St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Joel 2.23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14
Parables possess power! Their punchline is meant to disrupt our comfortable world view, to change our perspective. So how does the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector speak to us?
Luke tells us, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18.9; NRSV). We do not know Jesus’ intended audience – it was, and it remains, a rather common practice to address one’s comments to one audience while fully intending them for another. Jesus may have told the parable to his disciples while knowing and intending it for others, perhaps a group of Pharisees. It is also possible some of the disciples trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Afterall, when Luke provides the account of Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem and sending messengers ahead of him, he reports a Samaritan village did not receive Jesus. When James and John saw this they asked Jesus if he would like them to call down fire from heaven such that they be consumed. Jesus rebuked them, and they traveled on to another village (Luke 9.51-56).
Let’s examine this new parable more closely. We are told a Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the Temple to pray. Now bear in mind that the Pharisees received a lot of bad press in the New Testament. It is true that they had some problems, but they clearly strove to do as God commanded, to fully keep God’s law. In contrast, tax collectors had sold out to the occupying Roman forces; they had to be wealthy for they had to pay the tax assessment up front, then collect the taxes owed. If they could collect more than owed, they could keep the excess for themselves. Hence, not only had they sold out to the Romans, but they were cheating fellow Jewish people. Thus, our characters consist of a highly respected Pharisee and a highly despised tax collector.
Luke tells us Jesus spoke of the Pharisee as follows: “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’” (Luke 18.11-12; NRSV). The Pharisee “stood by himself,” not with the common crowd, but in a prominent place where he could be seen by others. He began by thanking God – so far, so good, but then he seems to go off track for he begins to compare himself with others noting how his righteousness exceeded what was required. The Torah only required that one fast once per year, or at most, once per week; but he fasts twice per week. The Torah only required 10% of the agricultural harvest; but he gives 10% of everything he owns. God, look at everything I do; I am a wonder to behold!
In contrast, Jesus said: “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!’” (Luke 18.13; NRSV). The tax collector remained on the fringes, perhaps in the shadows, somewhat hidden. Rather than look up to heaven as did the Pharisee, he averted his eyes, bowed his head, and beat his breast. Only in rare circumstances did men beat their breasts; women beat their breast during periods of intense grief. An exception is found in Luke 23.48; following the crucifixion, Luke tells us, “And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (NRSV). The people were grieving; the Messiah they had expected, the Mighty Ruler, the Great Liberator, had failed to come! Also, as Dennis Hamm observes, Luke did not use the usual “eleeson” for “mercy” but used “hilastheti” which conveys a sense of atonement, that is, of being placed in right relationship with God, of being made of one spirit with God. The Pharisee and the tax collector went up to the Temple to pray at the time of the atoning sacrifice, and the tax collector, in effect, prayed, “’Let the atonement work for me, a sinner’” (https://liturgy.slu.edu/30OrdC102719/theword_hamm.html).
What a beautiful parable! What a beautiful prayer. The Church has memorialized this prayer in what is now called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”
In concluding the parable, Jesus said, “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” (Luke 18.14; NRSV).
We generally glance over this parable and interpret it as an admonition to be humble, but it says so much more than that! The parable calls us to recognize that all we have, all we are, is pure gift. The Pharisee erred in making his prayer about himself; he enjoyed looking down on the tax collector. Like him, we may think, “Look what I have done; I am so thankful I am not like others – thieves, rogues, adulterers, fundamentalist Christians, or Trumpians!” That reminds me of a not too flattering meme I posted on Facebook!
Ouch! That hurt! But yes, there are days we think this way. Yes, we too trust in ourselves, regard ourselves as righteous, and look at others with contempt. We act -- tending to sort people into categories, promoting division rather than unity. We ground our actions in discrimination – social, economic, racial, political affiliation, national origin, sexual preference, sexism and ageism. All are expressions of our inability or unwillingness to love God and neighbor. In our sorting and our classifying, we typically believe we have something that makes us better; but not only that, we are glad our neighbors don’t have it, and we hope they don’t get it!
Eleonore Stump reminds us “True humility is seeing that every excellence you have is a gift from your loving Lord and is given to you so that you can share it with others in love and rejoice with them when they have it too” ( https://liturgy.slu.edu/30OrdC102719/reflections_stump.html). We forget the best we can have is faith, hope, and love while others also possess these virtues. As we prayed earlier, “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command” (Collect).