PHARISEE OR TAX COLLECTOR?

by Sean Foster on October 27, 2013

Luke 18:9-14 NRSV

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ A-men.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the man who dies and is greeted at the gates of heaven by St. Peter. Peter asks the man to give a brief history of his life, and specifically to highlight all the good deeds that he had done throughout his life.

Peter said to him: the way it works is that you need to have 1000 points in order to get into heaven.

The man thinks to himself, this should be easy. I’ve been involved in the church since the days of my youth. And so he begins to list his activities and good deeds.
• An officer in his youth group.
• An elder in his church.
• An usher.
• Served on several committees.
His list was long and extensive.

Very impressive, Peter replied. And angel was standing next to him with a clipboard keeping track of all the good deeds and Peter asked him to give a summary total of the points. The angel whispered a number into Peter’s ear.

Peter said, well, this is quite striking. We seldom see men with so many good deeds. So far you have 347 points.

347 points, said the man feeling a little stressed now. He was just about finished. He continued to share his good deeds and then said that’s about it!

Peter looked at the angel who tallied the count, and whispers the number into Peter’s ear.

You have 413 points, can you think of any more good deeds?

The man in struggling now. Well, there was that time that I bought 3 boxes of girl guide cookies. I only wanted two, but she had three left in her crate, so I thought it would be nice if I bought the extra box. What does that get me up to?

Peter looked at the angel, well, I guess we can give you another point for that good deed, but it’s a stretch.

The man throws his head into his hands in grief. I’m done for. There’s nothing else. There’s really nothing else that I have done, or could have done.

Peter, I beg you. Is there any other way to make some points? For the love of God I beg His grace and mercy. Please help me!

Well, replied Peter, God’s grace and mercy. If that’s the way you want to come into heaven, you don’t need any points. (Illustrations for Luke 18:9-14, Worth a thousand points, John Jewel)

In the lesson that Janice shared with us this morning from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about two men who go to the Temple to pray, one is a Pharisee, the other is a tax collector.

Now when those who were listening to Jesus first telling of this parable, they were probably surprised to hear a story about a tax collector going to the temple to pray. Tax collectors were crooks. They stole from their own people! They were greedy extortionists.

Tax collectors collected tax money for Rome, but they would often collect 2 or 3 times more than the tax levied. Rome would receive what was required, but the tax collector would keep the rest for himself.

Tax collectors were able to steal from the people because the Roman Army backed them. Those who did not pay what was demanded would be killed or thrown into a debtor’s prison. What was particularly upsetting for the Jewish people was the fact that these tax collectors were often fellow Jews. And so, tax collectors became despised, hated and rejected by society.

Tax collectors were sinners for their greed and thievery.

Two men go to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector.

Now, it would have been a strange to hear a story about a tax collector going to Temple, let alone a story where the tax collector was engaged in prayer, but we expect to find the Pharisee going to the Temple. And the fact that the Pharisee is engaged in prayer would have been expected. Listen again to the prayer of this Pharisee. God I thank you that I am not like these other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give one-tenth of all my income.

Now the reality is – as we hear this story, the one we are supposed to despise is the tax collector. The tax collector is the known sinner. The tax collector is the one who is far away from God.

The Pharisee on the other hand is a good man. He may be self-righteous, a little holier than thou, but he is the one we all want in the church. He is good! He does good! He does all the right things.

You would find this Pharisee in the Temple every day, not just this day. He serves on several committees. He’s an elder. He’s generous. I mean, this guy tithes. He gives one-tenth of all his income. He fasts twice a week. Now the requirement was that a Jew fast one day a year on the Day of Atonement. This guy fasts twice a week! One third of the year he is fasting to show his devotion and commitment to God. This Pharisee is good!

But as Jesus tells the parable, about these two different men who go to the Temple to pray, who is it that we end up liking? The truth is, as we listen to the parable, we much prefer the tax collector, regardless of the fact that he is hated by society and a known sinner. The one we would normally despise, we end up liking.

In this parable, Jesus turns the world upside down. The one we would normally like – we despise; and the one we would normally despise, we end up liking.

And then notice verse 14. Jesus reinforces our upside down feelings. The one who is justified is the sinner who goes to God in prayer, asking forgiveness and pleading for God’s mercy. The tax collector asks and receives.

What does the Pharisee ask for in his prayer? Nothing.

As I read his prayer, I am not even sure he is praying to God, even though his prayer is addressed to God.

This Pharisee doesn’t seem to need God at all. He’s got everything in hand. He looks good. Every hair is in perfect place. He wears nice clothes. He serves on several committees. He’s on the session. He does everything right, in the eyes of others.

I mean, really, as I read the prayer of this Pharisee, it sounds more like a self-congratulatory address than it does a prayer. I am so good. I am nothing like the rest of these heathens.

But wait a minute. Do you see it? You have to look deeper within the irony of this parable. There’s a twist in this parable, and it’s an awful twist. You see, as we condemn the Pharisee, the twist in this parable is that as we condemn the Pharisee, we end up condemning ourselves. God, I thank you that I am nothing like the rest of these people.

It is an awful truth when we come to the realization of the true irony of this parable. You see, the reality is – we are much more like this Pharisee – than we are the tax collector.

This is a parable. Jesus tells this story to parallel life. Now wait a minute… Are you saying that Jesus is calling us self-righteous? Yep! That’s what the story is about.

Now, we may not like the fact that Jesus just called us self-righteous, but when we get over that – then we can grow and start to better understand what we are to learn from this parable.

I mean, for us, the tax collector would be like a biker who comes into the church. We hear the bike as it rumbles into the parking lot, and then in comes this big burly guy with jeans and leather jacket.

He has been in a bike gang since he was 20.
• He’s a thief.
• He’s beaten people to within an inch of their life.
• He’s been involved in all kinds of illegal activity.
• His beard is a mess.
• Did he comb his hair today?
• And what is he wearing?
• Is that a skull tattooed on his arm?
• This guy does not belong in the church.
And we can hear ourselves saying something like: Lord, I thank you that I am nothing like this biker. We look down our noses at him.

But this man is sincere. He comes into the church because he wants to get right with God. He’s ready to confess his various sins and crimes. He’s ready to repent. To leave that old life behind, and embrace God.

He prays, Lord, forgive me. I have done unspeakable things. Have mercy on me O Lord.

And from that time, from the time that he enters the church, where we look down our noses at him; to the time when he confesses his sin, and pleads for God’s mercy, asking for God’s forgiveness in prayer, something remarkable happens. We no longer despise the sinner who is now saved and justified and washed in God’s grace. We come away saying, that was beautiful!

So let me get to the point that I believe Jesus was trying to make in telling this parable.

The truth is – we are more like the Pharisee that we are like the tax collector. We like to believe that we are close to God, that we are doing all the right things. That we are nothing like the sinners of this world: those thieves, rogues and adulterers. Thank you God, that I am nothing like that tax collector. That we are nothing like that biker.

But hear this… the good news of this parable is that, … we could be.

You see, this parable urges us to continue to deal with the sin in our lives. God does not want us to be like the Pharisee who thinks they have everything all worked out. Well, maybe you do on the outside, but God is much more concerned with our hearts and souls.

God wants to lavish us with his grace, love and mercy. Will we open our hearts and allow God to do that?

Will we open our hearts, revealing the sin in our lives?
• Our pride?
• Our selfishness?
• Our judge-mental ways?
• Our negativity?
• Our greed?

Working out our salvation is dealing with our sin, and becoming more like Christ. Not just what others can see, but our hearts, and our very souls.

You see, the good news of this parable is that God loves both the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus say’s that the tax collector was justified because he humbled himself and recognized his need for God. The Pharisee in his prayer proclaimed no need for God. So close, but he was missing out on the relationship he could have been having with God.

A-men.

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