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February 19, 2015, 9:34 AM

The Pharisee & the Tax Collector

Luke 18:10-14, CEB
“Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified alongside the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
The Pharisee & the Tax Collector
As we journey through Lent this year, we are traveling with the beautiful stories of Jesus—the parables. What a wonderful gift are the parables as a way to convey life with God, life as a disciple. Parables are a unique art form that is designed to capture our imaginations, to be strikingly visual, to transform everyday life into revelations of the divine. Parables contain layers of meaning, and designed with twists to grab our attention, and require us to participate and engage with them as we chew on them long after the telling; pondering the meaning, experiencing the mystery, wondering at the surprise.  Over the years we have lost some of these aspects of the parables due to our familiarity with them. But to Jesus’ first century audience, disciples or crowds, these teachings, these stories were new, surprising and fresh. Parables, up to this point, had not been used as a teaching tool.
On Ash Wednesday most years we hear from the gospel of Matthew and Jesus’ teaching on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. “Do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.” This year, as we begin our journey with the parables, we encounter a story involving prayer. “Two people go up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector.” At first glance this story seems pretty simple and straightforward. The Pharisee, though religious, sounds pompous and puffed up to our ears. The tax collector, though a sinner, is humble and repentant. The tax collector, in his simple prayer, is made right with God. Therefore, the moral of story is “be like the tax collector.” The end.
But where is the surprise that parables are supposed to have? Where is the twist? What are we to chew on and ponder? Is this how the disciples and crowds heard the story so many years ago? It is more likely they heard the parable more like this…
“Two people went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector…”
“Wait…did he just say ‘tax collector…in the temple…praying?!?!” Gasp, whisper, murmur, grumble.
Tax collectors were viewed by most Israelites as clear sinners. They were viewed as corrupt, dishonest, wealthy due to extortion of their fellow Israelites. They were considered traitors, working for the occupying government and against their own people. They rarely demonstrated mercy for others. The audience would have a hard time imagining a tax collector even considering going to the temple to pray, let alone actually doing it.
Now, a Pharisee is a whole other matter. They were considered pious and devout. Several historian accounts of Jesus’ time lift up the Pharisees as having the support and respect of the people. They were steeped in scripture and tradition, and sought to make the ancient teachings relevant to the people of their day. Though a few were giving Jesus a hard time, overall Pharisees were seen as the ‘good guys.’ And though we consider the Pharisees prayer to be pompous, he was praying in the common style of his time. We have many examples of synagogue and temple prayers from the 1st century. They begin by addressing God and speak throughout in the first person. They give thanks for what the person is, and what the person is not. One of my favorite written prayers from 1st century Jewish worship states: “I thank you, God, that I am not a gentile. I thank you, God, that I am not a woman.” The Pharisees prayer is keeping with the style of his time. And these prayers end with a listing of all the things the one praying has done in following God’s way. And this Pharisee character in Jesus wasn’t just pious…he is uber pious.  He doesn’t just fast once per week as required, he fasts twice a week. He doesn’t just give a tenth of his income, he gives a tenth of everything he owns.  This exaggeration would have drawn a little chuckle from the audience as they heard the Pharisees prayer.
The twist, the surprise, for Jesus’ 1st century audience was the tax collector himself. They would be having a Jonah-like experience as they heard the story unfold—Jonah who resisted going to Nineveh with God’s message because he didn’t want his enemies to repent and be saved. This traitorous, hated sinner went up to the temple, engaged in the washing process to make himself ritually clean so he could enter the temple, demonstrated true repentance with the beating of his chest, and prayed for mercy. And if he willingly did all of that, the people knew what would happen. God would show this tax collector mercy, darn it! That is how God works.
Jesus’ audience will chew on this story for a while. If even tax collectors can be forgiven, restored, and made right with God, how does that change how we see them when we encounter them in the day-to-day? How does that change how we should treat them? That tax collector showed real humility and repentance, do I? If God’s mercy is for all, truly for all, than how does my mercy toward others compare? How must it change?
Two people went up to the temple to pray…and they will journey with us all through Lent.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

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