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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 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!’
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: proud, haughty, self-righteous, or even like that on-fire-for-Jesus Christian. I bow my head when I pray silently, and I cover the amount on my envelope with my thumb when I slip it into the offering plate”.
Have you ever prayed that prayer? Or had those thoughts?
“God, how could you love someone like me. I am not like those other people who have it all together, who give more than I do, who volunteer more than I do, who are better people than I am. Have mercy on me, because that’s all I have”
What about this prayer and these thoughts?
It is easy to hear this parable and think that it is a lesson about the value of humility. There is the Pharisee, incorrectly dividing the world into categories. Thankfully we are not like him. And there is the tax collector. He knows what this is about, he is a good Lutheran. All sin. The only hope he has is for God’s mercy.
To modern listeners, the details of this parable go by so quickly. We don’t know what it was like to stand in the temple of Jerusalem. The term Pharisee is derogatory today. It can seem easy to identify the villain here because we have not heard the standard prayers of the Hebrew faith.
But understanding the context, as always, is very important. The temple of Jerusalem would have been grand sight to behold. It was big and it had rules. The people believed that it was where God lived – in the inner sanctum, the holy of holies. The temple was the place where you had to earn every inch of God’s favour. Whether you were a Pharisee or tax collector, you knew where you stood in the eyes of God when you were inside the temple.
The Pharisee knows that he is righteous. He prays a Benediction that every Jewish man was to pray each day. Thank you God that I am not a Gentile, a sinner, or a woman. The Pharisee modifies the prayer, but the point is still the same. He is genuinely thankful for who he is. The pharisees see those around him and looks down on them.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he cannot expect anything from God. His job requires him to break the rules of Judaism. To charge interest, to handle money with graven images on it, even to steal or assault. He is not righteous and his only hope is God’s mercy. The tax collector is so wrapped up in himself, that he doesn’t see the world around him.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector are both quick to divide people into categories and be judge on God’s behalf. The Pharisees judges himself righteous, the tax collector judges himself unrighteous. And we are often guilty of the same.
Whether we are thanking God for not being thieves, rogues, adulterers or tax collectors, or whether we are thanking God because we are not arrogant, self-righteous, or prideful, the issue is the same. We divide humanity into categories, justified or unjustified, saved or unsaved, loved or unloved.
Human beings are constantly looking for the ways that we can identify who is in and who is out. We might not be standing on the street corner, boldly thanking God in prayer for our certain salvation. But have we looked down on others, the homeless, those in financial trouble, those who struggle with addiction, those who come from broken families, even those who are sick, and we thank God that we are not them. “Therefore by the grace of God, go I”. Or how often have we been the ones thinking that we are worthless compared to those around us. That we unworthy, while everyone else seems so perfect. Whether we are intentional about it, or whether we do not know that we are doing it, we too place ourselves in the same categories that the Pharisees and the Tax Collector do.
Now, here is the thing about that kind of thinking. It is a trap.
And so it the parable today.
The parable that Jesus tells today is a trap that makes us identify ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax collector. But this parable is not about pride or humility, and it is just as much not about pharisees or tax collectors.
The parable is about the storyteller.
The parable is about Jesus.
While we are busy trying to make things about us, God is reminding us that it is God alone who justifies. God alone decides who is good enough for the Kingdom.
According to the law, the Pharisee came into the temple righteous, and left the temple righteous. But Jesus says something about the tax collector that should grab our attention,
“I… tell… you, this man went down to his home justified”.
There is nothing that the tax collector did, rather it is Jesus who says that the man is justified. It is Jesus who decides.
In the world of the Jerusalem temple, there were those were in and those were out. But everything changes with Jesus.
Through birth, life, death and resurrection, Jesus comes to tear down the categories we try to build. Whenever we try to make categories, God will stand on the other side, because God wants all to be included, all to receive grace, all to be loved. God has only one category for all of us. We belong to God and God alone.
Now, to the confirmands who shared their faith statements. If there was one thing I hope you take away from the past two years, it this. That we are not good enough to save ourselves, and nor are we too bad to be loved by God. God is the one who decides who is in and who is out, and God says, you are in.
The parable that Jesus tells is not a parable on how to act, or who to be like or how to pray. This is a parable about God. A parable that shows us God’s motives and shows us the way that God chooses to act in the world. That shows us that God wants to be with and care for the least, the lost, the sinners and the alone. God wants to care for us… because we are the least, the lost, the sinners and the alone.
Neither the Pharisee, nor the tax collector, nor us, want to see or admit, that being justified, that being saved is something that God does for us. Yet, that is what is told to us today. The trap is laid that we try to divide humanity into saved and not saved. And it is God who alone who knows the way out. Through love and mercy God chooses humanity. God who chooses those who truly cannot be righteous on our own, God comes to us as Christ who lives and dies, with us, with imperfect and flawed human beings, God sends us the Holy Spirit to bring us into the resurrection and into new life.
Perhaps our prayer today should be:
“God, we thank you that we ARE like other people: Pharisees and tax collectors, sinners and saints. We are justified by your righteousness; we are saved by your love.”