The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Luke 18:9-14
Our Sunday school kids did a great job of enacting this story this morning. They played up the arrogance of the pharisee and the humility of the tax collector. It is caricature and Jesus intended for the two characters to stand in stark relief from each other – they are very different. They are supposed to look very different from each other so that we can see the gap between them. I wonder if you’ve heard a sermon on this parable before – or maybe come to your own understanding – that it’s all the ‘I’s in the Pharisee’s prayer that are the problem:
I thank you
that I am not like other people
I fast twice a week
I give a tenth of all my income
In fact this is a recognizable form of prayer that lists like a litany the ways that the pray-er has served God and followed the commandments. The Pharisee is doing what Pharisees do. He is proud that, as Psalm 1 instructs, he has taken care: “happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread…their delight is in the law of the LORD and on God’s law they mediate day and night.”
But Jesus said that as the Pharisee and the tax collector went home, it was the tax collector who went home justified. He summed up the parable like this: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The problem is not that the Pharisee used all those ‘I’s. The problem is that the I became a tool for isolation, for setting himself apart from other people – particularly from his neighbor the tax collector.
There’s not really any getting around that human beings are self centered. There are times when I’m on my commute, and I’m sitting in traffic. And I look over to someone in another car, or I look in the rear-view mirror and see the driver behind me and it occurs to me, that person has a whole life too. A whole life that I know nothing about and has nothing to do with me and it’s probably interesting and complicated and has ups and downs just like mine. But this is just a little window, an aperture. Even though my life crosses the paths of many – of you – in each of our worlds we are the sun. How else could it be? But the Pharisee stopped at ‘I’. He set himself against the tax collector and didn’t make the I into an opportunity for invitation but instead it cemented separation – and not only from the tax collector, but from God. He said, ‘Thank God I’m not like that guy.’
I think it’s probably undeniable when we’ve had moments of ‘Thank God that would never be me.’ or ‘I would never let that happen if I were in that situation.’ In fact, I wonder if Jesus’ audience was not identifying with the Pharisee for the first half of this story. Following the law, although there may have been a little humor in the arrogance, was indeed the way to find and connect to God.
And toll collector were colluders and traitors to the Jewish people. They were not sympathetic. This was like a big time mob-boss. So there may have also been some humor when listeners heard him say, ‘have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Yeah right. Like those words would come from a guy like that. And like God would listen!
A couple of weeks ago, political cartoonist David Horsey (formerly of the Seattle PI and now at LA Times) was here at SMC talking about his work and how it relates to his values. It’s the job of a political cartoonist to draw our public and political figures as caricatures that show off them at their most ridiculous, to reveal their faults or hypocrisies and to point out truth in what sometimes feels like the farce of politics. Jesus is kind of creating a situation like that – larger than life characters that draw in the listener. Invite people to identify with and feel they understand what’s going on. So when Jesus drops that bomb: surely I tell you it was the tax collector who went home justified. There’s some surprise: not where I thought he was going with that! And maybe serious self-examination to do. Am I like the Pharisee? his listeners might ask. Maybe I’m more like the tax collector.
This week bullying has been on my mind. There was a story in the news a week or so ago about a twelve year old girl in Florida who jumped to her death because she felt so much pressure from being bullied on-line and in person by two other girls her age. The girls were basically uncaring about the consequences on this girl or her family, even after they were prosecuted. When I heard this on NPR, my first response was – what is going on with the parents of those girls. That would never happen with a child of mine. They should have been taking responsibility for the actions of their daughters and if they had this would never have happened. Parents, don’t tell me you haven’t thought something similar.
And yet even as I was thinking it I was horrified at that gut response – the Pharisee’s response – knowing that it could absolutely be my kid. And that I have no idea what those parents have or have not done – for that matter have no idea what those kids have gone through or experienced. It is entirely possible that their prayer (whether they could verbalize it as such or not) is ‘God have mercy on me.’ The tax collector’s prayer.
As it happens, it is bullying awareness month. Naomi’s school (and maybe yours) encouraged all students to wear pink as a stand against bullying. So if you’re a parent or a kid in school maybe you’ve heard the story about why pink is the color. It started in a school in Nova Scotia, Canada. A new student – a freshman boy – showed up wearing a pink shirt. Some older students made fun of him and harassed him. But two boys, David Shepherd and Travis Price, decided that they would stand in solidarity with the new kid. They went to a local discount store and bought 50 pink tank tops and that night contacted everyone they knew and told them to wear pink. They also hauled all the shirts to school the next day and handed them out at the door. “As they stood in the foyer handing out the shirts, the bullied boy walked in. His face spoke volumes.” Travis said later, “‘It looked like a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders,’”
Teens are notorious for being self-centered (I’m sorry, kids, it’s true) but these young people absolutely looked beyond the ‘I’ of self-centeredness and into the I of invitation to mercy – in a playful and humorous and powerful way. That is some non-violent loving action right there!
My friend and I used to sit outside the grocery store when we were in college and people watch. Except it often went beyond watching to speculation – sometimes (often) not kind – based totally on appearance. Oh, it is easy, is it not, to make caricatures ourselves of people who we don’t know? That’s why I love LOVE the story that you may have heard about of the artist in New York who’s working on a photography series called ‘touching strangers’. This guy’s work, like those two students who built an invitation through an unexpected act of invitation, is the opposite of the self-protective I of isolation. Instead, he’s literally invited strangers on the street to touch each other as they would a family member and pose for a portrait.
People say afterward that they begin to feel as if the people they pose with are family. This simple act of connection makes the subjects drop any assumptions they might have about the other and see they – or at least a little window into them.
But it’s not only among strangers, of course that we forget the I of invitation and get trapped and caught at the self-centered I of isolation. It happens in families, it happens at school, in communities of friends and it happens in the church. In many denominations, confession is built into liturgy every Sunday. Every Sunday congregations repeat the lines, ‘Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison.” Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. In our own worship, it’s often reserved for services of communion, or for Ash Wednesday and Lent, when we’re feeling especially reflective.
We could do here with a little more ‘Lord, have mercy’. I say this with some care because it’s true that this parable is hyberbole – it’s exaggerated – and the tax collector is an exaggeration too. It’s dangerous also to get stuck where the tax collector is, negates self to the extent that we can no longer see the God-created-ness that in ourselves.
Taking more of that ‘Lord have mercy on me, a sinner’ attitude into our relationships will open us to the realization that it is indeed by God’s grace that we are welcomed into God’s presence. God’s wide open grace. Likely we’ll all find ourselves somewhere in between the two caricatured men in this story. Sometimes we’ve done that spectrum exercise in this congregation. If you imagine a line between these two walls and on one side is the Pharisee and on the other the tax collector, where would you put yourself? Maybe it would be in a different place on different days or with different individuals.
Let us open ourselves to the I of invitation. And may we go home from here right with God, the one who offers mercy. In our time of responding we will be given opportunity to offer our confessions and meditate on what our prayer of invitation will be before our Creator. Kyrie Eleison. Amen.
Some helpful links on bullying:
Any book by Trudy Ludwig (available at SPL)
Bullying prevention and helpful articles at Committee for Children