So, who are you in this story? The Pharisee or the tax collector? That’s part of the power of the parables, they allow you to step into the shoes of the people involved in the story. And you know, when I stand in their shoes, I’m really not a big fan of either the Pharisee or the tax collector. It is easy to point the finger at the Pharisee and say, “Bad guy!” But I bet you would want him as your neighbor. He was an upstanding citizen. We want to be exalted in the eyes of the community like the Pharisee, but we also want to be justified in the eyes of God like the tax collector!
Here’s where my tension with this lays. In the church, most of the time, a Pharisee-like person would never be scorned; he or she would be exalted. This guy tithes! You see his name on little plaques throughout the church and on scholarship funds. She’s here in worship every Sunday morning. She teaches Sunday school and is on three important church committees. He’s serving the church and the world in so many ways. The church and God are so lucky to have her on their side. Tax collectors, well they are terrible church members. Who wants humility when you have to meet a budget and pay the heating bills? They show up, confess, and then go out living the same life of sin they did before, giving all good church members a bad name.
Do you feel the tension this story creates? You can almost hear the collective mumblings through the crowd when Jesus finished this parable because it really turned everything upside down. The one who was despised in the eyes of the community gets justified and the one who has been following the law, doing everything right, even going beyond the bounds of the law with his extra fasting, goes away with nothing, except his own self-justification.
I think it is very easy to fall into thinking ourselves as righteous. We do our duty, confess our sins each Sunday, and put our envelope in the plate as it passes. We serve the world in so many ways, Hooray for us! Boo for those who haven’t followed the rules like we have, boo for those who work is detestable. We live in a world that expects us to size each other up based upon so many things, our looks, our jobs and income, our families, and even our religious affiliation. It can be hard not to look at some with contempt when they haven’t lived up to the expected standards.
What Jesus is calling us and all believers is to avoid trusting in our own efforts at fulfilling the law to please God. The Pharisee is doing and trusting, but doing and trusting in the wrong things. Trust is called for, but not trust in ourselves or in our abilities to keep God’s law. We can’t totally keep God’s law, but what we can do is trust in God’s mercy and love. But then also nowhere does Jesus that we can ignore the law. Following Jesus doesn’t allow us to do whatever we want. So in some aspects, both the Pharisee and the tax collector got it right. The Pharisee in following God’s law and the Tax collector in appealing for God’s mercy. There is a balancing act when it comes to being Christ’s disciples.
We just watched the third video of celebrating the church’s mission [available at the First Presbyterian Church of La Grande, OR Facebook page] and its members and each of the ways that people can live into being fully alive in Christ. Now, being fully alive in Christ could be its own sermon series. And even the longest living Christian is trying to live into that calling, that identity. But the video and the two texts deal we read just scratch the surface with what being alive in Christ can look like. What you saw was a partial list on the video of what the Reformed/Protestant tradition has regarded as spiritual disciplines over the course of history. The ones you saw were the easy ones to add a picture to. There are a lot more that are a little harder to take a picture of, such as chastity or fasting. But the point is why we do them. If we are fasting, if we are tithing and giving, if we are confessing, or if we are studying scripture and proclaiming the Gospel to justify ourselves before God or the community, we are creating an island, isolating ourselves from God and the community. What happens is I live in a ‘me’-centered existence, forcing God and everyone else off my island. I become more concerned about my own righteousness than even my relationship with God in Christ. Sadly, what happens in that case is my relationship with God in Christ gets boiled down to a ‘to-do’ list, a ‘to-do’ list that I’m trying to make more impressive than the rest of you in the room.
But if we are doing these practices to be transformed as disciples of the living God, then we will cross bridges, bridges that God in Christ by the Spirit has provided to strengthen our relationship with him and each other. Our ego, our self-exultation gets knocked out of the way and God in Christ becomes the center of why we do them. And that is when the Spirit can truly take hold of our heart and transform us. I wish the parable continued on with how the tax collectors justification, the mercy he received from God, changed him on his walk home. Tax collectors basically made their living by extortion. They had a quota they had to collect for the Romans and everything above that was theirs. And they would use whatever means possible to get as much as possible. Some of the other stories in scripture of tax collectors, like Levi and Zacchaeus, talk about the radical transformed lives they have when encounter Jesus’ forgiveness. Levi abandons his collecting, follows Jesus, and throws a great party to celebrate and Zacchaeus promises to repay anyone four times as much as he defrauded them.
So, who are you in the story? Truth be told, we need to be a little bit of both the Pharisee and the tax collector, humbling ourselves before God but also responding to the love and mercy we receive from God. My hope is that when you open your Bible to study, you aren’t doing it to check it off the list of the things you think God wants you to do, but you ask the Spirit to make the Word come alive in the pages as you ask, “What is God up to here? How is Christ calling me to respond?” When you confess the things you have done and things you have left undone, you don’t immediate plunge back into the world doing the same old same old, but cry out to God, “have mercy on me, a sinner!” and let the Spirit guide you in ways to live afresh in the light of God’s love and mercy. When you give, don’t compare it what your neighbor has given or not given, but give in response to the priceless and unending love and mercy you have been given in Christ.
Friends, we are no better nor are we any worse than anyone else. We are all in deep need of the love and mercy that is found in Christ. If we begin there, his Spirit will free us, free us to respond in ways we can only dream of as we encounter him in Scripture, in prayer, in giving, in singing, in worship, and in our engagement with the community. His Spirit will free us to be truly alive in him. Amen.
(Laura’s sermon on this gospel text is here.)