In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s lesson from Luke, Jesus continues telling stories—parables—about various people and how they came to see God and live in their world. In today’s parable, Jesus says that there are two men who have come to the temple and then he goes on to explain what these two men have done.
Now, we’ve heard the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. And I imagine that as you were listening you were probably uncomfortable with what that Pharisee was saying. The Pharisee made a big point of saying, “I fast twice a week and I give a tenth of all my income.” It sounds like he’s bragging, doesn’t it, about what he has done in following the laws of his faith and of the temple.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the reason that Jesus said that it was tax collector who was justified rather than the Pharisee, was that the Pharisee was bragging about what he had done and all he had done was what he was expected to do. But I wonder. Many, many scholars have pointed out that the prayers that the Pharisees said were fairly typical of prayers of the faithful in the first century. Actually of the faithful even earlier. For example, Psalm 17 says, “My mouth has not transgressed as humans often do; as your lips have instructed me, I have kept the way of the law. My steps have kept to your paths; my feet have not faltered.” So even as far back as the Psalms, people were comfortable praying and telling God what they had done to live into God’s hope for them.
I think the problem that Jesus was trying to expose in this parable was not that the Pharisee was telling God how good and faithful he, the Pharisee, was, but rather something that he done moments earlier. Moments earlier he had said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” That is where the problem was. This Pharisee, instead of being content to come to the temple to pray—just as the other man had—came to the temple to make sure that God knew that he was better than other people and to do it in a very loud and public way. Can you imagine how that tax collector must have felt as one of these very important people stood to pray aloud about how he was better than even him, the tax collector?
One of the things you need to know about Israel in Jesus’ time is that the Pharisee would have been one of the elite. The Pharisee says that he gave a tenth of his goods and money in a tithe that was to support the temple, which made him very important. It was expected that everyone would give a tenth of what they had to support the temple. And it’s entirely possible that this tax collector wasn’t able to do that. People didn’t really choose to be tax collectors. It’s something you did when you could find no other way to support yourself. You were the lowest of the low. You took a job that you knew would make people despise you. But you took it because that was how to keep body and soul together. That tax collector was doing what he had to do and, in doing so, should have known that it was causing distress to others.
Did the Pharisee think about the distress he was causing? No. Instead he just had to be important in the face of the people in temple and in the face of God. We need to think about this.
Now I can’t say that everyone here is wealthy, though I suspect that many of us— probably most of us—are better off than the majority of the people in God’s world. And when we come to that realization, I hope that what we do is thank God for what we have and for what we are able to give rather than looking at those who are struggling and saying that we are better than they are, that they aren’t pulling their weight, that they don’t have money to give to the temple because they need to take that money to feed themselves and their children. How many of us do that?
We must always remember that we are blessed. We also need to remember what Jesus was really trying to show us in this parable. I think that what Jesus was showing us really was a part of the character of God. Jesus was showing us that God loves each and every person no matter whether they can give to the temple and pay their taxes or whether they are struggling. God’s mercy is for each and every person. And when we forget that, when we think that because we have and can give, we are better than others, then we are denying part of the character of God that says that we are all beloved.
I invite you next time you look at somebody that you feel isn’t pulling their weight and think to yourself, “Thank God I’m better than that,” instead say, “Thank you, God, for what I have, and let me help them so that they too can feel God’s love and mercy.” That tax collector stood there saying he was a sinner, but he walked away knowing that God loved him equally. And that’s the goal for all of us: rich or poor, Pharisee or tax collector. It’s to know God’s everlasting, all-encompassing love. And the way we can best show it is by sharing it with each other. Amen.