9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But 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!’ 14I 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.”
It has been said, “Parables are like fishing lures: they are full of attractive features—feathers, bright colors—and they end with a sharp little barb!” This certainly seems to be that kind of parable. It starts out easy enough, and in one quick reading we’re pretty sure that we can identify who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy and that everything turns out in the end just like it should. But if I remember correctly, Jesus’ parables never end the way we expect. So where’s the barb in this one?
Let’s look first at the Pharisee. We’ve been sort of conditioned to assume he’s the bad guy. They certainly always seem to fall short of expectations in Luke. So he must be our villain. But wait a minute. While unpleasant and arrogant, there’s nothing at all to say that anything the Pharisee says is untrue. He isn’t a thief, a crook or an adulterer. Unlike the tax collector, he doesn’t oppress his own people in order to benefit the invaders who have taken over the country. In fact, if you just look at the scorecard, this Pharisee is probably more righteous than most of us. The requirement was to fast weekly, but he fasts twice a week, while most of us don’t do it at all. He tithes everything he owns at the full 10%, while statistics show that most church people give at best 4% (and that, by the way, Methodists as a whole give less than that—somewhere around 2%). And I bet, even though he doesn’t say it, the Pharisee studies the Torah every day, while only about 17% of American Christians just read the Bible daily, much less study it. Good thing we aren’t like that Pharisee. But he sure is pretty good to be the bad guy, isn’t he?
The tax collector, on the other hand, well he is sorry. He knows that he’s pretty scummy. He knows that he cheats people and makes them suffer. Who cares that it’s the only way he’s got to feed his family? Who cares that maybe he inherited the business from his dad, and that since he was the son of a tax collector no one would hire him to do anything else? But we know that he’s the good guy because he’s sorry. Of course, nothing in the parable says that he actually repents. He’s penitent, sure. But he never promises to make restitution the way Zacchaeus will do in next week’s story. He doesn’t even promise to quit doing what he’s doing. But Jesus says he is justified, even though when you think about it it’s hard to see why, so he must be the good guy.
So yeah, we’ve got this story. We need to be humble, like the tax collector. Good thing we’re not like that Pharisee.
But wait, doesn’t saying that make us just like the Pharisee? He was thankful that he wasn’t like that sinful tax collector, and now we’re grateful that we’re not like that righteous Pharisee.
Wait a minute, that can’t be right. We would never be like that Pharisee. We’re the good guys. We never look down on anyone that’s having trouble (well, except sometime when we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” but we don’t really mean it that way. Really we don’t).
So we’re supposed to forget the rules and be like the tax collector, but just be sorry about it? No wait, that doesn’t work either.
I think, brothers and sisters, that maybe we have found the barb in our fishing lure. This parable traps us. No matter how we draw the lines trying to figure out which group we should be in, we look over and see God on the other side. So we re-draw the lines to include that group, and then God is over in that other spot. How do we figure out where Jesus wants us to sort people out when every distinction we make is wrong? What is he trying to do here, just confuse us?
Or maybe we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe the story isn’t about either the Pharisee or the tax collector. Maybe it’s about God and how God sees things.
The Pharisee certainly wasn’t looking in the right place. Instead of looking at God and God’s unmerited graciousness toward him, he was looking at his own goodness. He had done everything right, so he had actually, in his own mind, done more for God than God had done for him. Wasn’t God lucky to have someone like him on God’s side? Kind of like maybe the flip side of what we do when we worry that maybe we aren’t doing enough, haven’t lived a perfect enough life to please God. Well, if you look at it that way, of course we haven’t and we are all doomed.
But the tax collector, on the other hand, wasn’t looking at his own goodness. He was looking at God’s. He knew he had blown it, and would probably blow it again in the future. He didn’t have a hope in the world of pleasing God. He just didn’t have it in him. All he had was the knowledge that our God is gracious and merciful. And that was enough. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus said that he was the one who went home justified. That word justified means, made just by God’s mercy.
It’s not what either of these men did, it’s where they were focused, and that is the very place where this parable seeks to focus us—on God. It’s not what we do or who we are, it’s what God does and who God is. And God is a merciful God who is gracious to us even when we can’t possible deserve it. And it’s not that the Pharisee couldn’t have received God’s mercy as well. It’s just that he was so focused on himself that he couldn’t even see what God was offering to him, much less accept it.
And that’s what this parable is all about. It’s not about being or not being the Pharisee or the tax collector. At think that at times we have all been, and will probably be in the future, both. It is about how eager God is to love us not because of who we are or what we do, but in spite of it.