In my ten-week hospital chaplaincy internship, I took on a task on paying attention to what people had say about God in a hospital room. Some were so hope filled, that they were saccharine sweet and some were so dark that you could feel the cloud that hovered over the room. At the end of day, I put on my blog the one saying on God that stood out most to me through the day, no context, no details, just what folks who were in the hospital had to say about God. Day 39 was, “I don’t need to talk to God today; I’m feeling better, I was just having a rough day last week.” Day 4, “The Bible tells you not to worry, but…” and Day 22 was a classic, West Texas phrase that I haven’t forgotten since, “I just feel so ashamed, so, so ashamed. . .lower than a snake’s belly.” This is the sort of shame that I imagine the tax collector having in our gospel lesson today.
Still at table with his disciples, Jesus tells another parable about prayer. Close on the heels of the parable of the unjust judge from last week, Jesus follows a parable about persistence in prayer with a seemingly simple one about humility in prayer. To those who thought that they were better than others and more righteous in the eyes of the divine, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The set-up is simple: two men go to the temple to pray, the first a Pharisee, a sect of the Jewish people, and the other a tax collector, a vocation from which Jews were forbidden due to the unjust nature of that job at the time. The Pharisee goes in the temple and prays loudly; he prays in gratitude that he is not like other people who spend their lives committing sin, especially like the tax collector, and before he ends his prayer, he lists all the good and right things that he does to make sure that God (and the tax collector overhearing him) knows that he has the right credentials to have earned God’s love and grace. Then the parable cuts to the tax collector, standing far off, head cast down in shame, asking for God’s forgiveness. Jesus then explains his parable that those who humble themselves will be justified and exalted.
In the gospel according to Luke there are many things that are important in the teachings of Jesus, but one that often takes prominence is the role of prayer and how it ought to be done and the powerful effect it can have. This parable of the arrogant Pharisee and the humble tax collector might seem fairly straightforward: be humble in your prayer. But the danger of parables is that they are never simple, and if we think we’ve figured it out, there is probably more work to do. This particular parable starts in the Temple, and has two characters who are acting out of their expected behavior patterns. The Pharisees were devout, even if legalistic, Jews who were often in the Temple praying, but would never have prayed in such a way for others to hear, and it would be a rare sight in Jesus’ time to see a tax collector praying at all.
By drawing these two well-known groups into a scenario where the disciple’s assumptions about them are challenged, Jesus sets them, and us, up to hear a difficult but important message. Because while the Pharisee’s prayer is self-centered and arrogant, he is not wrong; he is not like the thieves or rouges or adulterers or, even, this tax collector, and he does fast and tithe, two vital components of being faithful. And while the tax collector asks for God’s mercy, he offers no plan or intention to change his ways; there is humble penitence, but no repentance. At the end of the parable, however, it is the tax collector who returns from the Temple to his home as the one who is justified, not the Pharisee.
Now, many of the commentators that I read in preparation for this sermon begged the question that if we immediately identified someone or group of people as those who are the Pharisees that we fall short, and if are ready to turn the Pharisee’s own words back on him, “God, thank you that I am not like them” then we too lack the humility of the tax collector. And I agree with that mostly; if we read this and instantly thought about someone’s ranting and raving and how they are just the worst, then maybe we ought to do a bit more self-reflection. But to be honest, I did recognize someone in the words of the Pharisee, and it wasn’t a political figure or a world leader or even someone who is internet famous; the person who I recognized in the words of the Pharisee was myself.
It is solely by the grace of God, that I stand in this pulpit today. There is not much reason for me to be here if you look back on my story; in a lot of ways, I shouldn’t be here today. There are a variety of reasons why my life could have taken a different turn or a different road, but I ended up here, perhaps most miraculously, in spite of how much of my life was spent as the arrogant Pharisee. What is compelling about my story, is that somehow, by the grace of God, I learned to take this prayer of the tax collector and let it seep into my bones, “God, have mercy on me a sinner!” But this isn’t a triumphal story about how I was never the arrogant Pharisee ever again, rather I continually fall in and out of humility and how God’s grace continues to seek me out in spite of it all.
What I wonder is, what is the point of prayer if not to be intensely open to God’s grace and love and the truth that we are made whole in Christ? Why would we come to the temple to pray if not to be honest about just how desperately we are in need of God’s mercy? We could spend time parsing out just what is the sin of the Pharisee in this passage: the arrogance, the othering of the tax collector, the disdain with which he regards those who are not like him, but I think that one of the biggest problems presented to us in this parable is the way in which the Pharisee’s prayer is self-centered, all about what he has done and how he is better than other people for this reason or that. But the tax collector’s prayer, on the other hand, is God-centered; it is about his relationship with God and the deep need he has for God’s mercy.
So come: come today in light of this parable and offer your prayers for God’s mercy and come to receive God’s grace and love through God’s holy communion. Rest in the knowledge that we don’t have to prove ourselves to be worthy of God’s mercy, we only have to be humble enough to ask for it. And then go: go out into the world; go out and proclaim by your life and witness the genuine truth of God’s grace that saves you and God’s love has made you whole.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Proper 25C on Luke 18: 9-14, October 27, 2019.