October 23, 2022 | The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior jesus Christ who with the Holy Spirit are three-in-one.
Back in Idaho Falls, Idaho, most of you know that I had a children’s theater. Within that theater I had picked out a handful of my very best actors to put together a traveling team called “ACTing Out.” This team would perform skits at various events ranging from street fairs to church services to conferences. It was a lot of fun and we got to stretch the limits of our abilities.
One of our very favorite skits to do was one written on the text of our Gospel lesson in Luke 18, the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. As you can imagine the characters were a bit embellished and the Pharisee resembled more the wizard in Disney’s Aladdin then a holy man, and the tax-collector was more like Aladdin, a repentant soul who ended up longing for better things for himself then the world could give.
The kids liked it because of the characters, and the audience liked it because it retold a familiar story in a new way. It didn’t hurt that the repentant good guy won in the end and the bad guy, the Pharisee, got the due reward for his lack of humility.
When speaking of this parable its impossible to get past the stark difference in the two characters.
imagine, with this kind of power came a great deal of responsibility few decided to live up to, so the rules for others got harder as their lives got more lavish.
The root word of Pharisee is the Hebrew word “parush” which means, separated. In other words, they were the one’s separated for a life of purity in complete service to God Almighty. They were supposed to be the pious church-goers of their time. The best of the best as far as Jewish citizenry.
Though we think of Pharisee’s rather negatively today because of the shortcomings we read of in Scripture such as in today’s Gospel lesson, in their time they were very respected and looked up to as deacons and elders in the church.
The tax-collectors, on the other hand, were the bad guys. The worst of Jewish citizenry, perhaps even lower because they were seen as more loyal to their overlords then they were to their own people. People saw them as extortionists because, to get paid, they had to get more out of the citizens then they really owed.
In our Gospel lesson we see the roles reversed. The role of good guy and bad guy are exchanged for one another, and this is not by mistake.
In the culture Jesus tried to transform, the Pharisee “belonged,” but the tax-collector did not. The Pharisee had given their life to God, therefore they were exalted, the tax-collector had sold their soul to the highest bidder and they were to be damned.
But on this occasion, they both went into the temple to pray, one out duty and one out of shame. The Pharisee would have felt right at home, but the tax collector probably felt as if he were in a place where he could possibly meet his doom. The Pharisee occupied the most important seats in the synagogues and the tax-collector would have had no place to lay his hat.
Yet it is the tax collector who humbles himself before the Lord in prayer. It was the tax collector who went home justified before the Lord, as opposed to the Pharisee who had nothing but his own self- aggrandizement to comfort him.
This is because, as it says in 1 Samuel 16:7, “… the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.”
Back in Lynden, Washington we met a mother at a cheerleader event that our kids were a part of. When the topic of religion came up she told us about her experience with one particular church in the town.
When she was much younger she got pregnant after she was raped. For months she lived a lie telling everyone that everything was all right. But, eventually, she had to do something, she needed support, so she went in front of her church to confess what had happened and even asked for forgiveness though she had nothing to be sorry for. Instead of comforting her they threw her out of her family church. As you can imagine she was deeply hurt thinking, “I lived a lie and they accepted me but when I told the members of the church the truth and asked for their forgiveness and support they kicked me out.”
If we were to take a step back and evaluate which one of these men used their time in prayer bearing Christ, you might have conflicting answers. If you were to look at them, you’d most likely pick the Pharisee. But if you were able to look into their hearts as God is able, then you would know the outward appearance of each man had little to do with their godliness.
In this young ladies church they probably looked the part, but in their actions they relayed the truth of their inner-most being. On the outside everything was shiny, but inside lay a darkness of selfish deceit.
Jesus describes two very different approaches in His parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. One promoted themselves but the other humbled himself.
Both of them approached God but each with very different motivations. Notice the Pharisee prayed about Himself, I thank you I’m not like this tax-collector, I fast, I give tithes. Look at me. I’m the winner of the piety sweepstakes. Isn’t God lucky to have me!
The tax-collector couldn’t even raise his head because it was too heavy with sorrow and regret. All he could get himself to do was beat his breast and cry out to God for mercy. His thoughts were not about himself but about all the others he had deceived. He wasn’t looking for congratulations but for forgiveness.
James records in chapter 4:5-9 of His book, “Do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that He has made to dwell in us’? But He gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.”
One came dressed in all his religious finery but without submission. The other had no room for boasting and submitted fully to his God. One couldn’t stop patting himself on the back in self-congratulation and the other could not stop beating his chest in repentance.
James goes on to say in verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.” That’s what the tax collector was looking for.
He needed God to pick Him up off the ground and make him feel whole again. He needed the kind of forgiveness and grace only God can give so that He might start his life anew.
Where do you stand? Do you carry pride before God because of all the great things you have done, or do you approach God in humility with the understanding that you need Him to make you whole again too?
God promises in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” That’s what the tax-collector was yearning for and what the Pharisee had apparently forgotten. Its what you can expect if you too submit yourself before God.
Jesus said in Luke 14:11, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” In the end, the tax-collector learned the greater lesson and would receive the greater reward for His faithfulness.
May we be so bold as to approach God the same way, with respect and humility for all that He has done for us despite our checkered past. May all of our greatest accomplishments be but soiled rags compared for what ley ahead for us as we unite together in glory. Amen.