Summary: Father Dave’s sermon on the parable of the tax collector and the Parisee. Father Dave challenges the conventional understanding of the Pharisee.
I don’t know if I learnt much American history from the early Westerns I watched as a kid, but one thing I did learn -cowboys were the good guys and Indians were the bad guys.
It’s similar to what you learn about the 2nd World War by watching old war movies. The first thing you learn is that the Germans are all bad guys and that the allies are all good guys. The second thing you learn is that the Germans are really bad shots.
I think that those of us who have had Sunday School upbringings might have inherited a similar view of Pharisees and tax collectors. The Pharisees are the bad guys, and the tax collectors were the persecuted and much misunderstood friends and companions of Jesus.
Of course when those who fought in the wars see the old war movies, they often comment that they didn’t experience things quite that way. And I suspect that if we were living in New Testament times, we would not see Pharisees and tax collectors quite that way either.
For starters, there is no way that any of us would be able to think of a tax collector as a ’good guy’. He was not a poor and persecuted guy, like some despised and pathetic drug addict. He was a wealthy and money-grabbing traitor, more like a drug pusher.
When the Romans took over a town, they held an auction and they leased out the position of tax collector to the highest bidder. It was a lucrative business. Taxes were fixed by law at about 5% of the value of goods, but the tax collector charged his commission on top of this. He had to charge enough to cover his lease, and on top of that to make a profit, but the truth was he could charge anything he liked. Whatever his tax estimate was, that was law, and he had the Roman military to back him up.
It’s true, we do see numerous tax collectors in the New Testament - Zacchaeus was the senior taxation officer in Jericho, Levi was a less senior taxman in Capernaum. It’s true that both come to be friends of Jesus, but this says a lot about Jesus! And both men change of course.
To the average Israelite, tax collectors were the dead flesh of society, such as you might hope would be removed by the surgical hand of God in judgement. Why?
Because they were greedy money-grabbing bastards.
Because they were traitors to their own people.
Because they were perpetually ’unclean’ because they hung around with other low-life.
This third reason might not cut much slack with us, but the first two are still entirely relevant.
I’ve know a number of drug-pushers in my time, and I find these people hard to like. I certainly don’t like what they do. We are probably happy enough to have these people come to church, and we might even take time to minister to them (if we have to), but they’re not the sort of persons we want to invite back to our homes for lunch after church, because we don’t want our children to meet them. And frankly we don’t want to be seen with these people because we do not want other people to associate us with them.
And so the tax collector stands at a distance, beats his breast, and says ’God have mercy on me, a sinner’. I suppose it was the only prayer he had.