Today’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times, but it remains true: Parables are tricky beasts. Eugene Peterson called them “narrative time bombs,” and he was right. Jesus plants them in our minds only so that they can explode with meaning several days later. This is a problem in a world of soundbites and smartphones as our attention spans continue to shrink. According to a 2015 study by Microsoft, the average attention span of an adult has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. Keep in mind that scientists think that the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds! Back when there weren’t eleven million things clamoring for our attention, it was easy to keep a story like the Pharisee and the Tax Collector bouncing around in your head for a whole week, but now-a-days, we’ve often forgotten what the Gospel lesson was before the opening paragraph of the sermon is over.
It is impossible to plumb the depths of meaning in stories like today’s parable when we are fundamentally incapable of focusing on anything for longer than a goldfish. So, we settle for simplistic readings, and make this parable a fable about humility. We break the story down into its simplest parts: the tax collector is good because he is aware of his sinfulness while the Pharisee is bad because of his arrogant prayer. Then we say something like, “Lord, thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee who is an arrogant jerk and that I am so humble. Amen.” Do you see the problem with that reading of the story? It leaves us no better than the Pharisee we are so quick to judge. It is an easy reading, but it is not the best one. Instead, if we give this lesson time to mature, time to float around in our brains for a minute or two, we’ll start to notice details that we might otherwise miss.
First, we should note the audience to which Jesus told this story. He told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” That is, he told this parable to people who would hear the parable in the way I just described. He told this parable to us. When things are going well in our spiritual lives, it is really easy to forget who should get the credit. Pride has a tendency to grow the more we pray, the more scripture we read, the more we give to the church, and care for the poor. It is easy to say, like the Pharisee did, “I pray, I fast, and I give,” but the reality that it is only because of the Holy Spirit at work within us that any of that is possible.
The ugly side of thinking our righteousness comes from our own abilities is that we then tend to look down on those who aren’t quite at righteous as we are. If only they could pray like me or care like or be as humble as me, they might be righteous too. As we get comfortable with looking down on our neighbor for not being as righteous as we’ve made ourselves to be, eventually we begin to treat them with contempt: literally, we treat them as if they were worthless nothings. We label them as sinners or liberals or closed-minded and dismiss them – ignoring the fact that they human beings worthy of love. I Christianity, righteousness means being in right relationship with God and neighbor. It is therefore impossible to treat others with contempt and be righteous. Jesus tells this story to those who think they are righteous because of their own personal piety, but are not because of how they treat their neighbor.
The second detail worthy of note is the prayer of the Pharisee. As off putting as it is to us today, his prayer might not have been that uncommon in the days of Jesus. The Pharisee’s job was to be righteous and to help others lead righteous lives according to the Law of Moses. He was, at least according to the teaching of his own tradition, totally in the right to think of himself as righteous. In order to be in right relationship with God and with neighbor, the Pharisee was required to abide by the Law, and he followed it to the smallest detail. He prayed, he fasted, he tithed, he didn’t steal, he didn’t lie, and he didn’t cheat. He was a model citizen, and it was only right that he should thank God for that. As much as we’d like God to smite this man right there in the Temple Court, or at the very least we might question how one can be considered righteous who so brazenly puts down others, the reality is that he went home just as righteous as when he arrived; having faithfully fulfilled what was required of him in the Law.
The third thing we need to notice is the tax collector who so often gets painted as the hero in this story. Tax collectors were despised by just about everyone. They were Jewish men who conspired with the Roman government to extort money from rich and poor alike. Their livelihood depended upon how much extra money they could shake out of the tax payers. I always picture this man as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Disney version of Robin Hood. There is a scene where he barges in on a blacksmith who has a broken leg and can’t work. Friar Tuck had just given the blacksmith a few coins from Robin Hood’s stash that he hid in the cast, and the sheriff promptly and painfully shook them loose. Nobody likes the Sheriff of Nottingham, and nobody liked the traitor tax collectors. It seems that the tax collector in our parable didn’t even like himself. In his guilt and his shame, he knew better than to come right on into the Temple. Instead, he stood a safe distance away, wouldn’t even look up to heaven, beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And then he left. I can’t help but wonder how our reading of this story changes if he came back and did the same thing the next day? And the day after that? What if he had been asking God for forgiveness every day for 20 years, but had no real interest in changing anything about himself. What if he went to work, shook down his fellow Israelites, asked God for forgiveness, woke up the next day, and did it all again.
Either way, Jesus tells us that he went home justified: that is he was made righteous by God’s action and God’s action alone. Which seems to be what this story has been about all along: the grace of God to forgive us and declare us justified. It is easy to consider the tax collector as justified given his obviously repentant language. It is less easy to consider him justified by God if he did the same thing day after day after day. And it is next to impossible to think of the Pharisee as anything close to righteous or justified, but it seems that all of the above are true. I’ll spare you the boring Greek details, but it is equally plausible that the tax collector went home justified “rather than” the Pharisee as it is he went home justified “alongside” the Pharisee. See, whether we approach God trying our best to do it on our own, on our hands and knees begging for forgiveness, or bowed low for a moment, pretty sure we will do it all again tomorrow; it is God’s very nature to return us to righteousness and restore us to right relationship. It might mean he has to humble the exalted before he can exalt the humbled, but one way or another, God is going to do everything he can to let us know that we are loved by him.
It would be easy to look smugly at the smugness of the smug Pharisee, but if we take more than eight seconds to pay attention and let this parable marinate a bit, the meaning is much richer. Rather than a story that casts another line in the sand of us versus them, this is a parable about the love of God for all of us: whether we are first century tax collectors and Pharisees, sixteenth century Roman Catholics and Protestants or twenty-first century Republicans and Democrats. God loves us all and his deepest desire is that we might be justified, made righteous, restored to right relationship with God and every one of our neighbors through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Amen.