Good morning. God's grace and peace be with you all.
Our gospel text this morning is deceptively simple. On the one hand, we have a self-righteous Pharisee and on the other, a humble tax collector. The Pharisee's pride is almost a caricature, as he says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” Meanwhile, the tax collector cannot even look up to heaven, but beats his chest and cries out for mercy, knowing his own sinfulness.
Our gospel text this morning is deceptively simple. We may look at these two characters and think we know exactly what message the text is trying to communicate. Be like the tax collector, not like the Pharisee! Be humble, not proud! We may think that we get it. We may even say to ourselves, “God, I thank you that I am not like that awful Pharisee...”
Do you see the problem? In our eagerness not to be like the Pharisee, we become exactly like the Pharisee. The Pharisee's prayer is addressed to God, but it is all about himself: his behavior, his righteousness, his worth. The Pharisee's attitude is entirely self-centered and self-righteous – and there are tragic consequences of this way of thinking. The Pharisee is so eager to puff himself up, he has to put others down. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” he says, “Thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee is putting up barriers, walls that separate him from others. The Pharisee is making himself an “insider,” a righteous person, and the tax collector an “outsider” and unrighteous. The Pharisee assumes he knows that God favors him and that God rejects the tax collector. The Pharisee is building barriers that shut the tax collector out.
The Pharisee is making divisions between those he sees as righteous (including himself, of course) and those he sees as unrighteous, like the tax collector. Yet if we read this text in terms of “proud people” and “humble people,” we are doing exactly the same thing. We are building barriers, defining insiders and outsiders – and most of the time, we draw the lines so that we can be the insiders. We pride ourselves on not being like the prideful Pharisee – blissfully unaware of our hypocrisy and misinterpretation of this text.
So let's reexamine this deceptively simple parable and see if we can get out of our hypocritical mess. We have, as we already know, two characters, a Pharisee and a tax collector. Although the Pharisee is cast as the villain of this story – as the Pharisees often are in the gospel of Luke – we should give him credit where credit is due. The Pharisee is righteous, according to all the requirements of his faith. He fasts, not one day a week but two; he tithes, not only part of his possessions but gives a tenth of everything. We have no reason to doubt the truth of his words. And we would be wrong to dismiss these righteous activities. Especially a week before our Pledge Sunday here at King of Kings, I think the stewardship team would be very disappointed if I ignored the stewardship, the tithing, of the Pharisee. The Pharisee is doing everything right, and he would not be a bad model for us in our faith lives. We too should exercise spiritual practices such as prayer and fasting; we too should give back a portion of what we possess, knowing these things are gifts from God.
Yet as we have already noted, the problem with the Pharisee seems to be in his attitude. It's all about him. His prayer is not about God, not to mention the poor tax collector. The Pharisee can't seem to think of anyone or anything but himself. And in this attitude, the Pharisee is creating divisions, building barriers, making “insiders” and “outsiders.” He considers himself righteous – an insider – not like the tax collector and other sinners – the outsiders.
The setting of the parable is also significant. This parable takes place at the Temple, the center of Jewish religious life. The Temple was in many ways a palpable symbol of barriers, distinctions. The Temple complex itself was divided into different areas, and only certain people were allowed to enter. In the very center was the Holy of Holies, where only the high priests could go. In the outer parts of the Temple, only those who were ritually clean could enter. And there were some “outsiders” who were not allowed into the Temple at all. There were good theological reasons for these divisions. The Temple was a holy place, where God's presence was found; it would be wrong to infect a holy place with uncleanliness. So there were distinctions made, there were barriers put up against the wrong kind of people. The “insiders” were literally the ones allowed inside the Temple complex, while “outsiders” had to remain outside. Our tax collector identifies himself as an outsider because he stands far off – he won't even get too close to the Temple, just in case.
But careful readers of the gospel of Luke will notice another significance of the Temple and its distinctions. For it is in the gospel of Luke that we hear this account of Jesus' crucifixion: “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.”
In the gospel of Luke, at the moment of Jesus' death the Temple curtain is torn in two. This curtain was a barrier in the literal sense; it protected the holy interior of the Temple from outsiders. Just as clearly as the Temple was a physical symbol of distinctions and barriers, the tearing of the Temple curtain is a physical symbol of those barriers being broken down. What is revealed at this moment in the gospel of Luke is that God in Jesus Christ breaks down every barrier that we try to build up.
When we try to make distinctions between “righteous” and “unrighteous,” like the Pharisee in today's parable, God breaks down those barriers. When we try to make distinctions between the “humble” and the “proud,” God breaks down those barriers, too. Whenever we try to label “insiders” and “outsiders” on any principle – be it behavior, or race, or wealth, or belief – we find God not on our side, but on the other side, breaking down the barriers. Though the Pharisee looked down on the tax collector, it was with tax collectors and sinners that Jesus spent his time.
In our parable today, the Pharisee was confident of his own righteousness, and the tax collector was certain of his unrighteousness. The parable is even addressed to an audience “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” So righteousness – being right in the eyes of God – is clearly important to this text. Some of us may feel like the Pharisee, confident that we are righteous. Others may feel like the tax collector, desperately begging God for mercy. Whether we feel like the Pharisee or like the tax collector, we would do well to be reminded of the source of our righteousness. To be counted righteous in God's eyes is not something anyone can earn. Righteousness can only come as a gift from God. Perhaps the tax collector knew that better than the Pharisee. Yet we can know something that was unknown even to the tax collector – not only that righteousness comes from God, but that it has come from God. We don't have to beg God for mercy like the tax collector does, because God has already counted us righteous. God has already justified us through the free gift of God's grace.
Because God has justified us as a gift of grace, we are freed from being either the tax collector or the Pharisee. While the tax collector desperately begs for God's mercy, we have the assurance of God's love. While the Pharisee is obsessed with his own righteous behavior, we are free to think of others. The Pharisee is so eager to promote himself that he builds barriers against the other, saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” We do not have to become trapped in the Pharisee's “insider” and “outsider” mentality. Instead, we realize that we have been justified by a God who tears the Temple curtain, a God who breaks down barriers. Because we are justified by God through God's grace, not through our goodness, we don't have to compare ourselves to others; we don't have to build barriers that make us “insiders” and protect us from “outsiders.”
In one of my seminary classes, I had the opportunity to watch a documentary titled “A Time for Burning.” It was a factual account of a Lutheran congregation in Omaha, Nebraska in 1966, when their pastor tried to reach out to their African American neighbors. In a congregation and a community that were still segregated, Reverend L. William Youngdahl tried to convince his white parishioners to share conversation and community with those they considered “outsiders.” The response from the congregation is mixed, with some supportive and others opposed; but in the end, the pastor is forced to resign.
What struck me most in the documentary was the pastor’s conviction that this conversation, this sharing of community, was not only worthwhile but vital. Today, we would be shocked by what some of the people in the documentary say — yet, for all the progress that has been made in the last 45 years, how often do we still hold outsiders at a distance and build barriers against them? Whether on the basis of race, or religion, or personal behavior, we all like to consider ourselves “insiders” and others “outsiders.” Yet we should strive to be more like this Pastor Youngdahl, whose belief in the all-encompassing love of God led him to seek community and fellowship with the “outsiders” in his world.
We have been justified by God, whose love and grace are freely given. Now we are free to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, breaking down barriers and identifying with outsiders. Now, we can reach out to both Pharisees and tax collectors. Now, we can share the love that we have first received. Amen.