Summary: Neither the Pharisee or the tax collector, and none of us have a leg to stand on when we use the standard of God to make judgments about ourselves.
NOT A LEG TO STAND ON
The parable of The Pharisee and the Publican, in today’s lectionary, is called the Pharisee and a tax collector. Some of you have heard four or five, maybe nine or ten, or even more sermons on this text. It’s very familiar.
It’s a bible story so familiar to all of us, and seemingly, so simple, that maybe it doesn’t seem to need any more explanation. I read it, you all heard it, and we might want to respond with that modern expression, “Duh!” - like, “This is a no-brainer.” (Duh, by the way, made it’s way into Webster’s dictionary a couple of years ago).
We’ve heard that this is a story about the sin of pride – would you just look at that proud Pharisee! We’ve heard that this is about how to pray. Maybe it’s about how to worship, or about the value of humility? I even heard that this is about whether a good Christian should go to the front or stay in back of the church - many possibilities here.
In reading the German theologian, Helmut Thielicke, I have often learned that we need to look beyond the normal and the obvious. In this book, The Waiting Father, sixteen sermons on parables that Jesus told, Thielicke says there is always a deeper meaning to the stories than what seems normal and obvious. Today I will use his lead into a deeper understanding of this parable – The Pharisee and the tax collector.
I think it’s fair to say that we have been led not to like the Pharisee – and that may be somewhat unfortunate – because many Pharisees, and especially this one, was really a good guy! He probably went to Temple very regularly. He probably kept all the Mosaic laws – gave alms, said his prayers and gave 10% of his income. Maybe he also belonged to several community service clubs, served on the local school board and ran an honest business. He did have a lot to be proud of. There’s no doubt that he was an admired and respected man – a good guy! But we don’t like him.
It’s also fair to say that we have been led to like the tax collector. And that’s a bit unfortunate too – because he was, really a bad guy! He was a fellow Jew, but working for Rome – collecting taxes from his fellow Jews, on behalf of Rome. Those collectors usually collected more than Rome required, and kept the margin for themselves – it was like a commission. He probably made no contribution to the Temple, probably never led anything like the Boy Scouts and never participated in any community benefits. He didn’t care at about keeping Jewish Law and he rarely showed up at the Temple. Really, he had no religious practices to be proud of at all. He was a scorned man his community – this was a bad guy! But we like him.
We have to admit – the Pharisee was the better man. Be honest now – if you had to choose, which one would you want in your church? And which one would you want dating your daughter or granddaughter? And which one would you like to sit next to at worship or kneel with at the Lord’s Table?
You can see, that when Jesus announced, “This tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the other,” the listeners were not only surprised, but upset! The Pharisee was the epitome of a religious man. He was the “in” guy. He was a Jew, “par excellent.” And the tax collector was the exact opposite. He was the “out” guy. How could Jesus say, “The tax collector is justified rather than the Pharisee?”