With the most recent American government shutdown still fresh in your memory, do you hear this passage a little differently? After all, the tax collector is a government operative, and we know how Americans are feeling about the government. That old “Don’t tread on me” flag has taken on new life as a symbol of certain attitudes toward taxes and government. In light of all that has been happening of late, it might be difficult for some to be sympathetic to the plight of the tax collector. He and his cronies in the government should beg for mercy!
Fortunately there is a figure of holiness in this story from Luke’s gospel. Surely this person merits our admiration. He is a man of prayer and not a sinner like some other folk. Maybe you identify with this pious individual, this exemplar of holiness.
This is the second of Luke’s parables that focus on prayer. In the first parable, Jesus speaks of persistence and faithfulness. We are invited to follow the example of the widow who seeks justice from a judge who doesn’t fear God or humanity. Through her persistence, she is rewarded. In this parable, Jesus lays out contrasting attitudes, and in doing so addresses the appropriate demeanor. Arrogance or humility? Will we be like the Pharisee who in Luke’s portrayal seems self-sufficient and self-righteous? Or, will we be like the tax collector, who recognizes his sinful state and begs for mercy?
Over the years many Christians, me included, have been indoctrinated to see the Pharisee as a villain or at the very least a symbol of hypocrisy. We all seem to know what it means to be pharisaical, and it’s not a good thing. It’s much the same as with being called “puritanical.” But in reality the Pharisees were a lot like good church folk who are committed to their faith and to a life of holiness. They tried to follow the law to their best ability. They went to worship regularly and gave their tithes. Theologically, they would fit nicely in orthodox circles. Remember that Paul was a Pharisee, and in many ways Jesus’ own theology reflects their views – but with a twist. Indeed, this was the party that helped create Post-Temple Judaism. Sometimes it’s those closest to us who find it difficult to love, and so the message we hear in the gospels about Pharisees is that they were self-righteous prigs. It might be good to know that Jesus wasn’t alone in his critique – it was shared by many Rabbis, who would joke of their own propensity toward self-righteousness. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note that “Jewish humor influenced by the prophetic tradition, is at their own expense. We should develop some Christian humor that is at our expense, tell jokes on our selves. It would help keep us humble” [Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 244].
If we focus on the Pharisees, we miss the point. They are a stand-in for all religious folk who have a propensity toward self-righteousness. It really doesn’t matter where you fit on the theological spectrum, from liberal to conservative; it’s easy to fall into a trap of viewing the world with narrow focus. Remember that story Jesus told about logs and splinters? What did Jesus say? Take the log out of your own eye before harping about the splinter in your neighbor’s eye. As we reflect on this parable, with its focus on the attitudes we should bring to God in prayer, it behooves us to take into account the critique of the narrowness of spirit and hypocrisy many find among modern Christians. We have been charged with setting standards that we ourselves fail to abide by. In our age, to be religious is to be hypocritical and self-righteous. Thus, it is better to embrace spirituality without any religious encumbrances.
It’s not easy hearing such critiques of our religiosity. And yet it is out there and can’t be ignored. That may be one of the reasons why so many people have warmed up to Pope Francis is that he has cast a more humble demeanor. It’s not that he’s a liberal, but that he seems to recognize that the world is watching and doesn’t like what it sees. Through his own life choices, he’s seeking to show us a different way, a way of humility.
Yes, the world is watching, but so is God, and apparently God isn’t impressed by our religiosity either. So, is there a better way?
The contrasting personage in this parable is the Tax Collector – the government employee who has the distasteful job of collecting money from the people to support a despised government. Doesn’t it seem as if things have changed little with time? In our nation, the IRS is one of the most reviled entities in the government. They may not get paid through kickbacks, but I expect that IRS employees don’t make a big deal about their jobs in polite company. Even clergy and funeral directors won’t dampen the mood of a party as much as a tax collector. And yet it is the tax collector how offers us the righteous example.
In his prayer, the tax collector, the one despised by the person who thinks so highly of themselves, humbly asks for God’s mercy, because he is a sinner. He knows that he can’t expect to measure up. I am reminded of the opening lines of “Amazing Grace”:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.
Many of us like this hymn, even if we don’t buy into the charge that we are wretches. Still, the song speaks of a deep humility that recognizes that we are all dependent on God’s wondrous grace. We live out of God’s unconditional love. The first prayer can’t accept unconditional love. It reflects the assumption of many that God’s love simply must be conditional, but is that the way we expect parents to treat their own children? Now, it is true that Jesus expects that having received grace we will live differently. Remember the parable about the man forgiven much. No sooner had he received the dissolution of his debt that he went and demanded another to pay a sum much smaller. He had failed to learn the lesson – and how often do we do the same?
On the one hand there is this religious person who sees himself as righteous before God. On the other hand, there is a man who is despised by society because of his profession. In the eyes of God, however, it is the one who comes to God with humility who is heard. But, as we hear this message, it is also important that we remember that God’s love is unconditional. God does hear us no matter our attitude. The value we receive from our relationship with God, however, will be influenced by our attitude. If we believe we are self-sufficient we will be less likely to be open to the blessings that come as we love both God and neighbor.