The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Sermon for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” So Jesus begins the familiar parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. I’d venture to say that when most preachers look at the lectionary and see that this is the gospel reading appointed for today they’ll be quite delighted. After all, this parable all but preaches itself. It’s a bit like a really good political cartoon: the two characters are drawn with bold, clear lines—they’re almost caricatures—and with just a few swift strokes Jesus moves to his very clear conclusion: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Take that conclusion to heart, and when you walk out the church doors at the end of the liturgy “go and do likewise.” Done.

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And in some real sense, it really is that simple. The preacher might want to alert the congregation to the fact that there were other Jewish writers of that same period who were similarly critical of the sort of spiritual pride expressed by the Pharisee in the parable; that this isn’t some sort of blanket condemnation of Judaism as such. The issue really is the kind of arrogant and self-assured pride that people can fall into—people now as much as then—through which they begin to trust in themselves that they are righteous, and then in turn to judge with contempt those who they have concluded are not making the spiritual grade.

Years ago a Jewish friend told me a story that he’d learned as he was growing up. A rabbi went into the synagogue, fell on his knees before the ark in which the torah scrolls are stored, thumped his fist against his chest and said, “I am nothing, I am nothing.” The synagogue cantor entered, fell to his knees, thumpted his fist against his chest and said, “I am nothing, I am nothing.” Finally the synagogue janitor entered, fell to his knees, thumped his fist against his chest and said, “I am nothing, I am nothing.” At which point the rabbi turned to the cantor and said, “So, look who thinks he’s nothing?”

It’s a joke, right? So hear some of that same humour in Jesus’ parable, as he has that caricatured Pharisee pray words so filled with arrogance as to be absurd: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (And here imagine him turning his head and peering down his nose at the tax collector; a look of contempt on his face) As Jesus tells the story, the Pharisee then lists just two of his religious practices—“I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income”—which in the context of the joke is enough to give us a sense of this guy’s piety. It also would have given everyone in his original audience enough to get a good picture in mind, for again that kind of critical take on spiritual pride and arrogant piety was not foreign to Jewish thought.

Now Jesus sketches his caricature of the tax collector, and he does it with those same quick strokes: “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!’” And again, everyone in his original audience had enough material to “get the joke.” They might have squirmed a bit at the thought of a penitent tax collector, because tax collectors were both in collusion with the enemy Roman occupiers and notorious for fleecing the people and lining their own pockets, but given how this pious twit of a Pharisee gets knocked off his high horse, the joke is still pretty funny.

And here comes the punch line: “I tell you,” Jesus says, “this tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee.”  Hilarious… except recall he’s said to be telling his parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Who’s laughing now? Maybe just those standing in the crowd who didn’t for a minute think the punch line included them; who loved to watch the parable’s Pharisee get hit in the face with a cream pie, and who pretty much missed the punch line after the punch line: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Maybe there were a few in the crowd who really did get the joke, and who weren’t laughing at the Pharisee but rather at the absurdity of grace. A kind of head-shaking, the-light-just-went-on laughter, that can make your eyes well up with tears at the very joy of the joke. Gracious good news laughter; gospel laughter.

But you know, there is a level at which we all still struggle to get the joke, because we’re inclined to subconsciously spin the story ahead a week or two and imagine that the tax collector has reformed his cheating ways. Or as Robert Capon suggests, we tend to want to “send him back for his second visit with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket”; with a new prayer that will accent just how much he has changed, and just how righteous he has now become. But that’s just not the point.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting that Jesus is disinterested in the decisions we make in how we live our lives. In other parables he presses hard for life-giving, God-honouring choices; recall the parable of the Good Samaritan, or that of the Sheep and the Goats. Think, too, of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus presses his hearers to wrestle with a whole new way of being in the world. But none of those teachings are about successfully doing things such that we can trust in our own righteous selves—as in, I’ve fulfilled the requirements and checked off the necessary boxes on the ledger sheet, and can now be assured of my justification—and certainly none of it makes any room for a kind of arrogant pride that results in contempt for those who I consider to be unacceptable wastes of space.

The point is the tax collector’s willingness to name the truth of his sorry life, and the Pharisee’s blindness to the truth of his. Here’s how Robert Capon puts it:

Jesus condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use; he commends the tax collector because he rests his case on a death that God can use. The fact, of course, is that they are both equally dead and therefore both alike receivers of the gift or resurrection. But the trouble with the Pharisee is that for as long as he refuses to confess the first fact, he will simply be unable to believe the second.

As long as he is convinced that he has earned his merit badge of self-justification, the Pharisee will not be able to see the brokenness of his life. For all of his piety, his fasting and tithing, he is just as dead as the tax collector, and just as much in need of the grace of resurrection.

It is the same for us. “God will not take our cluttered life, as we hold it, into eternity,” writes Capon. “God will take only the clean emptiness of our death in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.” God will not take the Pharisee’s cluttered religious piety, his self-assured religiosity and his contempt for the world’s failures into eternity. God will only take the clean emptiness of the tax collector’s cry for mercy; his honest confession of the dead disaster of his sorry life.

It might be a 2000-year-old joke, but you have to admit it is a pretty good one. Once you get even a bit of a hold on it, all you can do is laugh.


Note: The Robert Farrar Capon quotations are from Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.


One Response to The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

  1. Byron O'Donnell says:

    I used to think the Bible was humourless. The more I learn, the more I laugh. I am also struck once again by the simplicity of Jesus’ message, clear and startling amidst the foofarah. Thanks Jamie.

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