The One About the Law Keeper and the Law Breaker (A Sermon about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – Luke 18:9-14)

This is the message I gave on Sunday. I started off reading a very specific prayer.

The prayer I read.

God we thank-you that we are saved, and redeemed by your blood. We thank-you that you have blessed us and given us every good gift. We thank-you that you have saved us from the torment of death, adultery and evil and you keep us safe in your hands. We thank-you that we have found the truth and the one way to the Father while so many people out there have not.
We come here to church and we give ourselves to you. We give you our time and our money and our lives.
Speak to us today through your stories. Amen.

The word Pharisee is a troublesome word in today’s language. When we talk about Pharisees we automatically assume the negative in our minds. We know they are the bad guys, the ones that Jesus kept telling off and getting pissed off at. There is a children’s song even that goes “I don’t want to be a Pharisee.” We have this haunting picture of what a Pharisee is and it’s something we don’t want to be anything like. By with having these preconceived notions of what a Pharisee is we miss a lot of what is happening in these stories.

Pharisees were the popes or pastors of our day. They dedicated their entire lives to the teaching and following of the Torah. Everyday consisted in following specific rituals and piety toward God. Every single day they woke up and strived after God and what He had promised them. These guys weren’t joking around. We think that we are doing pretty good by reading our bible and coming to church once a week. These guys had memorized the entire Hebrew Bible and spent their lives in the Temple teaching people about God. These guys had it together. Everyone in the communities knew that and everyone in the communities respected them. They looked up to them and they knew that they were the closest to God. They were allowed on the very inside of the temple to prayer and bring penance to God.

This is the understanding that we need to grasp when studying anything at all to do with the Pharisees. They are the ones that got it right; they are the ones in touch with God. So with that in mind. Let’s jump into the parable for this week. Now let’s keep in mind that this parable comes right after the parable of the unjust judge that we did last week. Just like the parable last week of the unjust judge was really not all about prayer as we have always been lead to believe, I think we should keep our minds open that the same could be for this parable also.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about[a] himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
Luke 18:9-13

Jesus is giving a contrast here and if we already don’t like the Pharisee then the contrast doesn’t make sense. So let me convince you even a bit more how upright and righteous this Pharisee is. In Deuteronomy it says:

When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. Then say to the LORD your God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them. I have not eaten any of the sacred portion while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God; I have done everything you commanded me. Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Sound familiar? Could the Pharisee in this story just be doing what he was asked to do? He tithed and was obedient and then told God after what he had done. We’d like to think that this story is maybe about the Pharisee and bragging about all the great things he had done, but when you read the scriptures that he was basing his life after, it is almost as if this is what he was supposed to be doing. So while Jesus is telling this story and tells the part about the Pharisee, the listeners would have understood and not been thrown off at all. In fact they may have been even more impressed because this Pharisee tithed on all he acquired not just all that he made. The greek word here is ktaomai which means that it is everything that he brings into his household (even if it’s been tithed on before or he is just holding it there for someone else). So he is going above and beyond the law here. Normally he wouldn’t have to tithe on something that has already been tithed on but he is saying here that he does. Not only that, by Jewish law you were only required to fast once a year, so this Pharisee fasts twice a week. This guy was on the ball, he was a trooper and knew what it meant to follow God. Plus, he is thankful here. It’s not like he is taking credit for what he has right? He is thanking God for giving it to him. We like this prayer, because this is how we pray. We thank-God for what we have and what he has given us.

“J.S. Glen rightly asserted that the modern-day counterpart of the Pharisee would be welcomed into any respectable community, religious or social, and given a responsible position. It is surprising how much egotism and rigorous devotion will be tolerated if a person is just and clean-living and gives of her or his substance.”

It is crucial to give this Pharisee as much credit as we can. He is an honest and upright man. He doesn’t do anything that we think do be sinful outright. Ok, so here is a story about a Pharisee who goes to the temple to pray and then tells God how he has obeyed him in everything. Big deal. This is what was supposed to happen.

So the story continues, no one is suspicious because at this point everything is pretty normal in the story. Now comes someone new on the scene that brings trouble, but it is obvious of why he shows up. He is there to balance out the righteous Pharisee. So the tax collector comes to the temple to pray and he acts pretty normally for someone in his shoes. See we’ve talked about this before. Tax collectors were despised. They made their living off of overcharging people. They forced people into poverty so they could live wealthy. No one liked them. They were the epitome of sinner and out of the will of God. They were the complete opposite of the Pharisee. The reason this story isn’t much of a surprise is because the tax collector goes to the outside of the temple gates, where sinners and the unclean were supposed to go. He went away from the righteous and the people who were blessed by God. This tax collector was obviously Jewish too, because he went to the temple to pray. So what are the listeners thinking to themselves at this point in the story? Perfect. This is exactly how it was supposed to play out. The tax collector, who is the worst of sinners and who is unclean stays away from that which is clean and not only that he knows his own condition so he isn’t making a fuss about it. He admits it before God and everyone else that he is unworthy. That’s right he’s unworthy. He’s the worst of them all.

This guy doesn’t even thank God like the Pharisee does; he comes straight to God with a petition to have mercy on him. This guy is a loser, he can’t live right or come to God right or even talk to God right. This story cannot be understood unless we see this tax collector for the loser and sinful person that he really is. This story can’t be read correctly if we think the tax collector “isn’t that bad.” He is at the gutter of society. This story so far is everything that any hearer would have expected. Think of him as the worst person possible; like part of the mafia, stealing from the poor, never goes home without two women by his side and a bunch of stolen money in his pocket. This guy is the worst, and not only that he’s a Jew who should no better.

The righteous one is in the middle of the temple telling God of how he has obeyed him and done all these wonderful things and the tax collector is where he belongs on the outskirts begging for mercy from someone who can withhold it. Normal story. They see it every day.

Allright, I’ll be honest here. I left out a verse. This is the verse that turns this entire story upside down, and if it wasn’t for the verse (v14), Jesus’ listeners would never have thought anything of this story. Then Jesus drops it it in verse 14.

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.

BAM. Jesus flips this entire story on its head. He does it all over again (you’ll see how he does it with other stories like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son). What the heck could Jesus be saying here? Every understanding that these people have ever had of righteousness or doing good or following God was thrown out. I don’t think we really understand what this line is doing. Maybe if we replace the story with the pope and a pimp like a guy named Crossman did? Or maybe if we replace it with a grandma and a pedophile? Either way it doesn’t matter anymore, because any standard of righteousness that we have setup is now useless according to Jesus.

Jesus is doing all sorts of things here. One, he is reversing the temple map. The temple map is setup to say that there are certain things you need to do and say to be granted forgiveness of your sins. There is a particular way that the system works and people fit into different parts of that system. The temple map says there is insiders and there is outsiders. The Pharisee knows about it because he even refers to it by knowing who is on the outside of this map. The tax collector on the other hand did everything opposite and does nothing but admit his failures. You would think that the tax collector would not receive forgiveness based on prayer alone without true repentance but then Jesus says “he goes home” “in the state of being justified;” that is the proper Greek reading. Remember they were used to the long processes of removing sin but this guy just walked away and went home justified. Forgiveness of sins through the typical temple structure is no longer standing strong. There is something else going on here than just another normal story.

“To suggest that the Pharisee is arrogant or morally superior misses the point that he has only done what the temple map requires of those on the inside.”
Bernard Scott

You see it is our own maps, Christian maps that automatically paint the Pharisee in bad light here. Our own maps of how we view the world and our ideas of humility block us from seeing that this Pharisee is an ideal pious man. But Jesus flips this map upside down and doesn’t refer to it at all rather he is referring to the tax collector who does absolutely nothing that we were expecting. He shows up at the temple, and leaves the temple and goes back home the exact same way that the Pharisee does, but he is the one that is justified. What sign of repentance (I mean turning away from your sin and doing good) has the tax collector shown at all? None!

Question: What did the tax collector do that the Pharisee didn’t, that actually deserved justification? Is this fair?

Jesus messes us up a little bit here because let’s be honest we have to connect with the Pharisee. Christians in our churches are nothing like the tax collector. In fact we all believe that it is our job to help the tax collector get on his feet, start coming to more bible studies and put his head in the “word” more so he can be more like Jesus. We know we’ve got it together don’t we? We know that we have the one way to heaven and have our hand around the one truth? Did anyone notice how I prayed before the message? My prayer was a modern version of the prayer of the Pharisee and we didn’t even notice. Let me read you my prayer again.

God we thank-you that we are saved, and redeemed by your blood. We thank-you that you have blessed us and given us every good gift. We thank-you that you have saved us from the torment of death, adultery and evil and you keep us safe in your hands. We thank-you that we have found the truth and the one way to the Father while so many people out there have not.
We come here to church and we give ourselves to you. We give you our time and our money and our lives.
Speak to us today through your stories. Amen.

Do you see the words and phrases I used? I’m pretty sure I heard a few Amen’s out there while I was praying. How are we any different? We constantly tell ourselves that we are doing the right thing by coming to church, praying, tithing, helping out those in need. We secretly use those things to help us feel better about our value before God. We are constantly thankful that we are blessed and that we aren’t as bad off as those poor people, or those hurting people, or those people in another country. The reason I spent so much time giving context to the Pharisee is because we are the Pharisee, all I’m doing is describing ourselves here. The church has become the Pharisee. Coming to a special place to thank-god for all he’s given us and thanking god that we aren’t lost (like those lost people) and then confirming our loyalty by making a mental list of all the good things we’ve done. There is a part of us that believe that these things we do, actually justifies us before God, we actually believe that God is impressed.

Ah. But I can see our minds working right now. I’m not like the Pharisee at all. I’m like the tax collector, I know I’m a sinner saved by grace and the only reason I have any of these things is because God gave them. Stupid prideful Pharisee, aren’t we glad that we aren’t like the Pharisee? Let’s say a quick prayer to thank-god we aren’t like the Pharisee.

SEE! It doesn’t work. Isn’t that what the Pharisee said? Wasn’t he thanking God that he wasn’t as bad off like someone else? All we want to do, it is inbred in us, is to make a new map (or revert to the old one) of how people are ranked based on what they do. We need to know where we stand and where other people stand around us just so we know, that we are assured. It’s the only map we know. The only map we know tells us that these things we do is why we are good people and why we are justified.

Ok, so let’s say then that we admit it. We are sinners saved by grace, but we aren’t that bad right? We have started to be sanctified by Jesus and we are getting better and better and we aren’t that bad. This parable makes no sense at all if that’s the stance we take either. There is no way to understand the radical grace of this parable if we minimize the sinfulness of the tax collector at all. Luke chose the tax collector and the Pharisee for a reason. They were the best and worst people he could pick from his time to compare them too.

Here is the problem and where everything breaks down. In this story, only one person goes home justified. In this story that person is the one that pushes himself aside, realizes his own sinfulness and then looks to God for mercy. This is not a parable about humility like we’ve been lead to believe. This is a parable about the uselessness of our own maps of comparison and being right in God’s eyes. Capon puts it this way.

“The first thing to get off the table is the notion that this parable is simple a lesson in the virtue of humility. It is not. It is an instruction in the futility of religion – in the idleness of the proposition that there is anything at all you can do to put yourself right with God. It is about the folly of even trying. The parable occurs after a series of illustrations of what Jesus means by faith, and it comes shortly before he announces for the third time, that he will die and rise again. It is therefore not a recommendation to adopt a humble religious stance rather than a proud one; rather it is a warning to drop all religious stances-and all moral and ethical ones too-when you try to grasp your justification before God. It is, in short, an exhortation to move on to the central point of the Gospel: faith in God who raises the dead.”
–Robert Capon

(This next little bit is heavily influenced by Capon’s book, and I read it so many times so the wording is probably pretty similiar. You can read the book, or at least a big chunk of it online on Google Books for free here.) Let’s unpack this shall we. Are we starting to get a sense of what Jesus is saying in this parable? He is saying that as far as the game to win God’s justification is concerned, everyone is a loser. We know this. We are all sinners right? The Pharisee and the tax collector both. But who is further along at truly understanding this? It’s the tax collector. So if there is no chance in hell that either of them can win over God’s love but there is one of them that is trying, or who at least is trying to make the case that if it was going to be based on merit, he would at least be better off then can’t you see how he would actually be further away from God? They are both losers but at least the tax collector has the sense to recognize it and trust God’s offer of free salvation.

God cannot use someone that that thinks he has what it takes to get the job done. No human goodness anywhere is good enough to get by, so to even think it is, is to completely put the breaks on in the whole operation. The Pharisee takes a stand on a life that God is unable to use. So he is condemned to his trying. The tax collector however rests his case in the fact that he can’t do it and he needs Jesus to do it for him. The key thing that separates the two. The very thing that justifies the tax collector is his admittance of his own death and inability to do anything right.

Now this is where I think the story gets completely messed up. Because we get to the point in the story where they both go home and then the tax collector is justified. But then what? Well let’s put it out there, what do we hope will happen?

Question: What do we hope the tax collector does when he goes home after being justified?

(Steer the conversation this way if you can, taken from Capon’s book and his example)

Well we have two options. One, the tax collector goes home and doesn’t change at all. His life looks the exact same as it did before, and all seven days he sins and hurts people and steals. Then when the week is over he goes back to the outskirts of the temple and what happens? Well we know God will do the exact same thing as he did before. Obviously this will happen, but the real question is, do we like that? (as Capon puts it) Of course not, we hate it, we gag on the unfairness of it because the rat is getting off free.

Ok, second, so let’s say his week he gets better. He gives a little bit of his money to the Inn of the Good Shepherd and he stops stealing all together. What do you think now? What is it that we want God to do with him? Question him to the extent in which he has mended his ways? For what purpose? If God didn’t count the Pharisee’s super impressive list why should he bother with this one, it sucks anyway. Or at least we want God to look at his intentions and that that his heart was in the right place, right? Why?

“The point of the parable was that the publican confessed that he was dead, not that his heart was in the right place. Why are you so bent on destroying the story by sending the publican back for his second visit with the Pharisees’ speech in his pocket?
–Robert Capon

So I think at this point we all understand what the parable is getting at, but we hate it and we have this underlying desire to believe the opposite. We all long to establish our identity by comparing ourselves to others. This is what the Pharisee’s pride was thriving on, his comparison to those that were under them.

(Allright, enough being influenced by Capon, back to all the other stuff I probably stole from everyone else). There is a parable in Luke 7 about a conversation between Simon the Pharisee and Jesus. Simon sees a prostitute cleaning Jesus’ feet and he gets upset because he believed that if Jesus knew who was cleaning his feet than he would have told her to stop. Jesus knowing what he was thinking asks him a question. Two guys have a debt, one is ten times bigger than the other and then both debts are cleared by the master, Jesus asks who Simon thinks would be more grateful. Simon answers (the way we would all answer probably) that the guy with the largest debt. Jesus tells him he is right and then drops a bomb.

“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven-for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

Now at first we are under the impression that for us to love more we need to sin more so we can be forgiven of more. But really what Jesus is saying here is not that Simon didn’t sin enough, it’s that he never realized how sinful he was. See, Simon thought that he was ‘ok,’ that he had things together and that this prostitute was the dirtiest one around. He put himself above her, put her out first on the lifeboat. Jesus points this out and acknowledges how much the prostitute can love him because she recognizes her sinfulness. She recognizes her state of need. Simon on the other hand didn’t get it. He didn’t understand how much forgiveness he really needed. He had created a scale and placed himself at the top of it, after all he was a Pharisee, the cleanest of them all. If Simon would only recognize that he is in the same boat as the prostitute, then he would realize his need for repentance and be able to love more. Relationships with God are ruined because we don’t think we really need all the forgiveness he has to offer and relationships with each other are ruined because we put ourselves on our scales and put everyone below us.

Simon was secretly judging the prostitute not so much because of her uncleanliness but because of his inability to recognize his own. The story is the same. Those that think they are better, or are justified or have done something right to somehow merit their justification in the eyes of God keep getting told over and over again that the only way to make it in this kingdom is to accept that you are the worst of sinners; as bad as the people that they are trying to be different from. Which causes us to fear the tax collector’s justification and acceptance by God. Because in reality this is way harder than we knew. Before it was easy. We did good things, we kept track of them and we made ourselves feel better by watching everyone around us and reassuring ourselves that we were nothing like them. But now the tax collectors justification means that we will never be justified until we can admit our own shallowness, sinfulness and eventually deadness, the very opposite of what we had been trying to do. The only way that we can be justified is admitting that we can’t earn it and we don’t deserve it. It’s hard isn’t it? We don’t want to be dead like that, some of us don’t even believe what Jesus is saying here because we are afraid to die like Jesus asks us to.

The message here is the same message that John wrote to the church in Laodecia.

You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
Revelation 3:17

This is a parable about death. Not trying to be dead but admitting that we already are dead. It’s about not lying to ourselves anymore thinking that we have it together, and that our good deeds somehow get us in the gate. This parable is about finally admitting that we aren’t good and we can’t do it and all our useless attempts are doing nothing but getting in the way of what should be happening. He wants us to admit we are dead, so he can finally do what he has been waiting to do.

“Let us make an end: As long as you are struggling like the Pharisee to b alive in your own eyes – and to precise degree that your struggles are for what is hold, just, and good – you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification. Only when you are finally able, with the publican, to admit that you are dead you will be able to stop balking at grace.

It is, admittedly, a terrifying step. You will cry and kick and scream before you take it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know. For your comfort though, I can tell you three things. First, it is only one step. Second, it is not a step out of reality into nothing, but a step from fiction into fact. And third, it will make you laugh out loud at how short the trip home was: it wasn’t a trip at all; you were already there.”
–Robert Capon

So let’s pray together shall we. Maybe a little bit different than the prayer at the beginning of the message?

‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Other Parables I’ve done so far.
Parable of the Mustard Seed (The One About the Yellow Condiment)
Intro to the Parables

3 Comments

  • Nathan, I am assuming this is a message you gave…..
    Thank you….. you’ve given me a new perspective on the Pharisee…
    Susan

  • yes, I guess we don’t really give thanks often enough for being redeemed, hmmm

  • You kinda sucker-punched them with that prayer. I hope it went over well.

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