After two months of Jeremiah, we get just one reading from the prophet Joel. He’s speaking his message into an Israel that has faced years of a devastating infestation of locusts, which has wiped out the crops and left the nation in a state of poverty and hunger. When these prophets stare down crisis—be it social, political, military, or environmental—they inevitably conclude that God has let this happen because Israel has lost sight of its foundational identity as the covenant people of God. Yet in the prophetic tradition these characters don’t stop at naming the depths of the crisis, but almost inevitably begin to sing of a new possibility.
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That’s what Joel is doing here. “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God.” In the midst of this disaster? Be glad? Yes, because “The threshing-floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.” You will be brought through this, people of God. You will. Not only that, but afterwards,
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
It isn’t all sunshine and light, mind you—there is still Joel’s language of “portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke”—yet he is insistent that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The Hebrew scriptures are shot through with this kind of wild inclusion, this insistence that God intends to meet all who reach out in longing.
But in spite of his “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” line, I honestly wonder what Joel would make of the parable we heard tonight, the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. As is often the case with Jesus’ parables, you have to pay attention to the set-up line, in this case that he “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” He then proceeds to tell his story with such broad strokes that it is really a caricature, almost a cartoon. He’s got these two characters going up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Now from our perspective and given our familiarity with the gospels, we’re conditioned to hear the word Pharisee, and think “villain,” and then to hear tax collector and be right away recalled to all of the places where Jesus deals compassionately with these characters. But if you happened to be there in the crowd when it was first told, you would have been hard-wired with a whole different set of assumptions.
Tax collector means traitor and con-man; Jews who had agreed to collude with the occupying Roman Empire and to collect taxes on their behalf, all the while making their living by overcharging the average person and skimming off a nice percentage for themselves. You just don’t get much lower than that. Meanwhile Pharisee meant a member of a movement or school of thought within Judaism that put emphasis on living righteously and faithfully within the requirements of the tradition. They observed torah, they tithed, they were learned, they provided leadership within the synagogue system, they played by the rules. Oh sure, they could be sticklers on some things, and you could feel a little inferior if your own life didn’t quite measure up, but they were a pretty solid bunch. Actually, most church congregations would be happy to welcome a Pharisee or two, as they’d dutifully tithe, lead the adult bible study, sit on the board, and maybe even volunteer to preach when the pastor was on holidays.
So if you’re in that crowd and working with those assumptions—that a tax collector is a shyster and a Pharisee an upstanding citizen—you’re about to get your doors blown off. “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.’” Well, maybe you’re squirming a bit over that attitude, “thank you that I’m not like those sort of people”—and you can almost imagine him looking over at the tax collector as he says that, right? And then Jesus continues with this picture of the tax collector, standing with his head bowed and his fist thumping his chest, praying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Ah… where’s this story going? Well, it is heading straight to the punch line, which is only hilarious if you’ve begun to figure out both who this Jesus is, and also who you are. “I tell you, this tax collector 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.”
It is a hilarious punch line if, like that tax collector, you happen to have a clue about the pieces of shipwreck in your own life. It is also hilarious if you happen to know that even if you are managing to get some things very right—if you are managing to live with some level of rightness in your life—that’s actually not the key to anything. I like how David Lose puts it. “[The Pharisee’s] prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.” And apparently he believes that is enough. Funny how he misses the problem of his own arrogance, his own bloody-minded and smug certainty that, in and of himself, he’s actually got it made.
Meanwhile, off trots the tax collector, forgiven and even justified. And where do you suppose he’s headed? Home, Jesus tells us, but beyond that? Back to work the next morning? Jesus just doesn’t go there. Won’t go there, in fact any more than he’ll tidy up the parable of the Prodigal Son by showing how wonderfully reformed the younger brother has become, allowing the resentful older brother to release his grudge and offer forgiveness. Nope, he leaves such matters hanging, quite probably so these parables continue to challenge our assumptions. We’d love to think that the tax collector in this parable will reform, just as the real life tax collector Zaccheaus vows to do. But here Robert Capon wonders if that only shows that we are “bent on destroying the story… effectively sending the tax collector back for his second visit with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket.” See Lord, now I’m doing it right. Now I’m fasting and tithing and doing an honest day’s work, not like all the tax collectors I used to work with.
Don’t get me wrong. I think had any tax collector in that world asked Jesus if he should change his profession and put his life back on the rails, Jesus probably would have said, “yes… you know the commandments.” I also think that were any of us to ask God if we should deal honestly with our taxes, keep from lying to our spouses, act more charitably toward that character who lives next door, knock off the prejudiced opinions, and go the extra mile when we’re faced by someone else’s hurts and needs, God would suggest that even in asking the question it is clear that we know how we should be dealing with such things. But—and here’s Capon again—
What God really says in Christ is that human goodness isn’t good enough to do this trick. Human goodness cannot reconcile the world. Basically if the world could have been reconciled by good advice from God, to which human goodness would respond, the world’s problems would have been solved ten minutes after Moses got down to the bottom of the mountain with the commandments. Everyone would have read the commandments and said, “Oh, yes, of course,” and the problems would have been over.
But the problem weren’t put to rest, were they? And sometimes even our goodness’s can—like that of the Pharisee in the parable—become only the thinnest of veils over whole new levels of badness. Arrogant smugness or self-satisfied righteousness or self-justifying rationalization. Whatever.
Which is why the parable’s punch line should make us laugh, and laugh with sheer delight over the absurdity of our presumptions, and the gift that is grace.