Summary: Father Dave’s sermon on the parable of the tax collector and the Parisee. Father Dave challenges the conventional understanding of the Pharisee.
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.
Contrast this guy with the Pharisee - a veritable pillar of society if ever there was one. He too is in the temple. He too prays. And he begins his prayer with a word of thanksgiving that must be considered to be no more than honest: ’I thank thee God that I am not like other men.’ For the Pharisee was not like other men.
The Pharisee was a man with a proud heritage:
After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., Israelite faith took on a new dimension. Up to that point, all worship had centred around the sacrificial system in the temple. When the temple was destroyed, rather than let their worship die out, godly men and women met together and developed a pattern of worship that centred not around sacrifice, but around the book of the law - our Old Testament.
Highly significant in this process were the ’scribes’ (like Ezra), and the ’Hasidim’ (the ’loyal ones’) and their spiritual descendants - the Pharisees, who cherished and reinterpreted the law of God for their own day. These people built synagogues, taught the Scriptures, and tried to maintain a distinctive Bibical spiritual identity amongst their people, so as to resist the inroads of Babyonian and Greek and Roman culture into their way of life.