The story we just heard sets before us two ways of prayer, two ways of life, two paths that people call religion. Let us consider what they are. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Forms of religion can set people apart from the rest of humanity and leave them there in splendid isolation. Forms of religion can also set people apart from others for a time, but then lead them to others in a true and compassionate solidarity.
The same temple, the same faith, embraces both the tax collector and the Pharisee in today’s parable.
Whatever else he is, the Pharisee is no liar. He really is different from other people, even people who share his faith. The requirement is to fast one day a year, the Day of Atonement, but this Pharisee fasts two days every week. The requirement is to tithe on certain sources of income, but this Pharisee gives away one tenth of his entire income. He is quite a zealous fellow.
And he is thankful to God. Certainly thankfulness is close to the heart of true religion. But consider what causes the Pharisee’s thankfulness: not that God’s grace enables him to do what he does, but rather that his devout behavior makes him unlike other people, sets him apart from them.
So the Pharisee is no liar, and he is thankful, but still his prayer is stifling. It makes us gasp for air. In a few words, he cuts off from consideration all other people, and centers on his little self alone. Four times in his brief prayer the word “I” appears, and it seems to be spoken with an air of self-congratulation.
Though his prayer is addressed to God, even God ends up cut off, kept outside. There is nothing for God to do; the Pharisee has it all well in hand. In what is presented as prayer, this Pharisee sounds as though he is talking to himself. Perhaps he is.
The self-satisfaction of this Pharisee indicates someone turned in on self, someone small and satisfied to be small. Absent is any longing for God, any hunger for the holy, any glimpse of glory. The Pharisee is no immediate threat, but he is supremely pitiful, someone who sooner or later reveals himself as a crashing bore. Pity the God who must listen to such prayers!
The Pharisee not only dismisses other people as one single mass of perdition, but also damns them by categories. They are thieves, rogues, adulterers. In his eyes, they are no more than their sins, nor are they made in God’s image, nor are they candidates for redemption. This Pharisee unhesitatingly thrusts them away from any humane consideration — including the repentant brother who stands nearby, the tax collector Jesus includes in the story.
Not all Pharisees were like this, of course. Some were people of deep compassion. But for the one satirized here by Jesus, holiness is a hard shell, made strong to keep the world out. Some people pass through a hard shell period, and go on to something more mature. Perhaps for them the hard shell experience is a necessary stage. But others move into a hard shell and stay there. They stay there, but it’s not that they don’t change. Something vital inside them dries up. Others do not necessarily choose to join them inside the hard shell, and so these others are seen as a threat, and because so much is at stake, the Pharisee inside the hard shell believes the solution is violence.
The violence may be physical or verbal. It may be random or institutional. But if keeping separate from the bad guys, maintaining absolute purity, is the name of the game, then eliminating the opposition sounds pretty good. And if I am not like them, then they are not like me, and it follows that I can treat as inconsequential whatever damage they suffer.
This descent into deeper and deeper sin is not exclusive to any one group of people. It turns up in many religions and worldviews, even ones that reject it explicitly. It can grip exotic foreigners. It can grip ordinary Americans. It can turn up, and it does, in holy places. Remember that Jesus presents the Pharisee as a devout man, praying in the temple.
In contrast to the Pharisee, Jesus presents a tax collector, but let’s not romanticize this figure. Part of the power of the story is the shock value. The Pharisee is a religious hero, but one with a hard heart. The tax collector is a moral, spiritual, and even patriotic disaster, but he’s moving in the right direction, there’s hope for him.
Remember that in the time and place of Jesus, tax collectors were not straight arrow types, disinterested bureaucrats whose phone calls are monitored to ensure they are courteous to their customers. Far from it! Tax collectors then had turned their backs on their own people, and gone into league with the Romans for nothing more than money. Their contract demanded that they collect a certain pile of money for the empire, and allowed them to keep what they could extort beyond that. The tax collector was held in near-universal contempt and lived a life of isolation. Perhaps the best contemporary parallel is a wholesale drug dealer.
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So one of these moral, spiritual, and patriotic disasters dares to show his face in the temple. He can’t claim to practice fasting; he’s probably into conspicuous consumption. He doesn’t give tithes to good causes; he’s too busy ripping people off. Probably he cannot remember the last time he was in the house of God.
But this much must be said for him: his heart has not entirely frozen over. He stares at his shoes; he doesn’t dare look anybody in the eye, much less lift his head in grateful prayer. With a closed fist he beats his chest more than once. This is no mere ritual gesture; it is the overflow of powerful emotion from someone who sees his exceptionally ugly life for what it is. His prayer is a cry, brief but piercing: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
His heart is a pigsty, a slaughterhouse, yet with these words, he flings wide the doors, and begs for God to enter. He is a person radically dissatisfied with himself, and desperate for grace. Where the Pharisee’s prayer is self- centered, the tax collector’s prayer is God-centered. He wastes no time in assessing other people, comparing himself to them. He makes no reference to what he has done or not done. He knows that God knows him, and this finally breaks him open and makes him want something better than all he is and all he has done.
This tax collector has a long journey in front of him, but — thank God! — he’s pointed in the right direction. Where the Pharisee is building his hard shell, something breaks the hard shell of this tax collector’s sins, and drags him into the light of God’s mercy. And because he is bathed in the compassion of God, there’s a good chance he will look on other people with compassion.
The Pharisee is thankful that he is not like other people, and becomes less and less connected with them. The tax collector starts out isolated from others, but he hits bottom and meets the God of grace. There he rejoices that he is like others, because God means mercy for all, and all who follow God must mean mercy for all, a mercy that transforms the undeserving, and is greater than the powers of death.
Religion can take us in either if two directions, but finally only one of them leads us to God. In a justly famous passage, St. Isaac of Syria describes this path.
A compassionate heart, he tells us, “is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists. At the recollection and at the sight of them such a person’s eyes overflow with tears owing to the vehemence of the compassion which grips his heart; as a result of his deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or look on an injury or the slightest suffering of anything in creation.
“This is why he constantly offers up prayers full of tears, even for the irrational animals and for the enemies of truth, even for those who harm him, so that they may be protected and find mercy.
“He even prays for the reptiles as a result of the great compassion which is poured out beyond measure–after the likeness of God–in his heart.” [A. M. Allchin, ed., Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria, translated by Sebastian Brock (Springfield, Illinois: Templegate Publishers, 1989), p. 29.]
Here in this temple, which will you emulate: the Pharisee or the tax collector? Here is this life, which path will you take: the one that leads us into a hard shell, or the way that leads us out into the land of the living?
Let us pray.
Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. [Collect for Proper 18 in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), p. 233.]
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2004, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.