The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector has been one of my favorites for a long time now. I think that’s because it’s so obvious: The Pharisee makes for an easy target. He’s so obnoxious and arrogant and self-assured you can’t help but love to hate him.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is the one we ought to despise. In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were little more than white collar thieves. Given the chance, they’d foreclose on their own mothers’ homes. Yet, we take pity on the tax collector because he’s contrite and beat down by his own feelings of unworthiness. We naturally root for the underdog.
The twist of the parable is that, in condemning the Pharisee because he’s such a prig, we condemn ourselves: “God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men…” In this way, we prove to be just as guilty as he. And that’s the point – in judging others, we judge ourselves – just as Jesus taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.
For with whatever judgment you judge,
you will be judged;
and with whatever measure you measure,
it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
The question is how can we keep from judging others? How can move from judgment to compassion? That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning.
First, let’s take a closer look at the Pharisee. Luke says he’s standing in the Temple by himself. Now, there’s some debate about the translation here. The phrase could read, he was standing by himself praying, or it could read, he was standing praying to himself. In his commentary, Richard Donovan says,
“… a good case can be made for the latter, particularly in view of the content of his prayer––narcissistic and self-congratulatory.” (Sermon Writer, Volume 11, Number 50, ISSN 1071-9962)
The Pharisee doesn’t confess his sins. He doesn’t pour out his heart to the Lord. He doesn’t ask God for strength or help or guidance or mercy. He merely reports to God all the reasons why God ought to be proud of him. As Donovan says, “It would seem that the Pharisee is both standing by himself and praying to himself.”
But let’s be fair. The Pharisee prays, “I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.” (vs. 12) That’s more than the Law required.
We’re just finishing our unit on Judaism in our World Religions class, and I can tell you Jews are only required to fast one day a year – on the Day of Atonement. This man fasts twice a week! When’s the last time you fasted as a sign of your devotion to God?
He also says that he gives a tithe of everything he earns. In the book of Deuteronomy, we read, “You shall surely tithe all the increase of your seed, that which comes forth from the field year by year.” (14:22) If you take that literally, you could make a case for limiting your tithe only to your crops. In other words, you’re not obligated to give a tithe from, say, the sale of your sheep.
But it’s not enough for the Pharisee to satisfy the minimum requirements of the Law; he gives a tithe of all of his income. This man’s not only righteous, he’s super-righteous.
And so, he stands by himself. But again, let’s be fair. He may be standing by himself because he doesn’t want to associate with such low-lifes as this tax-collector, and he may be standing by himself because nobody else feels worthy to stand by him. He’s in a league of his own.
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In high school, Joey Keesey lived in partial exile simply he was so much smarter than the rest of us. It was hard for him to come down to our level. Yet, it was just as hard for us to come up to his level.
In much the same way, Paul Klipsch was a loner, not because he didn’t enjoy being around other people; but because other people had a hard time relating to him. Intellectually, he lived in the stratosphere, which is a lonely place for anyone to live.
So, not to take away from the prideful manner of the Pharisee, let’s give him credit. He worked hard to get where he was and, if we were honest – except for his lack of humility – we wish others were more like him. Raymond Bailey says,
“Pharisees make good elders, stewards, or deacons. They are the ones who do the work of the church and provide the financial support necessary to support religious institutions. Pharisees were devoted to God and righteousness, and most of their faults were the result of over-striving for holiness. Their zeal was often misguided, but at least they had zeal in their desire to please God.” (Sermon Writer, Volume 11, Number 50, ISSN 1071-9962)
What’s important is to ask: What is it that makes us work so hard to please others in the first place? I suspect it has to do with our need for approval, and that it starts in early childhood: “Look at me, Mommy! See what I can do.” “Look, Dad. Aren’t you proud of me?”
Children strive to bring home good report cards; youth torture themselves to excel in sports; young adults work hard to get a higher education, then a higher-paying job. It has to do with our need for recognition and reward, and with approval and affirmation.
And, taken in moderation, it’s a good thing. It’s what makes the world go around. But add a healthy dose of insecurity, and it can become a recipe for disaster – where, no matter how much you achieve, you can never do enough.
That, to me, is the root of arrogance – not that one necessarily thinks he’s better than everyone else, but that – perhaps subconsciously – he doesn’t think he’s as good. What seems like a superior attitude is actually an inferiority complex in disguise, which, if you’re not careful, can lead you to look down on others and think to yourself, “Thank God I’m not like them.” Those who are most comfortable in their own skin tend to be the most gracious toward others.
Try this: Next time you’re around somebody who seems overly cocky and self-assured, who thinks he’s better than everyone else and you feel your blood beginning to boil, think of the Pharisee in the parable as a little boy locked up in a grown-up body who’s still trying to win the approval of his mommy and daddy.
A few weeks ago I told you about Leta Hays, whose favorite saying was, “He’s as good a man as he knows how to be.” Well, let’s think of the Pharisee in this way: He was as good a man as he knew how to be. He had been so tightly scripted that all he knew how to do was try to win God’s favor by keeping all the rules. And, if this is the case, we have every reason to feel sorry for him, rather than condemn him.
The tax collector, on the other hand, couldn’t even lift up his eyes to God. He beat his chest in contrition and wallowed in guilt and shame. And if you knew anything about tax collectors in Jesus’ day, you’d say, “For good reason.”
I said at the outset that they were white collar thieves. They were worse than that. They were among the most hated and despised members of the Jewish race. They ranked somewhere just below murderers and prostitutes. They were unwelcome in the synagogue. Their money was not accepted by other Jews. Their word was not admissible in a Jewish court of law. They were, for all practical purposes, outcasts.
This was due to two reasons: They were notoriously corrupt, and, as far as the Jews were concerned, they had sold out to Rome.
The office of the tax collector was neither elected nor appointed; it was sold at public auction to the highest bidder. It amounted to a license to steal. Taxes were imposed on every possible asset and commodity. There were property taxes, poll taxes, import and export taxes, sales taxes, tolls on roads and bridges and trade permits. There was even a death tax. Sound familiar?
The cost of running the Roman Empire was high, and the people were expected to pony up. But to add to their burden, tax collectors could set the rate at whatever level they could get by with, and whatever they collected over and above what was due to Rome, they kept for themselves. Driven by greed, tax collectors exploited the people and became extremely wealthy as a result.
So, according to Luke, the Pharisee wasn’t the only one standing off by himself. So was the tax collector. And it wasn’t because he felt better than anyone else. He felt worse.
It was also because no one in his right mind would have stood by him. You would’ve kept your distance, as well. If you’d been a greeter at the door, you would’ve thought to yourself, “What’s he doing here? Who does he think he is? The very idea!”
We’ve all known people like that, haven’t we? And I don’t just mean crooks, who ought to be put behind bars – but worse – I’m thinking of those who prey off of the elderly and the poor and gullible – folks you wouldn’t want to buy a used car from or ask for a loan.
The world is full of con artists and shysters and snake oil salesmen, so that you have to be on guard all the time. Jesus said,
“Behold, I send you out as sheep
in the midst of wolves.
Therefore be wise as serpents,
and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
Anymore, it’s hard to know who to trust. And that in itself can lead to making judgments of a different sort. For, where we condemn the Pharisees of the world for their self-righteousness, we condemn the tax collectors of the world for their unworthiness. Earl Marlatt hit the nail on the head when he wrote,
“Are ye able, said the Master,
when a thief lifts up his eyes,
That his pardoned soul is worthy
of a place in Paradise?”
Jesus said the tax collector went home justified because he confessed his sinfulness and threw himself on the mercies of Almighty God. And, while that may sound just peachy keen, had we been there, we would’ve said under our breath, “Yeah, well, just don’t let it happen again.”
The offense of the parable is that there’s no indication that the tax collector wouldn’t go right back to his unscrupulous ways. Yet, he went home justified – that is, counted as righteous, even though, God knows he wasn’t.
And this is the point: Only as we see ourselves as the tax collector in the parable – saved by grace through faith – are we able to fathom the depth of God’s grace and move from judgment to compassion.
The story is told of a young adult who came to church about thirty minutes late – just after the preacher had started his sermon. He walked down the center aisle all the way to the front of the sanctuary and sat down on the carpet.
He was hardly dressed for church. He wore these sagging trousers you see teenagers wearing nowadays, a sweat shirt and tennis shoes. He had an assortment of rings and piercings all over his body, as well as numerous tattoos.
When he walked in you could feel the oxygen sucked out of the room. “Oh, my God,” the people thought to themselves. They sat there in stunned silence. The preacher froze in mid-sentence. No one knew quite what to do.
Finally, one of the elders got up from the back and walked down the aisle to where the young man was sitting. They figured it was going to be a scene, but then, the young man had it coming to him, didn’t he?
The old man walked with a cane, and it took him forever to get to the front of the sanctuary. But when he got there, he did something no one could’ve ever predicted. He propped his cane on the end of the front pew and very carefully lowered himself to the floor until he was sitting on the carpet beside the young man. Then he motioned to the preacher and said, “Go on with your sermon. I’m sure it’s a word we all need to hear.”
This is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: No matter what your sin may be – self-righteousness, unworthiness, or any number of other things in between – there is mercy and pardon for all those who call upon the Lord. The Good News is, when you know the extent of your own sinfulness and realize that, by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven, you can be just as forgiving of others.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Dr. Philip McLarty.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.