(This sermon owes a lot to Will Willimon's sermon on the same text - "Pharisees & Publicans All" in "The Collected Sermons of William H. Willimon" (pp. 51-55). I remember the gift of hearing Will say that he thought none of us preachers ever write any original sermons, that we all stand on the shoulders of the witnesses who have gone before and beside. I am grateful to be part of such a company.)
“Jesus also told this parable ...” Watch out. Jesus is telling parables again. You remember parables. They seem simple on the surface. We expect these little stories to be easy to understand. But they are not. The Hebrew word for parable is “riddle”. Jesus’ parables make jaws drop and leave the audience confounded. Parables are not soothers that pacify, they are sticks of dynamite that blast open the world we thought we knew. If we think we get the meaning of a parable and do not find ourselves blown away, well, it only means that the fuse is still ticking.
Luke tells us that Jesus directs this particular parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Often Jesus’ parables begin with a phrase such as “The kingdom of heaven is like ...”. But not this time. This time the parable - the dynamite - is intended for those who trust that they are righteous and regard others with contempt. It is aimed at self-righteousness. You remember the meaning of “righteous” in the Bible. It means to be living in a way that makes one right with God. In the Bible the word “righteous” sums up a life lived with integrity, a trustworthy life that keeps the great commandments: love God with all your soul and mind and strength; love your neighbour as yourself. Righteousness is good. It is what we are pointing to when we say of someone’s acts of care and compassion: “She is a true saint.” This parable has high voltage when we begin from the presumption that being called righteous is the highest compliment one can receive. But that is just the point. You have to called righteous by someone else, by the other party to a relationship. To name oneself as righteous is, by definition, impossible. This parable is told to some who call themselves righteous and regard others with contempt. I expect that in the very act of claiming righteousness for oneself the self-righteous put on spectacles of contempt through which others inevitably appear unrighteous.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” It is a simple set up. Two men went up to pray. But watch out. Centuries of telling and preaching have dampened the explosive potential of this parable. First, there is the Pharisee. By now the word pharisee has come to mean “hypocrite”. For us the Pharisees in the New Testament are the “bad guys” wearing black hats. We know that when they appear on the stage we are meant to jeer! And because the Pharisees in these stories are often portrayed as being mired in rigid legalism we Christians for a long time assumed that Pharisees of Jesus’ time were rigid legalists. For too long we stereotyped Judaism itself as legalistic. We ignored the fact that the recurring description of God in the Old Testament is “a God of steadfast love.” The truth is that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time are liberal-minded interpreters of the Bible. It seems likely that Jesus himself is a Pharisee. To experience the full impact of this parable the Pharisee needs to be a sympathetic character. Imagine your favourite actor in this role, someone who always plays the hero.
Then there is the tax collector. Or, as he was known in the King James Bible, “the Publican.” Here again, after centuries of telling, the tax collector has been transformed into something of a lovable under-dog. When tax collectors come on stage in the gospels there is a murmur of approval in the church because we know in advance that Jesus is going to be on their side. We begin to imagine that the tax collectors have been somehow mis-understood, that they are outcasts who deserve better, that they are actually really nice people when you get to know them. But remember, the publicans of the ancient Roman world are public contractors who bid on the right to collect taxes for the Empire. Once the contractor makes a successful bid he pays the Empire the taxes owed up front (receiving interest from the Empire on this loan) and then goes about collecting. It is known as tax farming. The tax rates are not published. Any funds that the tax-collector can collect over and above the amount agreed to with Rome are his to keep. The tax-collectors of Jesus’ day are, in their time, the lowest of the low. They have sold out to the oppressive invading Roman army and are swindling their own people in order to pad their pocketbooks. This is the reason that the words “tax-collectors and sinners” are so often used side by side as synonyms. In Jesus’ time the most obvious example of immoral behaviour that can be named is tax-collector for the Empire. I am not sure who you would have playing the role of the tax-collector. I am sure that it needs to be a person whose behaviour you find to be monstrous.
“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.’” The first thing we notice is the Pharisee’s posture: he is “standing by himself.” He is not in close contact with others, not in danger of being contaminated. He offers a prayer of gratitude, not a long list of petitions. He asks for nothing for himself. He only wants to give thanks that God has gifted him with a life absent of thievery, adultery and tax-collection. More than that, he has found the discipline and generosity to fast regularly and to tithe ten percent of everything he buys. By definition he is a good man - a very good man.
“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!’” Again, the first thing we notice is the posture. The tax collector is “standing far off.” No wonder. He is a fraud artist, experienced at scamming his victims. He is a lackey for the Roman overlords. Little wonder that he dares not lift his eyes toward God but, instead, bows his head and beats his breast. For him, repentance, turning his life around so that he is living in harmony with God’s law, will require not only abandoning his profession but the restitution of his ill-gotten gains plus an additional twenty per cent. But how can he ever know all who he has cheated? His situation is hopeless. His prayer is like a raving cry: “God have mercy.” The cheating tax collector claims nothing, but asks everything. Lacking anything to give God, he begs for a gift.
“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” This is the moment when the lit fuse contacts the dynamite. Boom. Two men went up to worship. One, a good, Bible-believing, faith-practising, liberally giving Pharisee. The other, a bad, money-grubbing, immoral, tax collector. Two men went back home. One - the publican - was justified, forgiven, blessed, made right with God. The other - the Pharisee - was not. If I were to pretend to have this parable all figured out I would be lying to you. The ways of God revealed through Jesus confound our common sense assumptions. It is the reason that we want to keep turning the Pharisee into a bad guy and the tax collector into a good guy. Then the parable would make sense to us. But, as the theologian Karl Barth noticed a century ago: “At certain crucial points the Bible amazes us by its remarkable indifference to our conception of good and evil.” In that same essay Barth also wrote: “There is a river in the Bible that carries us away, once we have entrusted our destiny to it - away from ourselves to the sea.”
Notice how this parable carries us away, once we have entrusted our destiny to it - away from ourselves to the sea that is called the kingdom of God. Notice how our best intentioned prayers of thanksgiving slip into self-congratulation, just as our most generous acts of giving can become self-aggrandizing. This is true not only for individuals but also for congregations and even entire denominations. Soon we are thanking God that we “are not like other people,” not like other congregations, not like other denominations. Pride takes many forms. “God, we thank you that we are not like the fundamentalists.” “God, we thank you that our social attitudes are progressive.” “God, we thank you that we know our weaknesses and admit them, not like that Pharisee.” These are the prayers of a people - like the Pharisee - who come before God with hands full. These are not the prayers of a people seeking God’s mercy. And if God’s mercy is not sought, if there is no sense of need, no cry for help, then it should not come as a surprise when no grace is received. Grace is always a gift. It is not a given. Grace is not grace if it is expected. The gift is God’s to give ... or not. It is only through mercy that we ever return home from church any different than we came. Discovering this is to be carried away from a world in which everything is earned and deserved to a world in which new life is given as an unexpected, unearned, undeserved gift.
Today God’s grace is given - amazingly - to the publican. He is a sinful man. A man without merit. A man without hope. He is not trying hard to be humble. He is humble. His life has been caught up by the power of sin that alienates us from God and from one another. When asked in catechism class: “Why aren’t things the way they should be?’ his life is Exhibit A of the answer that we are learning to echo back: “Brokenness in human life and community is an outcome of sin.” The tax collector’s prayer names the hard, terrible truth that he has no hope other than to place himself at the mercy of God. He is not the hero of the story. Neither is the Pharisee. Both sin. One knowingly and one unknowingly. As the preacher Will Willimon says of this parable: “Some sin by stealing and others sin by praying.” Willimon continues: “Jesus says, before any altar of God, in any service of worship, you mainly find two sorts of folk - Pharisees and publicans. A few of us are one or the other all of the time. But most of us are some of each some of the time. There are times when we enter to worship as good, Bible-believing, righteous Pharisees who ask nothing and get nothing. We are so pleased with ourselves, so competent, so well fixed. We go home to Sunday dinner with a gnawing emptiness because we were so full before we came. But there are also times in life when we enter this place to worship as publicans, needing everything, empty, lost, without hope and (surprise!) return home with more than we dared to ask.”
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Speaking of riddles, here is one. How exactly does one accomplish self-exaltation, since - by definition - to be exalted means being lifted up by someone else. Besides, have you ever tried to be humble? When it comes to being humble, you either are or you aren’t. This may seem rather disappointing. After all, I titled the sermon “Exalted, Humbled. Humbled, Exalted.” Now I am confessing that I don’t understand how this works or what it means. To be honest, in reading this scripture I feel as if I am being swept away from myself out to the sea ... a sea in which I am still finding my bearings. It is not the world that I have known but a new world - the strange, new world of the Bible. In this new world mother Mary magnifies God’s activity in her womb, singing: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Lk. 2:51-52). Exalted, humbled. Humbled, exalted. In this new world, Paul extends an odd invitation:“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God ... emptied himself ... And being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him" (Phil 2:5-9). The exalted are humbled. The humbled are exalted. These are the rhythms, the patterns, the ways of God. In this new world “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low ... Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (Is. 40:4 & 5). The lowly lifted up from the dust, the high and mighty brought down to size in order that the goodness, the power, the presence - in other words, the glory - of God can be seen and known and enjoyed. It takes us back to the primary question in our catechism class: “What is the meaning of life?” and to our primal response: “To glorify and enjoy God forever.” Yes, to glorify and enjoy the God who humbles the exalted and exalts the humbled. Even you. Even me. Amen.