Comments or outline:
This morning we have a story about two Jewish men who go into the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. Luke lets us know right away in the opening line of this story just who Jesus is telling this parable to. “And so he told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.”
We wonder who these “certain ones” were? I have a tendency to believe Jesus was addressing the everyday common folks like you and I who had gathered around to hear him speak. We must remember that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem at this time and he was using every opportunity he had to teach, preach and heal before his ministry would come to an abrupt end.
As we read this story, we can envision Jesus walking down the road on his way to Jerusalem and stopping along the way to talk to the crowd of people who were following this religious radical whom everyone had heard so much about. Jesus would have sat down with all the disciples gathered around him and begin speaking to the crowd. Perhaps there would be several Pharisees and religious leaders scattered throughout the crowd. Also among the crowd would be tax collectors, sinners and the outcast’s of society.
As Jesus begins to tell his story, he picks out two distinctly different characters to illustrate his point ~ the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisees represented the perfect Jewish religious model. They were the “religious right.” The tax collectors represented a totally different model. They represented the worse model of a sinner. Both the Jews and the Romans despised them because of the way they exhorted money from people.
Jesus tell us that both of the men enter the Temple and begin to pray. We can picture the Pharisee in his long flowing robe standing there with his arms raised high and looking up towards heaven as he begins to pray. He begins by thanking God, but not for all that he has, but for all that he is. He says, “I thank you that I am not like the other men ~ robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even this tax collector.” Then, he goes on to tell God how good he is. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” Isn’t he the goody two shoes.
Then, Jesus describes the prayer of the tax collector. The tax collector stands off in the distance with his head bowed down in humility. His prayer is quite different. He doesn’t even think he is worthy enough to look up to heaven. He pounds on his chest and says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus closes the story by telling the crowd that the tax collector with all of his sin went home justified before God, rather than the Pharisee. He also tells the crowd, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This whole parable turns everything upside down for the hearers of the story. But isn’t that what Jesus mostly did in his ministry. Jesus constantly turned things upside down. He was what we would consider today a radical. He challenged the conventional way of thinking. He upset the apple cart of the religious right and those people didn’t like it when their apples went rolling all around on the ground.
At the end of this story, those who had gathered around Jesus are left thinking, Who are the wicked and who are the just of this world then ? If the tax collector, who was clearly a sinner walked away justified before God, and the Pharisee who went to the Temple every day to pray, fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of everything he had, walked away unjustified, then “What’s up with that ?!” The surprise curveball that Jesus throws in this parable lies the reversal of those who have hope and those who do not have hope.
When looking at this parable we run the risk of placing our focus in the wrong area. We tend to want to look at the sins of the tax collector and overlook the issues with the Pharisee. To focus solely on the sins of the tax collector, we run the risk of missing the whole point of this parable. We miss what is right before our eyes.
I remember a story that illustrates this point. There was a man named Pedro who lived near the Mexican border. One day Pedro walked up to the border station with a wheelbarrow full of sand. The border guard suspected Pedro was trying to smuggle something illegal into the country so he carefully sifted through the sand. When he didn’t find anything, he let Pedro pass.