Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

By Emily Sylvester

When John and I were about to have our second child, I felt sorry for our first. Elsie had been the centre of our world for three years and now she would have to share our love with a newcomer. I thought our love was a finite resource. What a delightful surprise was waiting for us! Peggy brought new love into the world. We wouldn’t have to divide up our love by which daughter was the better student, by which cleaned her room more faithfully. We had enough love for them both, abundantly.

Sometimes we make the same mistake about God’s love. We think it’s finite too. It’s only common sense that when we have a limited resource, we’re careful about how we give it away. A big share for the deserving, a small share for the scallywags, no share for the bad people. We think – it seems silly when I say it out loud – we think as if God’s love is sold by auction. It’s going to the highest bidder. That’s why Jesus told this story.

Two men went up to the Temple to pray. O, look, here comes one now…. (Have a member of the congregation stride to the front and read this prayer. Ask him to speak as if proud and confident)

“I thank thee, O Lord, my God, that thou has given me a place among those who sit in the House of Study, and not among those who sit at the street corners; for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early to study the words of the Law, and they rise early to engage in vain things; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward, and they labour and receive no reward; I live and they live, but I live for the life of the future world, and they live for the pit of destruction.” (Ask the reader how he felt reading this. Thank him)

This prayer is different from our tradition, but it is authentic. It’s was spoken by a Pharisee and written down about the time of Christ. Pharisees prayed like this in the Temple, and on street corners, sometimes for several hours at a time.

Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One man was a Pharisee. The other, a Tax Collector. The Pharisee strode to the front and apart from the others. Some of them, he well knew, were sinners. He stood tall, head up, “O God, I thank you that I am not like other men. I am not an extortionist. Not an unjust man. Not an adulterer. God, I thank you I am in no way like that tax collector over there. For I fast two days every week, and I give tithes not only on what I earn, but also on what I purchase.” This is how the Pharisee prayed to God, almost, one equal to another.

The second man crept to a corner of the Temple apart from all the other worshippers. Shoulders bent, head heavy on chest. He was a broken, empty vessel. The words he’d planned the night before had fallen from his mind. He whispered, “Lord, have mercy on me.”

Jesus said, “Listen to my words. Two men walked from the Temple, but only one walked in the light of the Lord. For the sinner was made right with God, but the holy man left as he had entered.”

What did Jesus mean? Why did he praise the sinner’s prayer over the holy man’s prayer? We think this story is about pride and humility––because we’ve forgotten what the people who first heard the story would have understood. The Pharisee should have been proud! The tax collector should have been humble! This is why…

In Jesus’ time, there was a saying if only two men could be saved, one of them would surely be a Pharisee. Most of the criticism about the Pharisees in the Christian Scriptures was inserted later when Paul and the gospel writers were trying to distance their Christian experience from the Hebrew tradition. Pharisees were well respected in Jesus’ time.

And this Pharisee really was a good man. He followed not only the written law of his people, but its centuries of interpretation. The written law told Jews to fast one day a year. The Pharisee fasted two days a week. The written law told Jews to tithe one tenth of everything they earned for the Temple. The Pharisee also tithed on everything he bought, in case the man who sold it to him had evaded the tax. Do any of you volunteer to pay twice the GST? Not me. But that’s the kind of thing the Pharisee did.

Where are our Session members and Stewards? The Pharisee was the kind of member you’d want for our church. He’d be today’s greeter at the door, and somehow simultaneously play the piano, lead us in worship, and teach Sunday School. He would give generously to the church, keep the books, wash our dishes, and already have his name down for several pies and a jar of beet pickles for next year’s Fall Supper. Make no mistake; the Pharisee was a very good man.

And he was right about the tax collector, too. The tax collector was just as bad a man as the Pharisee was good. They lived in a tight community and would have known each other by reputation. The Pharisee might even have known from personal experience just how bad the tax collector was, and this is why…

The Roman Empire had virtually no civil servants. But before you smile, remember the business of a vast empire still had to get done. They privatized it. Every year Rome auctioned off contracts to build roads, excavate mines, feed legions, collect taxes. The closer a people lived to Rome and Rome’s scrutiny, the fairer their tax rate. The people of Palestine lived far from Rome. They routinely paid two and three times the legal rate. The man or company who held their contract scooped up the surplus as personal profit.

Tax collectors made fantastic fortunes in the Middle East. The people had no appeal. The army, courts, governor all shared in the spoil. To add insult to injury, the people’s taxes paid for that army, courts, governor. The tax system was subcontracted into a pyramid scheme of exploitation. The man who organized the local pyramid used bribes, blackmail, his inside knowledge of his own people against them. He handled unclean money, associated intimately with unclean gentiles. He was so despicable, Jewish law forbade even a beggar to accept his charity.

Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One was the best of his people; one was the worst. One gave freely twice what the law commanded; one extorted twice what the law allowed. One fasted, one feasted, one lived in abstinence, one lived in opulence. One raised his people up to God; the other crushed his people under his foot. Knowing what we now know about them, we realize they each prayed exactly as he should have. One thanked God he was a good man. The other couldn’t do anything but beg for God’s forgiveness.

Ah, but the parables of Jesus are not about you and me. They’re about the nature of God. And God’s love is not a limited resource reserved for those who deserve it. He has more than enough for all who ask. The Pharisee didn’t ask. The tax collector was so broken, that’s all he could do.

Is there hope for the tax collector? O, yes. Next Sunday I’ll tell you about a tax collector named Zaccheus and how he was redeemed. Is there hope for the Pharisee? Of course there is. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee before he set off down the road for Damascus. Later he preached his regret how his years of self-sufficiency had gotten in the way of his acceptance of God’s grace. Is there hope for us too? Why of course there is! God gives us the same love he gives the sinner and the saint. He knows we’re a blend of both.

Here’s the good news: God’s love is not a limited resource we have to bid the highest price for. We couldn’t afford it, anyway. It’s our thinking we can, our sense of self-sufficiency, that gets in the way of it reaching us. It’s when we’re broken, empty vessels and the words we’ve planned have fallen from our minds, we’re most likely to hear God’s voice. The Pharisee hadn’t learned this yet. The tax collector had forgotten everything except it. It is the human story that we each, some times in our lives, will enter into a night of grief or remorse. God’s light will already be there, our eyes at last able to see.

Copyright 2010, Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.