Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Wow! That’s hot stuff! And it is truly scary stuff, and most frightening of all, the sentiment that Luke expresses is absolutely true! If we are trusting in ourselves that we are righteous, then it necessarily follows that we are not trusting in God for anything at all. If we cannot trust God to give us our righteousness, then we cannot trust God to give us anything else.
It may seem a tad odd to us at first, that trusting in ourselves leads directly to regarding others with contempt, as Luke so clearly indicates. But for just now, try to imagine someone whom you know to be self-righteous. Place that person firmly in your minds. Does not that person, as he or she lives out their life, frequently hold others around him or her in contempt?
We don’t even need to meet the very typecasted Pharisee, nor his equally typecasted antithesis, the tax collector, to realize that Luke is spot on with his diagnosis, and that we have indeed, stumbled into some very dangerous territory. If we wander any further into this territory, we will discover that that journeying there will strip away all of the glorious glitter of our outward appearances, and that it will bare the dank and dark depths of our hearts.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. When Jesus told a story, he more often than not, stacked it to the hilt, and overloaded it considerably. As soon as his listeners heard Jesus start this story, many of them had already finished it in their minds, but not at all in the way that Jesus ended it. You see, Jesus, as we now know, often had surprise, and sometimes even shocking endings to his stories.
In first century Palestine, the Pharisee was the highly respected clergy person. Because of the Bible, and more specifically because of Jesus, Pharisees often get a bum rap in our Christian minds. We’ve learned not to like them, and if I dare to say it, we’ve learned to regard them with contempt. But not so in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ day, Pharisees were nearly venerated, and for good reason. They knew God’s word well; and they were able to interpret it with wisdom that came from a life-time of serious and consistent study. They were particularly conversant with with passages of Hebrew law, and they were able to render respectable judgments on it. The Pharisee was the epitome of righteousness. He was the one by whom all others were judged. If anyone had their spiritual lives together, it was the Pharisee. If there is any doubt about this in anyone’s mind, just take a peek at the depth of this Pharisee’s spiritual life as evidenced in his prayer.
The tax collector, on the other hand, was, well, a tax collector. Tax collectors were just about everything that the Pharisee was thankful that he was not, when he voiced his prayer, there in the temple. The tax collector was a thief because the Roman government did not strictly regulate the percentage of his commission. If the tax collector determined in his mind that you had the ability to pay more taxes, you paid more taxes, and the tax collector pocketed the difference for himself. Usually the tax collector had at his disposal a couple of beefy Roman soldiers to ensure the smooth and efficient collection of taxes. The tax collector was also a rogue, because he was an employee of the Roman government. He worked for the enemy. No self-respecting Jew would do that if it could possibly be avoided. And lastly, the tax collector was an adulterer. Because of his position with the Roman government, the tax collector was unclean and was banished from worship services in the synagogue and in the temple. Because he could not fulfill his worship obligations, he was a law-breaker, a covenant breaker, an adulterer, perpetually unfaithful to God. The Pharisee of course, would have known this well, as did all of Jesus’ listeners. If anyone did not have his spiritual life together, it was the tax collector. But be prepared for an amazing reversal, because the crowd was not.
When the Pharisee came to pray, he stood by himself. He is standing alone, apart from others, separate, distinct, and distant from everyone else around him. No contact with the riff-raff here; he is self-sufficient, and obviously self-righteous. He has no need for anyone. He is alone and above all others, and that’s just the way he likes it. Even in his prayer, he is afforded the opportunity to treat the only one near him with utter contempt. But in addition to all of that, I am convinced that he is also standing apart from God. In spite of the fact that he is in the temple, in the place of worship, and in spite of the fact that he is addressing God, Jesus has placed him in a very lonely place, far from the presence of God. This seems to be the fate of all who are self-righteous. It is very much like hell.
And that’s tragic, oh so tragic. And it is tragic because it points to the awful reality that one can appear to be a participant in the community of faith, one can have all the appearances of having a relationship with God, and yet be completely separated from God. That’s what self-righteousness does. It distances us from one another, as the Pharisee has done in this parable, but worse, it creates a tremendous wall of separation between us and God. The Pharisee’s prayer, if it is a prayer at all, clearly demonstrates this. The Pharisee’s prayer indicates that he is very much like the very people that he is treating with contempt. In addition to being a thief and a rogue and an adulterer, the Pharisee is also an idolator. How is that he has never taken something that did not belong to him? Even if it was just the people’s adoration? How is it that he has never been dishonest or unprincipled? Other than with this prayer that Jesus puts on his lips? How is it that he has never been unfaithful? Other than with his very obvious self-righteousness? He is guilty of all of these things, and the careful reader of the parable will be able to point them out as they appear in his prayer and in his demeanor. But his presenting, and most obvious sin is that he is an idolator. He may fast twice a week, and he may be a tither, but he is so consumed with himself that the God that he is addressing in his prayer is his own ego.
The tax collector, on the other hand, has also come to pray. He is also alone, but only because of necessity. He is an exile. But he has not come to impress God, or to boast, or to preach. He has come, instead, to commune with his creator and God. He brings nothing with him of any value. He compares himself to no one, he lists no accomplishments; and yet he has a deeper and more meaningful understanding of himself and of his God than does the Pharisee. He knows that he is a sinner in need of grace; while the Pharisee knows that he is not a sinner. And so the tax collector, as he approaches the holy place, doesn’t stomp in and defile it as does the Pharisee. Instead he stands far off, but probably as close as the law allowed, perhaps in the court of the Gentiles. And yet, even at that distance, he is closer to God than is the Pharisee. His prayer is heard by God, but not by those around him. His prayer is an honest prayer of confession, straight from the depths of his heart. It is not a litany of his greatness. The Pharisee boasts of his greatness to all who are close enough to hear his prayer, but the tax collector speaks directly to God and with grief and sorrow in his heart, he humbly begs for mercy.
It was part of the office of the Pharisee who lived in Jerusalem to come to the temple three times a day to pray. But how often did the tax collector come? I’d like to think that the tax collector came to the place of prayer as often as he could. Jesus, of course, is not interested in the regularity of either of them. Regularity isn’t part of his story. But in my imagination, I’d like to think that the tax collector was regular in his prayer, because we need always to be regular in our prayer. The tax collector stands in the place of righteous humility. He is constantly aware of his need for, and dependence up on God. The tax collector understands and admits that he is a sinner in need of mercy. He has no one to hold in contempt but himself.
The Pharisee, for all of his wonderful words and marvelous accomplishments, remains completely apart from God. He is not a sinner, and so he has nothing to confess. And so after reminding himself and God and everyone around him of his greatness, he went home full of himself and empty in soul. His only possessions being a slightly empty stomach and a lighter wallet, neither of which earned him any credit with God. Jesus had something very powerful to say about how we conduct our fasting and our prayer and our giving; and announcing our practices in a boastful homily isn’t it. The tax collector, on the other hand, went home filled with the grace and mercy of God, and overflowing with the joy of forgiven sins. “I tell you”, Jesus said, “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.” How will we go home this morning?