This is the second in a series of sermons on the Parables of Jesus that I will be sharing with you this summer. Please join us in person at Nine Mile River United Church at 10 am for July, and at Riverview United Church at 10 am for August and September 1. We will return to regular worship times on September 8, 2019.
Today’s Scripture: Luke 18:9-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, 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.”
There’s a word that stands out to me in the parable that was just read. The word is “righteous”. It’s a word, that, as a child of the 80s, came to mean “Cool!” or “Awesome!” or maybe even “Wicked Decent!” Righteous, in a biblical sense means something a little bit different (although perhaps not too different depending on the context).
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth who would be the parents of John the Baptist. The writer of Luke explains one meaning of “righteous” there. He says, “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”
In this light, “righteous” meant that you were maintaining the covenant that your ancestors made with God. If you obeyed the covenant you would be blessed and if you didn’t you would be cursed… This understanding of righteousness still influences our thinking to this day. What do we say when something good happens like having a baby – “they were blessed with a son!” Elizabeth was never been “blessed” by a child and would have been thought to have offended God and so cursed. Some of us still wonder if we have been cursed when we have a string of bad luck, have you ever said, “Why me God, Why?” as if it was God that causes bad things to happen in our life.
The prophet Jeremiah predicted that a time was coming when everyone would know God and in knowing God everyone would be forgiven by God. No longer would God’s relationship with the people be based on the understanding of the written law (that most people were really bad at keeping anyway), but that the law would be written on each person’s heart. So that all would come to know God when they came to know their own hearts. No longer did righteousness depend on knowing and following the 613 commandments detailed in the book of law – the Torah. Righteousness in the new covenant simply meant living out God’s will for your life instead of your own. We see Jesus as the fulfillment of this new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah. The parable read today was one of the ways that Jesus taught the difference between self-righteousness AND righteousness in the eyes of God.
The parable today begins like this, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:”Anytime we come to a story we bring our preconceptions to it don’t we? For example, when I hear that this parable is about Pharisees and Tax-collectors I think I know who the villain is. After all, I grew up listening to these stories in Sunday School. Because of that, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be identified as the Pharisee so before the story even begins I know I’m not going to identify with that character!
But check this out, those listening to these stories at the time of Jesus would have known the Pharisees as some of the good guys around town – THEY were the righteous ones! They were observant Jews, they prayed when they were supposed to pray and they tried to follow all the commandments: They were honest upstanding citizens who gave 10% of everything they made to the temple. According to the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus who wrote in the same century as the writers of the gospels, “the Pharisees maintained a simple lifestyle, were affectionate and harmonious in their dealings with others, especially respectful to their elders, and quite influential throughout the land of Israel.”They truly sound like people that we would want to be like, don’t they?
In the gospel of Luke, the Pharisees and the Tax Collectors are often pitted against one another. Throughout the New Testament, the Pharisees often challenge Jesus saying things like, “Why are you always hanging around sinners and tax collectors?” That’s odd to us because we don’t necessarily think about tax collectors as villains. We may not realize that tax collectors in biblical times were not your neighbourhood Canadian Revenue Agent today. Sure, we grumble when taxes seem to high, or when we get dinged by an audit, but these tax collectors were more like members of a modern crime syndicate. They collected protection money from the neighbourhood merchants and siphoned those funds back to Rome. Think of them like the Sheriff of Nottingham character in the Robin Hood stories – stealing from the poor to give to the rich. They also regularly lined their own pockets through extortion. The Romans chose them to do their dirty work because they were greedy men who were already powerful and rich and owned the land that the Jews lived and worked on.
Many tax collectors were not observant Jews. But, if they were, they were banned from the temple because this profession made them ritually impure in their tradition. Handling Roman money and doing business with the Romans was forbidden in Jewish Law. The idea of a tax collector praying in the temple would have been absolutely ridiculous to the listener in the time of Jesus.
Let’s rewrite this parable so it feels a little more like how I suspect Jesus would have liked the story to land on his listeners…“Jesus gave this lesson to some who thought they were living well in the eyes of God and who looked down on other people with distain: ‘Two men went to church to pray, one man was a well-respected elder in his church, he was a on the board of Trustees, headed up the men’s Bible study group, and was seen front and centre at all church events. The other man had never stepped into this church or any church since he was a child. When people saw him they usually walked to the other street unless they were shaking his hand exchanging the drugs he sold! He had a long rap sheet, but each time he got out of jail, he would hit the streets again doing the only thing he was ever good at, making money selling drugs.
Every week, the church-man sat in his pew three aisles from the front of the church. He stood looking up praying to God saying, “God, thank you for blessing me so that I am not like the prostitutes, the addicts, or even like that drug-dealer I saw at the back of the church this morning. I’m doing everything right! I do devotions every morning, I have never missed a church board meeting, and I just increased my PAR giving to the mission and service fund. Thanks for keeping me awesome God!”
Meanwhile, the drug-dealer couldn’t even bring himself to enter the sanctuary. He felt unworthy. He just stood in the narthex, with his head hung low and tears streaming down his face. He prayed, “God, I’ve had enough of this life. I’m not sure what brought be through these doors this morning, but here I am. I am so sorry for the harm and pain that I have caused so many people and their families! I know it breaks my mother’s heart every time I go away. This is the only life I’ve ever known and I don’t know how to change. Please help me!” Jesus finished his story by saying, “the drug dealer went home with God’s blessing and the church-man did not.”
If I heard that version of the story, I think I’d say, “Wait….What? What did the church-man do wrong that he goes away without a blessing? I thought it was good to give God thanks and praise?! Of course, the church-man assumed he already had God’s blessing! Why wouldn’t he? He was doing all the right things! He always chooses the right path.” I think Jesus would have said to me, “The drug-dealer begged for God’s mercy, but the church-man assumed he already had it and so he didn’t even bother to ask.”
But … after awhile, the church-man feels pretty proud of himself for doing such a good job. He might even pat himself on the back. He begins to expect praise and is disappointed when he doesn’t get it. Eventually, his life is going so well that he doesn’t need to ask God for anything. Even if he has a problem he doesn’t feel he should bother God, because God has blessed him so much already. So, he just counts his blessings…and thanks God he’s not like those “other people.”
On the other hand, the drug-dealer breaks the law and he hurts people with the drugs he sells. He sometimes sells the drugs for more than his supplier requires, so he can pocket the extra cash. He knowingly accepts stolen goods, and accepts “favours” in exchange for drugs when an addict has no cash. He has even convinced young men and women that become so addicted to the drugs HE sells that prostitution is a way for them to get the money they need to pay him for drugs they are now addicted to! This guy is the lowest of the low. He has no respect for God’s will. In the eyes of society, it is very clear who is the hero and who is the villain in this story.
But, here’s the thing that I think Jesus wants us to hear: We are all equal in the eyes of God… We are all equal in the eyes of God. Remember how the scripture began? “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” Jesus is not telling that story just to the people of the first century…I can’t speak for you, but I know that I think I’m pretty good person and that I try to stay on the righteous path, but I will admit that I have thought before, “well, at least I’m doing better than that!” I rarely come to prayer to beg for forgiveness or help because I’ve thought that, like the church-man in the story, I don’t have to bother God with my problems. I am blessed enough already –
Gratitude is what I most often bring to God in prayer. Jesus tells this story for all of us that are too proud to ask God for help no matter how blessed we think we are already! How humbling is that?
In the eyes of God, there are no heroes or villains. It doesn’t matter what “side” you are on. It doesn’t matter how little or how much help you need. We all belong to God and God wants to help us. Being righteous in the eyes of God means humbling yourself to ask for that help. Being self-righteous means you think you don’t need God’s help. When you are self-righteous you are going to think that other people need God more than you do and this will lead to contempt, “At least I’m not ‘them’.”
Here’s the problem with self-righteousness and contempt. When we become full of contempt for someone then we are incapable of loving them. When we are incapable of loving someone, then we are capable of hating them, and even worse, I think, we are incapable of seeing them as worthy human beings at all. When our neighbors become “the other” as a result of our self-righteousness then we are in trouble. All potential for healing relationships is lost because we don’t think we are equals. That is what sin is – broken relationship that yearns to be healed.
The most seemingly righteous have so often been the source for the greatest wrongs because they claimed that what they are doing is pleasing in the eyes of God. We only need to look to the news for regular examples of this kind of othering. Just ten minutes reading the comments from both sides on any news story quickly reveals a disheartening and destructive rhetoric that nobody will win because nobody is listening. Everybody thinks they are right (or left as the case may be). How will we ever be at peace going on and on like this when we can’t even see each other as equals? We are all too busy being right. You know how is right? God’s right – We are all equals in the eyes of God!
I think the healing STARTS with prayer and deep contemplation and the parable today show us how to pray. And before we think, “So that’s all you have to do, ask for help and forgiveness and BAM everything is fine?” There is something we must understand. Yes, all is forgiven, but that’s not all there is to it. The work that will go into changing your life to one reconciled to God’s will and not your own, is a life-long endeavor. God’s forgiveness is not a quick fix! It is the beginning of a new journey that one must choose again and again and again –every day, every moment!
It is our hope that a new journey is what he, who we thought the “bad guy” was, does with his blessing, but we never learn that. We don’t learn it, because what he does with the blessing of forgiveness is not the point.The point is that if we accept and trust in the unconditional mercy and love of God that Jesus taught by his life and his teachings, then we must also accept that when anyone comes before God with a humble heart in prayer, that God’s forgiveness is given each and every time. How that forgiveness works to transform each person is a mystery waiting to unfold and that is none of our business. I believe that God’s will is to be in this on-going relationship with each of us. Being in relationship with God in this way teaches us how to be in relationship with each other. We learn to forgive, by being forgiven.
This parable teaches us that God’s merciful forgiveness is not earned. God doesn’t see us for what we do. God sees us for who we are. God’s blessing and forgiveness is for all who swallow their pride and come before God and ask for it. It is for the tax-collector. It is for the drug-dealer.
It is for the Pharisee. It is for the church-person. It is for me and, my friends, it is for you. What we do with that forgiveness is where the journey to real transformation really begins.
May it be so. Amen.