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It is important, when we talk about Pharisees in the gospel context, to be careful about generalizations. I have many friends who are rabbis. They are happy to be descendants of the Pharisees. Being a Pharisee is a good thing in Judaism. It is anti-Semitic to equate being a Pharisee with being a sinner. There are good Pharisees and not-so-good Pharisees, just like there are good pastors and not-so-good pastors. Jesus is calling out the bad Pharisees of his day who are hypocritical, and thus poor religious leaders. He is not condemning all Pharisees.
I started today’s sermon thinking of the oxymoron. Let’s see. There’s
- Freezer burn
- Found missing
- Resident alien
- Good grief
- Almost exactly
- Government organization
- Sanitary landfill
- Alone together
- Legally drunk
- Small crowd
- Military intelligence
- Plastic glasses
- Terribly pleased
- Political science
- Tight slacks
- Pretty ugly
- Twelve-ounce pound cake
- Diet ice cream
- Working vacation
- Exact estimate
- Microsoft Works
And one that I take personally – Lutheran Pride. When people ask me about leaving the Roman Church, the last thing you would hear me say is that I’m “Proud to be a Lutheran.” That would be like saying “I’m ashamed to say that I’m a narcissist.” I’m happy to be a Lutheran (or now Lutherpalian), but never proud. Never.
The great 20th century reformation theologian Karl Barth briefly discusses this parable in a section of his writing called” The Sloth and Misery of Man”. For Barth, there is a clear distinction between the goodness of God the creator and the sinfulness of the creature. And this is the point that Jesus makes in the parable. The Pharisee sees his status before God to be the result of his own actions. His prayer is about what he is doing. The tax collector is ashamed of his actions. His prayer is about what he has done.
In other words, it is the difference between “Look at what I am doing. I am great. I am so great.” And “What the heck have I done? I have sinned. I have really sinned.”
Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are shamed before God, according to Barth, but the difference between the two is that the Pharisee is ignorant of his standing before God. The shame of both men is a result of their sin. The Pharisee has fallen into the sin of arrogance and pride because he has attempted to exalt himself above others, even God. He gives thanks to God that he is better than the thief, the rogue adulterer, or even the tax collector. He’s proud of his religious acts of fasting and giving, and therefore justifies himself. It is sin by comparison and one-upmanship. Self-justification.
The tax collector on the other hand is humiliated before God and others. He genuinely recognizes his misdeeds, and his brokenness is evident in his self-mortification. It is sin by his broken relationship with God and others, and he needs compare himself to no one to prove that he is a sinner. This sinner recognizes God as the source of justification.
So here’s the question. Am I a Pharisee or a tax collector? It’s hard to read this parable without placing myself in one category or the other. And I bet many of you think about that as well. After all, I have to say that I have fallen for the allure of my own self-satisfaction from time to time. Auntie Katherine and I have had that conversation where we compare ourselves to members of our family who do not attend church. Roy and I have had the conversation about how likely it is that we probably tithe, as a percentage of our income, more than Donald Trump. “O lord, I thank thee that I am not like those other people.” God, please love me, because I get it, and they don’t. “
I may have to fall pretty far before I am forced to say, like the tax collector, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But in reality, the very act of comparing myself to others is a sin.
It seems ironic that this gospel is paired with 2nd Timothy in the lectionary, and we hear Paul saying that he has “finished the race” and “kept the faith”, and that the “crown of righteousness” is reserved for him. This might sound an awful lot like the Pharisee in the parable, but there are differences. Paul writes from prison. And while the Pharisee heaps scorn on those who are not like him, Paul affirms that this crown of righteousness belongs not only to him, but to all who have longed for God.
God appears to have a preference here. That preference is for humility over arrogance. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves shall be exalted. It is another way of saying what we heard in Luke chapter 13: “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
The tax collector goes home in this gospel. We don’t know what the outcome of this repentance is. Does he pay back all that he has made from cheating and extorting like we see Zacchaeus doing in the next section of Luke’s gospel ? We don’t know. To even better understand the significance of the tax collector in today’s gospel, we must remember that in addition to being swindlers, tax collectors usually came from away. They were out-of-towners, carpet baggers, venture capitalists, corporate raiders, Roman collaborators, who came in and established a structure that sent them home very rich. It adds a layer of “otherness” to this guy, this tax collector, who is expressing such pure humility before God.
The sin of pride apparent in the gospel then is not so much that I am so good that I don’t need God. The sin of pride is that I am so good that I need God a lot less than the other person needs God. That’s the sin. Pride is a sin against God, but it is a sin against others as well. Frankly, it is a lot easier to mistrust or even hate my neighbor when they need God more than I do. But much easier to love my neighbor when I truly and deeply admit that I need God as much as he or she does. To forgive others as God has forgiven me means that somewhere along the line I have had to admit that I need forgiveness as much as others do.
As a priest I have struggled with this reality a lot in my life. And the language of the church doesn’t make it easy. To absolve the sins of others without a deep contrition for my own sin and my need to humbly ask for absolution makes no sense at all. I can tell you that your sins are forgiven, but man, I’ve got over 60 years of crap that I could unload on you!
We will finish the race together, with St. Paul and all the rest. We’ll find a crown of righteousness together, with all who long for God. But that crown is not ours to give. Righteousness begins in humility. And it finds its completion in the immeasurable mercy of God. That’s grace. And thanks be to God. Amen