produces something quite different looking, like some artsy, poetical spacing. But to be FULLY justified is to have both edges even. To make this happen, we have to allow for some odd, open spaces in the middle.
Let’s think about that. To be FULLY justified, we have to allow for some odd, open spaces in the middle. If we let God open us up from within, loosening our rigid, interior regularity, perhaps we can come into right relationship with others…those both on our left and right sides.
Jesus Christ helps us stop choosing sides and start reaching out to both sides, all sides, with open hearted love. Because, throughout our lifetimes, we are, at one time or another, the Pharisee and the tax collector. The justification of the tax collector occurs because he understood who he was in relationship to God. He was a sinner and asked for mercy. He was given another chance, he was given a new beginning, he was given a new relationship. So let’s not compare ourselves with our brothers or sisters, judge others, hold others in contempt. Let’s work on our own relationship with Jesus Christ and open some space in our middle. For God loves us all with an everlasting love. Amen.
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