Don’t pray like either the tax collector or pharisee

Luke 18:9-14
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

*Note: Sermons are posted in the manuscript draft that they were preached in, and may contain typos or other errors that were resolved in my delivery. See the Sherwood Park Lutheran Facebook Page for video

For the past several months, we have been hearing Jesus’ thoughts about discipleship. We have heard parables and stories that Jesus has been telling his followers about what it means to serve, about what it means to trust and about what God is up in the world. As we round the corner toward the final few weeks of this liturgical year, Jesus provides a parable seemingly about humility. About two very different people and their prayers to God. Prayers that maybe sounded a bit like this:

“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 our ears listening centuries after this story was first told, the details of this parable can just fly over our heads. We don’t know what it was like to stand in the temple of Jerusalem, the grand centre of Hebrew religion and power. The term Pharisee in our world is a derogatory, not a position of honour and importance. Imagining a haughty religious type praying this prayer in an opulent setting can make it seem easy to identify the villain. Yet there is so much we don’t know, images and symbols we miss, we have not heard the standard prayers of the Hebrew faith.

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 sees those around him and looks down on them because they are truly less righteous than he. 

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. 

But both the Pharisee and the tax collector are quick to divide people into categories. It doesn’t matter if one places himself in the good category and the other in the bad 0 the effect is the same. Both are acting as judge on God’s behalf. The Pharisees judges himself righteous, the tax collector judges himself unrighteous. 

And when slow down and look at ourselves honestly, 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. 

In fact, being divided into tribes and factions has become so pervasive over the past few years that we argue about everything, politics, culture, science and more. 

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 hold differing views about the pandemic, about the war in Ukraine, about climate change and even those who are sick, and we thank God that we are not them. “Therefore by the grace of God, go I”. 

But we are also often the ones thinking that we are worthless compared to those around us. That we unworthy, while everyone else seems so perfect. We are certain that no one has it as bad us, or that others have their act together while we are struggling to get by. 

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 problem with that kind of thinking. It is a trap of our own making. 

One that the parable today gets us to fall for again. 

We so easily identify ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax collector, or both. 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 that earned his justification. His prayer did not make him righteous. 

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 – the Kingdom to which we all belong. We are God’s beloved children. 

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.”

Image source: https://canadianmennonite.org/sites/default/files/article_photos/07-01A-pic-4-the_parable_of_the_pharisee_and_the_tax_collector_2017.jpg

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