Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 am
Joel 2:23-32 Ps 65 2Tim 4:6-8,16-18 Luke 18:9-14
© 2007 William S. J. Moorhead
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is, I assume, one of Jesus’ more familiar stories. We have listened to it being read on Sundays every three years for the last thirty years in late October, and before that it was read every Sunday along about mid-August. So we know this story pretty well.
Which may not be the same thing has having really heard it.
I suspect that when we hear this story — at least if “we” are anything like “me” — we identify with the tax collector. (Excursus: the tax collector was a notorious sinner, not because he collected taxes, but because he collected taxes for the Romans, and furthermore did so dishonestly to his own personal profit. End of excursus.) We identify with the prayer of the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! But I thank you, God, that at least I am not like other people like that hypocritical Pharisee bragging about how devout he is.”
Christians have often made the simple assumption that the problem with the Pharisees was that they were hypocrites — that is, they were phonies — they said one thing but actually did something else. Well, no doubt some of the Pharisees were hypocrites — on occasion Jesus really put it to them about their hypocrisy, although it was generally about more than just being phonies. But then, Christians can be phonies and hypocrites sometimes too. (This would include you, and me.) But in the case of the Pharisee in this story, there’s no reason to think he’s not telling the truth in his prayer. (Presumably a prayer to God, though it’s not entirely clear just who he’s talking to!) The Pharisee was a very good man. He really did tithe his income. He really did fast twice a week (and that meant no food until supper, not just giving up hamburgers).
Another excursus: In an early Christian writing called the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, dating probably to a generation or so after the New Testament, it says to Christians: “Your fasts must not be identical to those of the hypocrites [i.e., the Jews, who by that time had become the spiritual descendents of the Pharisees]. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.” Wonderful. Two generations into Christianity, and already the Church has acquired a “Doesn’t Get It” Society. End of second excursus.
The Pharisee thought he was religiously superior to other people. And he was. He was not a thief, or a rogue, or an adulterer (“greedy, unjust, adulterous” the text says). And especially he was not a betrayer of his own people, like the tax collector over in the corner. He really was better than others by all the usual religious standards; he obeyed the Law, he kept all the rules (and then some), and he thought this won him God’s special favor. Moral basket cases like the tax collector earned his contempt. And though he probably didn’t realize it, he was even contemptuous of God, or at least awfully arrogant. He thought God “owed him.”
Arrogant toward God; contemptuous toward his fellow human beings. Very “religious.”
The tax collector? All we know of him is that he cries to God for mercy. Does he then go home and give up his career of collaboration and extortion? We don’t know. We don’t know how or why he got into the tax-farming racket in the first place — and thereby incurring the hatred of his fellow Jews. Greed? Perhaps. Or despair? Maybe. We don’t know. (Why do people become drug dealers?) And what does Jesus say about this tax collector? “He went down to his home justified rather than the other.” He was the one declared righteous, the one in right relationship with God.
I suppose it has always been the case, but it seems to be especially the case these days, that “religious” people so-called, so-claimed, are highly vocal about “others.” This seems to be so among American Christians generally, but also within the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church.
Do you suppose there are some aspects of what we consider “religion” that “just don’t get it” as far as what the Kingdom of God is really about? And who God really is, and what God really cares about?