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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 10/23/2016

First I want to dedicate this sermon to Jim Sodergren. As the former Marquette County Treasurer I know he likes it when a tax collector shows up in the lessons for the week and this is one of those weeks. Not only that, while they are usually portrayed negatively, the tax collector actually winds up being the good guy in today’s parable; or does he? We’ll see. Anyway, this one’s for you, Jim.

It’s been said parables are like fishing lures: they are full of attractive features—feathers and bright colors that get your attention—but after luring you in, they end with a sharp little barb. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a good example of this. On the surface the parable seems pretty straightforward as a caution against spiritual pride, the moral of the story being that we should be humble like the tax collector. A quick reading makes you think that unlike many parables, this one’s easy and obvious or, is all that just part of the lure, part of the feathers and bright colors. With parables, if it seems that obvious it might mean that we’re missing something.

Part of the set up in this parable is that we’re familiar with the stereotypes regarding each of the characters. We hear Pharisee and we think of Jesus’ opponents, nit picking grumblers always trying to catch him on some point of religious law, most often it seems, taking him to task for doing something good, like healing someone but doing it on the Sabbath which the Pharisees perceived as doing work on the Sabbath, a violation of the law. The stereotype is negative; Pharisees are seen as bad guys, self righteous, rule bound, lacking in compassion, unable to see shades of gray in the law.

The stereotype on tax collectors was that they essentially had a license to steal. In the occupied Palestine of Jesus’ time, tax collectors were seen to be in collusion with the Roman Empire. They were free to gouge as much money as they could out of people and, as long as they turned over the allotted amount owed to the Roman government, they could keep the rest for themselves. Needless to say they weren’t real popular among the locals so again, the stereotype is negative; tax collectors are seen as greedy, unscrupulous and dishonest.

Regarding the tax collector, the stereotype is actually pretty accurate; they were viewed negatively so the first big reversal in this parable, the first sharp little barb, is that the tax collector winds up portrayed as the good guy; quite the opposite of what would have been expected. The reversals continue with the Pharisee. Pharisees, despite the negative impressions we get from many gospel stories, were highly regarded by the people, seen as leaders among their fellow Jews. They were spiritual guides, providing a good example, seeking to observe God’s laws and encouraging others to do the same. They were serious about their faith and about proper worship and they were generous with their money.

What that means, is that everything the Pharisee says about himself in the parable is true; yet he winds up being compared negatively to the hated tax collector, another sharp little barb. As a result, we conclude that this is another example of Jesus having upset the expected order of things as he so often did and, as I said, we conclude that his point is that we should be humble like the tax collector, not self-righteous like the Pharisee. It does seem obvious but as I said, when the conclusion seems so obvious, it probably means there’s more going on. It doesn’t mean the obvious conclusion is wrong, just that there might be more to consider.

So, trying to set aside stereotype reversals and obvious conclusions and whatever other biases we come with, let’s think about these characters. There is much to admire about the Pharisee; he has set himself apart from others by his faithful obedience to the law. By the standards Jesus himself sets, the Pharisee is righteous. The problem though, is that it’s all about him, it’s all about what he has done. His prayer is directed to God, but it’s all about him. He gives thanks to himself more than he gives thanks to God. As a result he winds up representing another stereotype, a stereotype of what it means to be self righteous, as he locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions, no thanks to God or anyone else. He represents “It’s all about me,” the undivided trinity of me, myself and I.

The tax collector on the other hand, makes no claim concerning righteousness because, he knows he’s not. He knows he’s a scoundrel, that he has violated the religious law by cheating others. He has no case to plead because he knows he’s guilty, so guilty that he didn’t even dare to approach the temple, he just asked for mercy, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knows he can’t justify himself; he knows that he’s entirely dependent on the mercy and grace of God. So then…it seems like even after a second look our obvious conclusion is right after all. Be humble like the tax collector, recognize your sinfulness and dependence on God’s mercy. Be like the tax collector, not like the Pharisee.

Are we still missing something though? What we’re missing is that the whole parable is a trap. It’s more than a sharp little barb, more like a knife that cuts pretty deep. It’s a trap because we find that in trying to be the humble tax collector we wind up being more like the self-righteous Pharisee.

What the Pharisee does is to divide humanity into groups, in his case, good people like him and bad people like the tax collector. But as soon as we align ourselves with the humble tax collector, we’ve done the same kind of dividing. We draw a line between humble us and self-righteous others. We wind up in the trap set by the parable.

When you think about it that way, this is a parable that convicts all of us in some fashion because it seems there’s something in us that wants to, that needs to draw lines and make comparisons, casting judgment, setting ourselves apart as being better than someone or some group. I know I do it all the time; there are some issues or groups about which I can be very accepting and tolerant despite our differences, and then there are others about whom I am very judgmental. Note though, that the tax collector didn’t make any comparisons, positive, negative or otherwise. His prayer was just about acknowledging his own need for mercy.

There is a lesson about humility in this parable, but perhaps even more, the point of the parable is that Christianity is not a comparison game. As soon as we start drawing lines of us vs. them judgment, we’re likely to find that Jesus is on the other side of the line and that he’s busy working to erase the line. Christianity is not about comparisons and casting judgment, it’s about proclaiming the God revealed in Jesus, a God who is ready to grant mercy even to those we want to put on the other side of the line, even to a tax collector. It’s about forgiveness even for those we might think don’t deserve it. Christianity is about grace and new opportunities, new possibilities for everyone.

The tax collector is to be admired for his humility but it’s important to note that he can also learn from the Pharisee just as the Pharisee can learn from him. The Pharisee does model righteous behavior that the tax collector would do well to emulate. The tax collector knows he’s a sinner and knows that he is need of God’s mercy, that’s important, but he also needs to know that by the grace of God he can be more the person God would have him be, he can grow in his relationship to God by following some of the Pharisee’s spiritual practices.

The Pharisee on the other hand, can learn humility from the tax collector and recognize that he too is dependent on God’s mercy. He needs to know that living a righteous life isn’t about making comparisons and feeling like you’re better than others, but that he has the opportunity to model a life lived in relationship with God and a life lived in relationship with God isn’t about self congratulation; it’s about giving genuine thanks to God. For both of these characters, getting rid of the lines that divide provides the possibility of real community and real fellowship where both are valued and there’s no need for comparisons.

In the end there is hope for both the Pharisee and the tax collector and more importantly, that means that there is also hope for us. It is a parable that sets a trap in which we get caught, but by the grace of God, there’s a way out. Jesus is the way. Relying on and trusting in his grace and forgiveness we’re released from the trap and we live in relationship with him. There is a way out of the trap and there is hope for us, for a Pharisee, and Jim, even for a tax collector.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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