Summary: Self righteousness and a critical, judgmental spirit usually go together. Why? Because self righteousness is a zero-sum game.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at some of the parables of our Lord. A parable is a fictional story told to illustrate a spiritual reality. Jesus told many of them. As a preacher, He knew that what people often remember best about a sermon are the illustrations. He understood that connecting truth with real life is the best way to ensure that it will be understood, and retained, and acted upon. For example, I doubt that any of us can recite passages from Aristotle or Plato, but we all know Aesop’s Fables; tales like "The Tortoise and the Hare" or "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". As a master communicator, Christ often presents his teachings in the form of a narrative. "A farmer went out to sow his seed," he begins, and immediately we’re hooked. We want to find out what happened to this farmer and why. And so we listen to what Jesus says, and we learn, and we apply it to our lives.
This morning, we’ll be looking at a parable from the gospel of Luke; one which involves a Pharisee, a tax collector, and an act of worship.
"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ’Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." ’But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ ’I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’" – Luke 18:9-14
Let’s begin by examining the main characters in this little drama. First, the Pharisee. The Pharisees were a prominent sect within Judaism whose religious practices were extremely strict. They labored diligently to observe every Old Testament law. And not content with that, they even went beyond the Scriptures, adding onto its requirements and inventing new rules to obey. The Law of Moses said to fast once a year; they fasted twice a week. The Law said to tithe their grain, to give the Lord ten percent of their wheat and barley; the Pharisees tithed their herbs as well. In matters of religious practice, they were highly scrupulous, careful to do all that the law required and more.
Now, those of us who have read the gospels, and who are familiar with Jesus’ harsh condemnation of the Pharisees, are really at a disadvantage. When we read the word "Pharisee," we immediately say to ourselves, "hypocrite". We assume that he is going to be the villain of the piece. But for a first-century audience, the initial reaction would have been precisely the opposite. They would have assumed that the Pharisee would be the hero of the story. Because the Pharisees were highly respected. They weren’t scorned as hypocrites; they weren’t mocked or ridiculed. On the contrary, they were admired as pious and devout men; they were looked up to as examples of godliness. As we read in Matthew, they received,
". . . the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places . . ." – Matthew 23:6-7
Pharisees were men of high status, men who expected, and received, a great deal of deference. On the other hand, when Jesus mentioned a "tax collector" as the second character in the story, the reaction of his hearers would have been anger and disgust. Tax collectors were the most despised of all men. Why? Well, the IRS agent has never been popular in any society. But the Jews’ hatred of tax-collectors was intensified by the fact that Israel was at this time under the control of Rome. Tax-collectors were Jews who had basically been given free reign to extort money from their countrymen, with the backing of the Roman military. As long as the Romans got their cut, they didn’t really care how much extra the tax collector demanded for himself. And so, many tax collectors grew wealthy at the expense of the poor, living in ease and luxury while everyone else suffered in poverty. They were seen as both dishonest and treasonous; corrupt men who had sold out their brothers for the sake of riches; despicable money-grubbers who had enriched themselves by collaborating with the Roman occupation.
You see, Jesus is setting up his listeners. He knows they’re emotionally programmed to root for the Pharisee and hiss at the tax collector. Thus, it’s all the more shocking when he reveals at the end that it’s the tax collector God is pleased with, and not the Pharisee. They would have been astonished. Dumbfounded. Outraged. A tax collector accepted by God, and a Pharisee rejected? How could that be? To answer that question, let’s look at the parable, verse by verse. It begins with these words,