The Pharisee and the Publican

Scriptures: Proverbs 15:8-10; Psalm 51:15-17; Luke 18:9-14

As I begin the sermon today, let me note, just in passing, that the very first verse of that Luke passage is a narrative editorial. That is, it doesn’t say that Jesus said that’s why he was doing it. Luke was interpreting the parable in some ways for us. That doesn’t mean it’s going to change anything, but I just thought you should know that it wasn’t Jesus himself who said that.

“Thank you, God, that I am not a woman, a dog, or a Gentile.” This is the prayer that every Jewish male said in the morning as he got up. Nowadays we think that is disgusting, chauvinistic, racist, and all kinds of nasty. But in Jesus’ day that was normal.

It seems to me that the prayer of the Pharisee was not all that different. The Pharisee wasn’t just a normal guy. He was a zealot for the law, and determined to follow it to the fullest extent. The life of the Pharisee, assuming he was telling the truth in his prayer about how he behaved, was exemplary.

He met all the requirements of the law. He was honest, truthful, and knew so much Scripture that he probably forgot more than we will ever know. He was well-respected in the community. His life was one to follow and possibly pattern yourself after.

Isn’t he just being honest, recognizing the difference between himself and the tax collector? Everyone could relate to that. The tax collector was hated. They were seen as traitors to the nation of Israel. The closest modern analogy I could come up with is that they were much like the collaborators with the Nazis in World War II, in terms of people’s resentment against them. This goes way beyond the IRS.

They collected the taxes for the Romans, and they had free rein. As long as the tax collector got the taxes the Romans wanted, they didn’t care what else he did – how much he collected, how he collected it, whether he targeted some people more than others. None of that mattered. Just show them the money!

So why is Jesus picking on this Pharisee? Why choose these two to make his point about justification? What lay behind the telling of the story, and what was the unspoken message to go along with that stated purpose?

Let’s give a little context, because that always helps. Jesus was in Jerusalem for his final time. By the end of the week or so, he will have been proclaimed king, then betrayed, crucified, die, and be buried. I’m certain this was weighing on his mind.

He who had left everything behind – the glory, honor, power, and authority of God, emptying himself of these things to become human – was going to obey the Father even up to death. He who had lived a truly sinless life was going to become sin, and take on the punishment that each and every one of us deserves, so that we could be justified before the throne of God on the day of judgment.

I bet that the need for our justification was resting heavily on his mind, and there he was in the temple, and he probably heard and saw something very similar to this parable actually happen. Some guy (most likely) standing up, maybe in a different court even than the women, the God-fearers and some of the others, saying, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like them.”

Why was this such a problem? Because, as the narrator noted at the beginning of this passage, the Pharisee seems to be using it to justify himself before God. No need for God’s mercy. “I got it all under control.”

And it wasn’t just that he felt like he didn’t need God’s mercy and love. He held others in contempt. “Thank you, God, that I’m not like them.”

And the Pharisee wasn’t simply content to hold others in contempt. He had to spread his sickness around, giving it voice. He had to go even further, and attack the tax collector, who maybe the people thought might have deserved it, but God doesn’t.

It would have been better if he had just left the tax collector alone. But no, that wasn’t enough, and so in one sentence, he wounds the only person, possibly, within earshot. So he’s not just lifting himself up. He’s tearing others down.

That contempt that he has, that sense of self-righteousness, is what sets him away from God. He has forgotten all of the Scripture that he should have known about what God accepts and how much we need God.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knew just how desperate he was. In fact, as I look through the Scriptures and resources, I discovered something interesting to me. Where it says, “Have mercy on me, God, for I am a sinner,” that isn’t what it says in the Greek. It doesn’t use an indefinite article; it uses a definite article. He says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am the sinner.

The sinner among all sinners, the worst of the worst, the lowest of the low. Paul himself once said that he was the worst of all sinners, and this tax collector was no different. He recognized just how great the chasm was between himself and the glory of God.

And he knew that there was nothing that he could do that could cross it, could cover it, could bring him into the presence of God, except action by God Himself.

There’s another tax collector that’s mentioned (aside from Matthew), and that’s Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus makes the proclamation, “Lord, for anyone I have cheated, I will return it four fold,” Jesus says, “Salvation has come into this house today.” At that point, Zacchaeus recognized his incredible need for God and the incredible need to change his life around.

To repent. Repentance is something that we in the church have difficulty with today. We really do. We don’t like to admit sin. And if we do admit sin, it’s usually with the hopes of excusing it.

Or so often in the news today, such-and-such admits to sexual sin by saying, “I’m getting help.” Well, that’s nice. But are you actually sorry about what happened? Did you repent of what happened? Is your concern more with your status among people and making sure that you don’t lose that, rather than your status with God?

Mainstream churches don’t like to talk about sin much, because they don’t like to talk about repentance. Or vice versa. And yet that’s the basis of Jesus’ comment on justification.

The tax collector repented bitterly of what he had done. Now we don’t know if that led to a changed heart, that he turned around and he quit cheating anybody. We don’t know if he stopped being a tax collector.

So we can’t judge what might have been. What we can judge is what seems to be. And in that, the tax collector was repentant. He knew that God’s love was all that saved him from the wrath of God. And he knew that only the action of God would justify him before the throne. And so Jesus, who was about to do that himself for us, on our behalf, said, “That man went home justified.”

So why should we care? The liturgist already noted some of it. We tend to identify with the heroes of the stories. It’s easy to identify, for instance, with the Good Samaritan. But if we are honest with ourselves, if we are truthful, how often do we really identify with the Pharisee?

We try to live a good life. We try to read scripture. We try to do everything that God calls us to do. And those things are wonderful. I encourage you every week to do them. And I applaud you when I see it happen.

But it’s not those things that justify us before God. We do those things, not so that we are right with God; we do those things because we have been made right with God, and out of love and gratitude we want to follow the Lord’s commands.

There’s a big difference. It’s kind of like whether the cart’s before the horse or the horse is before the cart. We live our lives as a witness, in testimony, not to our goodness but God’s grace and love and mercy.

God knows that the tendency of every human being is to first act like the Pharisee, seeking to justify oneself, hoping the good deeds outweigh our broken promises and overcome our ethical failures.

But I think that the point where we can really grow, when we can finally truly mature in faith, is when we come to realize that we cannot justify ourselves, we cannot make explanations for our failures.

Now why would that help us to mature? Because it frees us, to admit that we need God. It frees us to fall upon the mercy of God, to accept the grace of God. It frees us to allow the justification by Christ to be our justification, his righteousness to be our righteousness. It no longer depends on us. It depends on him.

And we have an advantage. We already know he did it all right. He lived a perfect life. He came back from the dead. He has promised us a victory in the end. No matter how many battles we face now, the war has been won.

So we can continue to battle on, doing our best to follow God, making mistakes occasionally. Repenting of those mistakes, and attempting to correct them. Knowing that in the end, our justification comes not from ourselves, comes not from the people around us, but from God himself.

My prayer for you, as we have Communion today, and we look at the breaking of the body and the shedding of the blood and the cup of triumph, that you would remember, not who you are but whose you are. That you would remember the amount of love and mercy and grace that God as shown you.

That like the tax collector, you may beat on your chest and say, “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am the sinner.” But then, after the table, you go away, celebrating knowing that God has heard your prayer and made a way for you to be reconciled with him.

It’s what the table recognizes each and every time we partake of it. And in that recognition, in that forgiveness, in that justification, may you find joy, freedom, and praise.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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