Faith 101: A lesson from a tax collector

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Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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.’

 But 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!’

 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.”

 It is good to be with you again this morning, brothers and sister in Christ. I am delighted that Pastor Donna asked me to preach and lead worship with you over the next two weeks.

I am particularly excited to have been invited into this ongoing conversation with you about faith and what faith looks like as we observe Jesus’ teachings in Scripture.

And today we’re using the lens of Luke 18 as we observe a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple.

I already know what you’re thinking.

The Pharisee is such a jerk, right?

Even if you only have a limited knowledge of the Bible, you can be pretty sure you know everything you need to know when a Pharisee shows up.

The Pharisees almost always serve as a nemesis to Jesus, a literary foil, a first century Lex Luther.

So when we see the Pharisee in this parable, we can confidently predict that the writer of Luke has cast the Pharisee in the role that Pharisees almost always play — the self- righteous, religious blowhard.

When we have that bad guy stereotype safely stuck in our mind, we think we already know the moral of Jesus’ parable –

The moral is: don’t be THAT guy. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t think you’re better than other people.

And just a few weeks out from the presidential election, it’s just so easy to hear a political candidate praying just like the Pharisee.

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that Hilary Clinton.”

 God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that Donald Trump.”

 And that’s exactly what a lot of voters are saying, “I’m voting for Donald Trump because I can’t stand Hilary Clinton.” Or vice-versa. They are voting for one candidate because they feel like the other is simply too wretched.

But here’s the thing, in ancient Palestine, the Pharisee was probably not considered to be wretched.  Or a villain. In fact, a Pharisee was likely seen as a trustworthy and honorable man by many if not most people around him.

The Pharisees were faithful interpreters of the prophetic tradition and guardians of Mosaic law.

One commentator defends the Pharisees like this: “(They) longed for what we long for:  God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and all nations streaming into Zion to enjoy God’s just and compassionate rule.” [1]

They Pharisees were guys struggling to keep a religious institution going in the face of considerable odds against them.

Judaism had not only survived, but was flourishing., at least at the moment when we see the Pharisee in the praying. No wonder he feels particular blessed this day.

The Pharisee’s prayer in the temple is factually true.

The Pharisee is just being honest.

He doesn’t steal.

He doesn’t commit adultery.

He fasts twice a week. He tithes. He prays.

He serves his faith community with great energy.

He does all the things,

all the religious things,

all the time.

In fact, the Pharisee is the kind of guy you’d love to have in your church.

He’s the kind of guy you’d love to have serving on Council.

In no time at all, he’d be elected to be clerk of session.

In his own eyes, and in the eyes of his community, the Pharisee is a good and faithful servant of God, doing what his father did, and his grandfather did, and all of his ancestors before that.

So in 1st century eyes, the Pharisee is not a bad guy at all.

So what about the tax collector?

Tax collectors seem to have a slightly better, or at least more nuanced image in Scripture. Jesus ate with tax collectors, hung out with them, and forgave them. So it is certainly easy to read the tax collector as the humble hero of the parable.

But again, we need to consider how tax collectors were considered in their own time and culture.

1st Century tax collectors were not mild-mannered accountants working as IRS agents, upholding the tax law.

Tax collectors were not like the nice lady down at Jordan Tax Service who collects your sewage tax.

The tax collector in this parable was probably more like a not-so-nice guy whose job it is to throw a family out on the street when the rent is late.

I always picture the tax collector as someone like a character in “The Godfather,” or an employee of Tony Sopranopqrmfw3

1st century tax collectors often operated like Paulie Walnuts who collects money at gunpoint, beats up strippers and drug dealers, and once famously said,

“When someone owes you money, even if you gotta crawl, you get it.”

In other words, the tax collector should probably exist in our imagination as a scumbag.

If the Pharisee commanded respect in Jesus’ time, the tax collector received scorn.

People probably never passed up a chance to let the tax collector know how much they hated him.

There’s absolutely nothing in this parable to suggest the tax collector changes his evil ways after he prays in the temple.

He doesn’t repent. He doesn’t promise to leave the temple and lead a spotless, sinless life.

It is possible the tax collector leaves the temple and proceeds to shake down the next poor widow he meets for her last nickel.

Despite being a nasty character,

this guy, this tax collector…

This is the man Jesus says will leave the temple justified.

And the Pharisee, who is doing all the things,

all the religious things,

according to Jesus, this is the one who leaves unjustfied

Doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t even really make sense if you think about it. It’s baffling. And, frankly, a little annoying.

In some ways, I think this parable is a trap.

The bait is that we want to find a moral to the story.

We think the moral is, oh, ok. I need to be like the tax collector. I need to be humble.

And before we know it, we’re trapped into praying: “Thank you God that I am not like the Pharisee. Thank goodness I am not self-righteous or hypocritical or hold others in contempt.  Thank goodness I am humble like Paulie Walnuts…I mean…like the tax collector.”

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Yeah, Jesus. You got us again.

I think at the end of the day, this is not a story about becoming more humble, although Scripture says we should strive to clothe ourselves with humility, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

And we should.

This isn’t a story of how we how we should or should not pray, although Jesus tells us to pray with humility, in secret, and avoid heaping up words to make ourselves look good in front of other people.

And we should.

This isn’t even a story of how we can become good people or better people, although all of us seek to faithful and decent lives.

And we should.

This is a story about how easy it is to have more faith in ourselves and our own goodness, than faith in God’s goodness.

I think this is a story of how easy it is to think we are the ones in control of our righteousness before God.

I think this is a story about a Pharisee who is so busy being religious, so busy keeping the religious institutions going, he forgot the love and grace of God is more powerful than anything any of us can do under our own steam.

And it is a story about a tax collector who realizes the love and grace of God is about all he has going for him.

Which is something we Presbyterians need to remember as we struggle to figure out how to be church in a culture that is rapidly shifting.We need to remember that our hope is built not on our own strength and goodness or good ideas. Our hope is built on Jesus’ blood and righteousness, and the confidence that the Holy Spirit is at work among us.

Over the past three years, I have been working with a very small Presbyterian congregation who owns a very large building they could no longer afford, so the congregation decided to put the building up for sale.

A few months later, the ruling elders of the church were approached by and decided to rent out the building to a non-denominational church who was wanted to establish a new ministry in the area, but couldn’t afford to buy the building.

Although in good condition, the building is surrounded by mostly dilapidated rental houses owned by mostly absentee landlords. The neighborhood, perched on a hilltop overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, is one of the city’s most neglected and under-resourced areas, plagued by frequent gun violence. Just this past August, a 6-year old girl was shot while standing on a porch of a house very near the church building. She died a few days later.

In other words, the church building is not particularly attractive to potential buyers. To date, there have been no offers.

The leadership of the new ministry renting the space, however, sees the neighborhood as exactly the place God has called them to be.

Since moving in, they have started a free daily after school program for neighborhood children, which includes tutoring, enrichment activities, field trips, and a hot dinner every evening.

In response to some of well-publicized police shootings, the pastor of the new ministry invited police officers from the zone office to come in and meet the children in the afterschool program. The officers now frequently come in to serve dinner and hang out with the kids and their families.

The transformation happening on the hilltop is only happening because God showed up and gave the Presbyterians the opportunity to say yes to a ministry run by people who don’t look like them or worship like them.

But, let’s be honest.

Did they say “yes” out of desperation because they were running out of money and people?

If we’re being honest here, the answer is, “Absolutely.”

Is a non-denominational ministry renting their building the outcome they would have preferred?

If we’re being honest here, the answer is, “Nope.”

Here’s the truth I have learned through this experience and others: often it is only when we feel like we’ve hit a brick wall that we finally make space for the Holy Spirit to do its work and realize that God’s love and mercy is all we have going for us. And God doesn’t wait for us to get it together or come up with grand schemes.

God will work through the most imperfect people. Including you and me.

I imagine that behind the pious mask worn by the Pharisee, there is a tired, anxious soul yearning to admit that he does not have all the answers.

How heavy such a burden must be for him at the end of his rope.

The anxiety he must feel in trying to hold it all together,

always comparing himself to others to figure out if he’s good enough for God to love him.

The tax collector is not a better person than the Pharisee. They are both beloved children of God, as we all are, just trying to make it through each day.

But despite all the awful things the tax collector knows he has done, all the awful things people say about him, the tax collector’s faith allows him to admit he is entirely dependent on God’s mercy.

And that is enough.

Brothers and sisters, the grace of God is a free gift.

I will never get my life right on my own.

You will never get your life right on your own.

And that is okay.

Because we are not required to be perfect.  We don’t even have to be good, as scandalous as that may seem.

We just have to have to open our hands and receive God’s free gift of grace. And that grace is sufficient. More than sufficient.

Nothing we do can make God love us less.

Nothing we do can make God love us more.

And we cannot save ourselves. It is not our own doing. It is pure gift from God.

For Donald Trump. For Hilary Clinton.

For the Pharisee. For the tax collector.

It is amazing. It is God’s grace.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/10/proper_25_year_.html Accessed on October 21, 2016

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