Sermon for Proper 25, Year C
Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”
When you take a prayer like this along with other stories in the Gospels, the Pharisees come off looking like bad guys. It’s little wonder that for many of us raised in the Church, the word “Pharisee” is virtually synonymous with the word “hypocrite.”
But back in Jesus’ day, Pharisees were considered anything but hypocrites. On the contrary, Pharisees were widely and rightly regarded as the most religiously devout persons of their day. They were role models for what it means to be faithful to the covenant with God.
The term “Pharisee” comes from a root word meaning “pure.” And purity of thought, speech, and conduct was what Pharisees were all about. A good Pharisee didn’t have to post the commandments on his front lawn. They were engraved in his heart, and he would sooner sacrifice his life than breach God’s laws. Pharisees were pillars of their society. And were it not for their uncompromising emphasis on purity, it’s possible that the Jewish people might have been so assimilated into Greek and Roman culture that they would have simply disappeared.
The Pharisees were not the bad guys they’ve often been portrayed as. They were sincere in their pursuit of the moral order necessary for living a good life. And in that respect, we Christians who wish to nurture the common good of our society by upholding the best moral and religious values our tradition offers share more in common with the Pharisees than we may at first have imagined.
It’s been said that people are serious about religion when it affects two things: their stomachs and their pocketbooks. Judged by that standard, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable stands head and shoulders above his fellow Jews. This guy fasts twice a week and gives away a tenth of all his income. Imagine the good we could do if every Christian in America followed this Pharisee’s example. The food saved by our fasting could feed every hungry person in town. And if we gave a tenth of all our income, the coffers of our churches and charities would be filled to overflowing. This Pharisee sets a standard for practicing one’s faith that most of us can only dream of achieving.
So what a shocker it must have been for Jesus to say that the tax collector’s prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” makes him more acceptable to God than the Pharisee.
You see, tax collectors were the moral scum of their day. They were the opportunistic locals the Romans enlisted to do the dirty work of collecting taxes to support the occupation. Besides collaborating with the enemy, tax collectors routinely overtaxed their fellow Jews to line their own pockets. Tax collectors were traitors to their people, desecrators of the commandments, and apostates to their God. And yet, “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other” (Lk 18:14).
This is scandalous stuff. Not only does it overturn the values and the practical wisdom of the day. To some who heard this parable, it might even have sounded like heresy.
Is Jesus saying that it doesn’t matter whether or not we strive to live morally good lives? Is he saying that a scoundrel’s plea for forgiveness counts more than a life well-lived? That it doesn’t really matter whether or not we take the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Baptismal Covenant seriously? That we can do as we please so long as we eventually get around to asking for forgiveness?
Those are understandable questions, but I think they miss the point. Jesus is not saying that striving to live out the best religious and moral values is a bad thing anymore than he’s saying that living a life that betrays those values is a good thing. Instead, by making the contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus is trying to startle us into seeing truths we might miss if we get so caught up in doing religious stuff that we forget the real reasons why we do religious stuff in the first place.
Let’s look at three of these truths.
First of all, the desire to be morally and religiously pure – striving to be holy as God is holy – is a laudable goal. Jesus himself commands it in the Sermon on the Mount. But if we lose our focus on God, it can also be dangerous. For all of the impressive achievements of the Pharisee – and they are considerable – his zeal has an Achilles heel. Instead of keeping his eyes fixed on God, the one and only true goal of the spiritual life, the Pharisee had fallen into the self-centered trap of comparing himself with other people. Compared with the rank-and-file – much less with a tax collector – it’s no surprise that this Pharisee comes off looking like the very paradigm of moral goodness and purity. But what if the Pharisee were to compare himself to God? What if he were to compare himself to the One who has compassion on people whose behavior has bottomed them out into their own private hell?
Standing before the One to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, not even the best among us can walk away unscathed. Our capacity to generously overlook our own faults while exercising selective empathy with the weaknesses, failures, and sufferings of others is almost as boundless as God’s mercy. It is one of the ironies of the religious life that well-intentioned zeal for God’s truth and for the moral law can drive us to put ourselves in God’s place, thereby turning God’s redemptive grace, mercy, and compassion into the devil’s harsh judgment.
A second truth this parable drives home is that no matter how morally and spiritually mature we are, we are still finite, fallible human beings. And so we are never in a position to pass ultimate judgment on another person. That’s God’s job, not ours.
We don’t know, for example, what has brought the tax collector to the Temple to publicly cry out this sinner’s prayer. Given his occupation, it’s a safe bet that he has no moral track record to run on. So it’s tempting to dismiss him as a bad person beyond the reach of redemption. But we can’t know that for sure in any particular case. And if the Gospel is true, what we can count on is that nobody is beyond the possibility of redemption. If the tax collector can walk out of the Temple justified before God, anybody can.
And that leads to a crucial third truth: honestly acknowledging our brokenness to God – admitting that we don’t have it all together, even when we’re at our best – opens us to receive God’s mercy and transforming grace. Without any excuses, the tax collector admitted that he was a sinner in desperate need of forgiveness, and that he was powerless to do anything to save himself. And so he cried out to God for mercy, and God, whose mercy knows no bounds, looked upon him with compassion and forgave his sins. Psalm 51 puts it well: “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:18 BCP). Indeed, God is especially gracious to those whose lives have been broken apart by their sins and failures.
So regardless of whether the moral track record of our lives shares more in common with the Pharisee or the tax collector, we’re all in the same boat. And but for the grace of God, that boat would sink.
No one has grounds for boasting. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But there are also no grounds for despair. Redemption is always possible. No one can be written off. For our Christian faith assures us that no person – no matter far they’ve strayed from the fold – is beyond the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.
And so we give thanks to God that we are like other people. Black or white, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, each one of us is equal at the foot of the cross. We are all sinners in need of redemption. And we are justified by the tender mercy of the One who loves us so much that He sent Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us so that all of us – tax collectors and Pharisees – might be joined together into one family of God.
I'd like to acknowledge the influence of John Claypool's chapter on this parable in his book Stories Jesus Still Tells: The Parables (Cowley Publications, 2000), pp. 123-139.