After last week’s parable, isn’t it nice when one of these is so easy to hear and understand? Finally, Jesus affirms the right person, and condemns those other people. Finally, God is on our side. It feels so nice, doesn’t it? Maybe we should give God thanks for this great Gospel story. “Lord God Almighty, we thank you that we are not like other people, those hypocritical Roman Catholics, overly righteous Baptists, and pesky Mormons. We thank you especially that we are not like that ridiculous Pharisee singing his own praises to you. We attend church regularly, we listen attentively to the lessons as they are read and the sermon as it is preached, we give a portion, maybe not a full 10%, but some portion of our income to your Church, and we have learned that we should always be humble and thank you God that we are so very good at it. Amen.”
That felt good. Bask in it for just a moment. God is on our side. Except. Except, well, I can’t help but feel like I’ve fallen into a trap. That thank you sounded a lot like the Pharisee’s prayer that I found so icky. This is precisely why I hate the parables so much. As soon as I think I’ve got them figured out, I’m sitting in the bottom of a hole wondering how I got there. Maybe we need to take another look at this parable in order to find our way around this parabolic trap.
Two guys went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. This story takes place at the Temple for a reason. Ancient Jewish society was pretty stratified, but there was no place where the lines between those who were “in” and those who were “out” were more visible than at the Temple. The various walls, porticoes, and curtains were meant to show who was allowed where. The holy of holies, where the presence of God resided, was only to be entered into once a year by the High Priest. Outside of the curtain that veiled the holy of holies was the Court of the Priests, a location set apart for the work and sacrifices of the Priests and Levites. Outside of that walled area was the Court of Israel where righteous men could stand and see the Priests as they offered the sacrifice. Then came the Court of Women where all Israelites would be allowed to enter. In this area there was even an area set aside for Lepers. Outside of that was the Court of the Gentiles, where outsiders would be allowed, and merchants usually set up shop to sell the animals needed to make various atonements. Everybody had a place, and everyone knew where they were supposed to be. You were never more aware of your place in society than standing in your assigned location within the Temple Court.
The Pharisee took his normal place in Court of Israel and began his usual prayers. In the same way that many of you enter the nave on Sunday morning and kneel to say your prayers, the Pharisee stood, looked up to heaven, and quietly prayed to himself a prayer that was actually pretty standard in his day, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers” and seeing the Tax Collector off in the distance, he added, “or like that Tax Collector over there. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.” There is no dishonesty in the prayer of this Pharisee. He is a righteous man, one who strives to live up to the letter of the law. He fasted regularly as a sign of his penitence. He gave generously so that those who were in need could have food and shelter. He did all the right things. As he came to the Temple, he was righteous. As he prayed this prayer, he was righteous. As he went home at the end of the day, he was righteous. To the hearers of Jesus’ parable, the Pharisee had done nothing wrong. He gave thanks to God for the things for which he should be thankful.
The Tax Collector, on the other hand, took his usual place “far off.” Tax Collectors were some of the lowest life forms in Israel. Ethnically Jewish, they shook down their own people for the pagan-worshipping Romans and always managed to take enough extra to keep their families fashionably clothed and well fed. He stood at the edge of the Temple, but Tax Collectors were outsiders religiously, politically, and economically. Though a leper could take his rightful place in the Court of Women, the Tax Collector was considered so unclean that he would have to stand outside with the Gentiles. Without even lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his chest repeatedly and says, presumably out loud, maybe even with a shout, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” To the hearers of Jesus’ parable, a Tax Collector has never spoken truer words. If he was anything, he was a sinner. He was a sinner when he arrived at the Temple. He was a sinner as he prayed this prayer. And he’d go home a sinner.
The way this story is supposed to end is the Pharisee goes home righteous and the Tax Collector goes home unrighteous. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a parable if it ended that way. Jesus once again pulls the rug out from under his audience and says, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went to his home justified rather than the other.” There is no way for me to give this story the shock-value it deserves. There is no way you can hear this the way Jesus’ audience would have but suffice it to say this is probably another one of those “let’s throw him off the cliff” moments in Jesus’ ministry. He had a lot of those. Here he tells the crowd that while the Pharisee went home righteous, the Tax Collector went home justified. He was accounted as righteous by God. He was restored by God to right relationship with God.
It’s just not right. It’s unfair. How can this hated Tax Collector go home justified? He hasn’t done anything. He didn’t offer a sacrifice. He didn’t pay his atonement. He just stated the truth, he is nothing but an unclean sinner, and that’s all he’ll ever be. Except, of course, by the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. And that’s where this story spins on its ear. If this were just a story about the need for humility it would be impossible to live up to because humility is impossible to hold on to. As soon as you have it, and realize you have it, it’s gone. “Hey, I’m being so much humbler than that guy. Oh wait, nope. Never mind.” If humility is just another virtue, another law God is calling us to live up to, it too will lead only to death. But this is a story about grace. The Tax Collector wasn’t being humble, he was being real. He, like you and like me, was a sinner in need of God’s great mercy. And so, he asked for it. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, mercy is freely available to everyone, even Tax Collectors. The Pharisee didn’t think he needed any mercy, he was doing just fine on his own. The Tax Collector knew he needed the grace that only God could give and so he received it. He went home justified, redeemed, restored. And he woke up the next day and went back to the despicable work of collecting taxes from his own people and collecting his own salary from their threadbare pockets and would return to the temple again and again saying “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
This morning we gather in one of God’s many Temples. We sing praises, offer prayers, and confess our sins. At the table, we remember the sacrifice Jesus made so that God’s grace might be freely offered to all. If you know you need God’s mercy, take it, for it is given to each who has need. If you don’t think you need it, you best take it anyway. You need it more than you know. From the Tax Collector we should all learn that the truest prayer any of us can pray is the prayer that God is most eager to answer, “O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.