Photo and art by Rev. Cynthia O’Connell

Luke 18:9-14, NRSV

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

What does it mean to be righteous? It is a question that had been circling in my thoughts this week. Does it mean to be right, to be just? Who or what determines if we are righteous? Is it being moral, is it following the law? Does it require us to shun the law and common morality of society? Can I ever call myself righteous or must it be a designation given to me by some else? If you find that you do not wonder about these things that is okay. I have been reminded that part of my job is to literally wonder and ask these kind questions within the context of the Christian faith and then share what I have learned – that is the role of a preacher. So, I invite you to come ponder with me about righteousness.

At its most basic meaning righteous has to do with some sense of being right, morally right and justified. You might be familiar with the term self-righteous, a negative term referring to someone who is convinced (and cannot be told otherwise) that they are always right in contrast with others. Someone who is self righteous might also be described as “narrow minded.” The key part of some being self-righteous is that word “self”. It is the self (and no one else) that determines one’s righteousness. Righteousness in the biblical sense is different in that key part, someone is righteous as determined by God, not the self. It is this contrast that is in play in the text from Luke.

This parable is another about prayer, following the previous parable about the persistent widow. It begins with Jesus telling this parable to some who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”. We are given two contrasting characters of the pharisee and the tax collector who go up to the temple to pray. The pharisee prays in gratitude that he is not like those other people – and names those people. He then recounts the things he does – and we are to assume those people do not – he fasts and gives a tithe – a tenth of his income to the temple. The Pharisee follows the law and is faithful. Meanwhile the sinner – the tax collector asks God for mercy. Jesus then delivers the punchline: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The parable follows a common characterization found within Luke – the pharisee is the villain and the tax collector the one whom with we should sympathize. Pharisees appear regularly in Luke. They criticize Jesus for his association with tax-collectors often viewed as collaborators with the Roman government, and his association with sinners. The Pharisees are associated with the morally (usually hypocritical) righteous whom Jesus has not come to call. The Pharisees in chapter seven of Luke reject God’s purpose for themselves by refusing to be baptised by John – again in contrast with tax collectors. This portrayal of the pharisees becomes so imbedded in traditional biblical interpretation we can see its legacy in contemporary children’s hymns. I remember learning the song at a Christian summer camp, “I just want to be a sheep” which has verse that goes:

I don’t want to be a Pharisee,
cause they’re not fair you see!
I just want to be a sheep.

While it may be true that we wish to be fair, and to take away the traditional lesson of this parable – be humble like the tax collector and not a self righteous haughty (insert word for a terrible human being here) – we shouldn’t. Not only because it could lead us to be commit the same offense of as the Pharisee but because it can and does contribute to harmful stereotypes and ideas about the Jewish Community. You see although this text is written in a time that predates the terrible conflict between Judaism and what became Christianity, the history of interpretation throughout Christianity’s first bishops, Martin Luther and contemporary voices has been to associate the Pharisees with all Jewish people. This is the point in my sermon where I remind us that Jesus was Jewish, his teachings are firmly rooted in the faith and tradition of Judaism the Torah. When Jesus is asked in Mark’s Gospel what is the greatest commandment he recites the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism (traditionally recited twice a day) found in Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God is one and you shall love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.” The traditional binary interpretation of this parable – Pharisee bad, tax collector good – is not sufficient any more.

The traditional binary interpretation of this parable – Pharisee bad, tax collector good – is not sufficient any more.

When reflecting on my message for this text I thought this is point is when I would segue onto to my main point, or interpretation of the parable. I thought I had done my duty as a “good” United Church preacher pointing out the historic antisemitism in Christian biblical interpretation checking off the box that says “is sensitive to Judaism and the historic context of the bible”. I thought I could move on to God loves us – even when we suck, and while true, the desire to move on is actually doing the opposite – it is trapping me and us. This desire to move on because I took the time to talk about the problem is the very thing this parable alludes if we dig deeper. We want things to be simple, we like binaries – Pharisee bad and tax collectors good. Be humble we say – even when we don’t realize that we act as if our humility makes us righteous, and end up back where we started. We become trapped and imprisoned by this binary of humility and righteousness.

What if this parable is not about who is humble and who is righteous? The ancient Jewish historian and priest Josephus describes the pharisees as living meagrely and shunning excess. Nothing like the traditional characterization. If look at this parable with a different lens, what might we see? What if the tax collector asked for mercy because he felt the wrong in being an agent of the Roman Empire extracting wealth from this community. What if we are all both Pharisee and tax collector? What if the righteous acts of the Pharisee help redeem the acts of the tax collector? We assume these two characters are opposed but they are from the same community. If the wrong of one person in the community can negatively affect the whole than maybe the righteous act one person can benefit the whole. In the parable we are told the Pharisee is by himself – but he isn’t – the tax collector is there off to the side. Until we can let go of binaries of who is good and who is not, and begin to see ourselves as part of a whole – not alone – a community of both sinners and saints, then we will forever be prisoners of our own righteousness.

Here then is the good news, a.k.a. the God loves us even when we suck part. We are all sinners, we are tax collectors, we are Pharisees and God’s love and mercy is available to us all. There is freedom from our prisons of righteousness if are willing to cast aside this desire to determine who is righteous. And outside the prisons stands our gracious God in whom we can through ourselves into their arms. We – you – are never beyond redemption. Thanks be to God for tax collectors and Pharisees. Amen.

Categories: Sermons