The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Proper 30        October 23, 2016

Luke 18:9-14

Well this is about as straight-forward a parable as you are likely to find. Jesus doesn’t get any clearer than this contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple. I remember doing a children’s talk many years ago when I drew the contrasting faces: the smug, self-righteous Pharisee, the contrite, heart-broken tax collector. Like the two masks of the theatre. The hero and the villain, the good and the bad, the black and the white. Pretty easy to understand.

And really, what is left for us but to join in a heartfelt prayer: “I thank you, God, that I am not like the Pharisee, so self-satisfied and condescending. I am humble and meek, just the way you want me, not like these hypocritical holy rollers.”

Except, of course, that with this prayer we have already missed the point. We have already joined in the Pharisee’s prayer, we have already divided the world into two groups of people, and assumed we are on the good side. And that, I would suggest, is what the parable is really about. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world, and those who don’t. Those who believe there are the good guys and the bad guys, the hero and the villain, the innocent and the guilty; and those who no longer believe in what Paul Simon calls the myth of fingerprints. Those who understand that at the most elemental level, fingerprints are not the key to sorting out the bad guys, as they are (thank goodness) in police work; they are the touch of our common humanity, sinner and saint the same, deeply broken and infinitely valuable both. “I’ve seen them all, and man, they’re all the same.”

Part of our difficulty is our tendency to vilify the Pharisees. Of course we have good reason to do so: the New Testament has little good to say about them, and it is pretty clear that Jesus himself had big problems with them. So when we use the word Pharisee, we immediately think of an arrogant, dishonest hypocrite. But that is turning them into a cartoon villain. In many ways, Pharisees were the good guys in first century Palestine. They were a reform movement within Judaism, dedicated to bringing the traditions of Israel into everyday life – not unlike Jesus himself. Their approach was to try to make the law a practical matter, something that everyone could practice, and so claim their religious heritage. They were the future of Judaism. They were a democratic force, offering learning and opportunity to the middle-class. And clearly, they were not all hypocrites. Many of them, presumably most of them, were decent, faithful, religious people with genuine integrity. Which isn’t to say they didn’t have their blind spots and their limitations.

Similarly, we have a one-sided view of tax collectors in the New Testament. Scholars will tell us that the Romans had a tax farming system. They had privatized the collection of taxes, auctioning off contracts to collect taxes in a certain region. The tax collector then had to pass over what was due to the authorities; but anything more they could squeeze out of people they could keep. Clearly a system that invited corruption. But I am a little suspicious of the conclusion that all tax collectors were corrupt. It reminds me of the way we talk about lawyers, who are the butt of every kind of joke. And yet there are decent lawyers, quite a few of them actually, dare I say the majority of the profession. There must have been decent tax collectors, caught in a nasty system.

Zacchaeus is often cited, as proof that tax collectors were all corrupt: “If I have cheated anyone, I will repay them four times.” But notice he says “if”. So either he is not being completely honest in his repentance, he is making one of those weasel apologies so beloved of politicians (“If anyone was offended by what I said, I’m sorry”); or, possibly, he is not aware of defrauding anyone, because he has tried to do his job honestly. Here again, we tend to make cartoon villains of a whole group of people, but the reality is more complex. These are simply people trying to play their roles, to do their jobs, in a world that is complicated and compromised. Kind of like our lives.

What became of the tax collector, we might ask, when he left the temple. One of the commentaries I read suggested that surely he must have repented of his life, given up his wicked job, maybe sold everything and followed Jesus, like Matthew. He went home “justified”, surely that must mean something like that? Well, that’s a load of hooey. First of all, that is not what Jesus tells us. If the point of the story was how he had turned his life around, then that’s how Jesus would have told it. Of course those are the stories we like to hear, those turn-around stories about heroic success, the camp meeting testimonies to instant conversions. Stories like this give
us hope. They feed the fantasy we have about ourselves, that some day – any day now! – I will wake up a different person, a better person.

Well, this parable doesn’t say that. This tax collector, as Jesus tells it, didn’t give up his job, sell everything, follow Jesus. Perhaps he had a family to feed, perhaps he had responsibilities to his widowed mother. Perhaps he knew that if he gave up his tax-collecting contract, they would just give it to someone else: the odds are someone more ruthless than he was, someone who really would fleece the people of his town dry.

The point is, he didn’t go back to some perfect, sinless existence, where there are no compromises. That is the fantasy of the Pharisees. He went back to real life. He showed up at the office the next morning, determined to do the best he could: to be fair to everyone, to try to get between his ruthless boss and the people he was supposed to be taxing, to go after the tax dodgers, and go easy on those who were really struggling. And, yes, to support the hated Romans, because they weren’t going away anytime soon, and it was best for everyone to try to get along with them. But he went back to work also knowing that he wouldn’t get everything right, that he would make mistakes, that he would end up doing things he would lose sleep over.

He went home justified – there’s that word again. It is a key word in theological history, a key word in Paul’s theology, a word that would be at the centre of the Reformation. So it is an appropriate word to think about, as we come up to the end of October, when Luther nailed his famous theses to the church door, exactly 499 years ago. What does it mean to be justified?

The slogan of the Reformation was that we are justified by faith, not by works. Not by the things we do, not by getting things right; not even by getting our theology right. Because the faith we are justified by is not a matter of having all the right ideas, but rather of being in the right relationship to God. We are justified by coming honestly face-to-face with God, the God who is not just the projection of what we like best about ourselves; the God who is other, who is justice, who is mercy, who is truth, who is love.

And we know when we are face to face with this God, because that is when all of our Pharisaic satisfaction with ourselves begins to dissolve, and we see ourselves clearly, who we are, and see how much we fall short of our ideals. We confess ourselves as sinners. But not in a blamey, guilt-obsessed, running ourselves down sort of way. The God we come face-to-face with is not the angry judge, either, not the stern father who is always disappointed with us: that too is just a fantasy of the Pharisees, a projection of their own drive for perfection. When we, with the tax collector, confess ourselves sinners, don’t let it be in self-hatred, but rather as the simple recognition of a fact: next to God, next to the standards of justice and kindness and truthfulness we believe in, we fall short. We are not God, we are human. God does not hate us for being human; just the opposite, God loves us sinners. When we come face-to-face with the real God, not the God we imagine, then we know ourselves sinners, and at the same time we know ourselves loved.

It is in this knowledge, to use the technical term, that we are justified. This doesn’t mean that we have it all sorted out and all our shortcomings are heroically overcome, and all our doubts left behind us – nothing like that. Our life may still be a mess. But it means that we are in right relationship with God. Not that we have our spirituality all figured out, either, and have the prayer life of a saint. But the fundamental shape of our relationship with God is there. We know recognize who God is, justice and truth and mercy and love; and we recognize who we are, broken limited creatures who fall short of our vision; and yet, for all that, deeply loved and so infinitely precious. That fundamental relationship is what really matters, it is that which puts us right with God and with ourselves. Everything else follows from there. And with that in place, we go back to the muddle of our lives. Not to win the final victory and put everything right, but to do the very best we can with the cards we have been given.

I’m not sure we ever fully realize how radical this gospel of justification is. We tend to think of it in this way: isn’t it nice that God cares for the sinners, too. And sure, we’re all sinners, but I mean the real sinners, the crackheads and the prostitutes and the hopelessly compromised collaborators like our friend the tax collector. Isn’t it great that God care for them too!

And we still don’t get it. Because that’s not what Jesus said, that God cares for the down-and-out too. Heck, a half-way open-minded Pharisee might get that far. What Jesus says is: the prostitutes and the tax collectors will enter the kingdom before you. They are further along than the rest of us, they are closer to the kingdom.

Why does he say this? Because according to Jesus, the basic shape of our faith life, of that fundamental relationship with God that justifies us, is not that of the religious person who is half-way succeeding at leading a good life. It is something closer than what AA calls hitting rock bottom, that moment when we stand empty handed before God and admit, I can’t do this.

Now that is not yet the life-giving relationship with God that Jesus talks about, but it sets the stage for it. It is the self-knowledge of who we are, the admission we are sinners. There is a dark irony here: the one message the Pharisees always seem to have for the addicted, the broken, the self-destructive is “you are a worthless sinner”. Yet that is the one thing they already know, know to the last bitter drop – that is, they know they are sinners, and they think they are worthless. The key to that life-giving relationship with God is the realization that, although they are sinners, broken, unable to help ourselves, prone to disappoint ourselves and others, we are not worthless. We are infinitely precious, beloved by God; and it is in this knowledge that we can begin to do a better job of loving ourselves, and of loving others.

And so it is that the tax collector, the prostitute, the addict, will show us all into the kingdom of heaven. Because they model for us what it means to approach God with empty hands, trusting not in our abilities, but in God’s love alone – the only way to approach God. Yes, we are sinners. That’s not about loading on the guilt and wallowing in it, it is simply a sober fact: we are human, we fall short of our own ideals, we mess up, get over it. And it is as sinners in all our humanity that we are beloved of God, that we are infinitely precious, not for what we have done or can do, but simply because God loves us, and that alone gives us the highest dignity and worth. Faith is about getting those two fundamental truths about ourselves straight. When we get those straight, we know ourselves already justified: that knowledge is what is essential, and everything else will follow from there. Sure, our lives may still be a mess; but like the tax collector, we return from the temple knowing who we are, and set about the task of doing the best job we can with the life we have.