NRSV Luke 18:9 He 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. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 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!’ 14 I 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.”
If you’ve heard many of the gospel stories, you start to notice a rather predictable pattern, that when we come across a set up of Pharisee vs. tax collector, the Pharisee goes down every time. Apparently Jesus had it bad for the Pharisees, and they rarely come out looking good in any encounter with him. Tax collectors, on the other hand, are constantly being lifted up as positive examples of what life is like in the Kingdom of God.
Toward the beginning of his ministry Jesus gets invited to a big party put on by a tax collector named Levi, who also invites a bunch of his tax collector friends. At some point some Pharisees show up and complain that Jesus, the great moral teacher, is hanging out, eating and drinking, with immoral people, tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responds by saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” There was, most likely, an awkward silence that followed.
Later Jesus is talking about John the Baptist. Jesus said, “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28) Luke notes that this delighted the tax collectors and sinners who had also been baptized by John, but that it upset the Pharisees who had chosen not to be baptized by him.
A little later, Luke notes, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Jesus then goes on to tell the parables of the shepherd and the lost sheep, the woman and the lost coin, and the father and the two lost sons (or, the parable of the prodigal son), all of which affirm God’s delight in loving, pursuing, that which is lost, celebrating extravagantly when it is found.
So far, by my count, it’s tax collectors 3, Pharisees 0. Add in this parable about praying at the temple and it’s starting to look like a blowout.
Because we’ve been trained to think of the Pharisee as the one who always misses the mark, this is not all that remarkable. Pharisee has become synonymous with a religious zealot or a hypocrite, so we don’t mind watching them get put in their place.
What is fairly remarkable is that studies of the first century world reveal that of all the main Jewish groups of the time, it was actually the Pharisees who had the most in common with Jesus’ followers. There was a group called the Essenes who formed their own separatist community and focused on ritual purity, essentially apart from civilization. The Zealots became a group that opposed itself to Rome through armed force, with all of them eventually being killed by the Romans on top of Masada in 73 AD. The Sadducees were from the elite families, controlling and benefiting from the temple system.
But the Pharisees were a movement respected by the common people, emphasizing study of Torah, heeding the words of the prophets and doing justice, valuing the decentralized synagogue over the Temple. Kind of a democratization movement of sorts within Judaism. The reality behind their mention in the New Testament is that the Pharisees are those who were generally accepted as righteous and just. Those who are “not far from the kingdom of God,” as Jesus says at one point (Mark 12:34). Kinship with Pharisees shows up in a few places in the gospels. When Jesus is heading to Jerusalem some Pharisees come to warn him that Herod is trying to kill him. The Pharisee Nicodemus, despite personal risk, helps bury Jesus’ body in a respectful manner after he is crucified.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, benefited from the military occupation of their own people. They worked for the Romans, collecting tolls and taxes from fellow Jews, often scraping some off the top for themselves. Whatever riches they had, people knew that it came right from the pockets of the common people. They were, we might say, war profiteers, or at least collaborators with the occupying nation. Their personal business model required the continued oppression of their brothers and sisters by the empire.
Now we start to wonder what in the world Jesus was thinking and why he chose to identify with these folks, as opposed to those Pharisees with whom he shared so much in common.
I wonder if that parable of the Pharisee and tax collector praying at the temple might sound something like this if it were to be spoken to us:
Two people went to church one Sunday, a pacifist and a Halliburton employee. The pacifist came with her husband and well behaved children to their usual seat, joined enthusiastically in the opening singing, passed the peace, and gave her monthly pledge during the offering time. During a dull point in the sermon, her mind began to drift. (Obviously, this could never happen in this church!) She considered all the many problems in her country and thought to herself: God, I thank you that I am not like other people: the uneducated, fundamentalists, rich bankers, people who watch Fox News, Republicans. I write my Senator twice a week to end funding for the war, and give a tenth of my income to progressive social causes. But the Halliburton employee, just coming back from an extended time in Iraq, came to the service late, with his children that he felt like he barely knew anymore, and took a seat in the back row. He sat there the whole time, unable to stand, or sing or read the liturgy, or even lift his head to make eye contact with the worship leader. Vivid images of bombed out houses and maimed soldiers and Iraqis flashed in his head. As he slumped in his seat, he managed to find space in his tormented mind to pray these words: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I tell you, this one went back to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves with be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m at least slightly offended. I’m not particularly fond of me and my people being used as a negative example in a parable. Part of me wants to defend myself, offer up some kind of ethical argument about the importance of living a life of peace, but I know that I’d be missing the point, be doing the very kind of thing that the parable warns against. Choosing to exalt, justify myself, rather than make the humbling move of trying to listen to what this has to teach.
Where the Pharisee, or this hypothetical pacifist, go wrong is not in their being a Pharisee or being a pacifist. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a virtue. Jesus, in his typical atypical style, selects a stable, righteous group of people only to destabilize them. The way you’re a living is good, Jesus might say. But there’s more. There’s always more. You must go further. You can fall more deeply in love with God. You can let go of more of the ego that insists on needing to have those “other people” to make you feel a little more righteous. In fact, it’s those “other people,” even this tax collector, who are the best teachers about life in the Kingdom of God.
There is something about our habit of forming our identity based on our belief in our own rightness that Jesus seems to be intent on challenging over and over again. It’s related to the persistent temptation to locate sin outside ourselves, and then define ourselves over and against it. If only they would be different, everything would be better. If only these people would wake up and get a clue, we would be able to get on the right track. This might sound familiar as this dynamic gets amplified to the nth degree in the public sphere during the election season.
Jesus intentionally throws everything off balance and asks his followers to ask these questions to ourselves. Where is there violence within me? Where is there hatred, unforgiveness, injustice? Where are those negative qualities that I see so easily in other people also present in me? What is it in me that is so easily triggered by them? These are not easy questions to ask oneself. They are humbling.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Humility is a strange sort of thing because there is no apparent, outward benefit in opening oneself toward humility. It’s kind of like the joke about the person who was awarded a button pin for being the most humble person in the congregation, but got it taken away because she actually wore it. I guess humility has to be its own reward.
It’s not coincidental that humility and humus, soil, come from the same root word. Humility is fertile ground for the flowering of the inner, and the outer life.
The Old Testament reading, from the prophet Joel, speaks of a day when God’s Spirit will be poured out on all flesh. It says, “your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” If this day is happening in the present moment, as the disciples at Pentecost believed, then every person, every situation, holds the possibility of being a channel through which the Spirit is speaking to us, a revelation of the Presence of God.
I’m not sure if we can receive that unless we have humility. Unless we allow the soil of our hearts to be a place where the unpredictable and unanticipated seeds of the Spirit arrive and take root. Unless we’ve done a little digging and breaking apart of that hard surface so that we can receive.
This parable that Jesus tells works not because the Pharisee, the pacifist, is a lost soul, purely self-absorbed and arrogant, but because they are righteous. They have sought to carry out in a meaningful way the moral teachings of their traditions. They have much in common with Jesus. They are “not far from the kingdom of God.” The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous but not enough to be humble. There is still that next step to be taken – that of falling entirely into the all encompassing love of God. Of recognizing the Spirit that has been poured out on all people – the democratization of the Spirit, we might say. The struggle to see the other, the tax collector, as a potential revelation of God’s transforming mercy. Being OK with humbling oneself. When the Pharisee can look internally and find the presence of sin and the presence of grace, he is on his way to being able to see that he is not so different from others. There can be a letting go of needing to define oneself over and against the other. Identity, personhood, is granted, given, through the Eternal One. It grows, miraculously, from within.
One could imagine two alternative endings to these parables. The first would be unfortunate for both Pharisee and tax collector, pacifist and Halliburton employee. Each would go their separate ways with very little transformation. The Pharisee would continue a similar kind of attitude and pattern, doing justice, but clinging to the need to have people who do injustice in order to better define himself. Still needing an enemy in order to make sense of the world. Still needing to be “not like other people.” The tax collector goes back to his livelihood, contributing to injustice, trapped in a system that degrades himself and others, calling out periodically for God’s mercy.
But say something else happens and those two people happen to meet after the service and get talking. They schedule a time to get their families together for dinner and they meet each other on a human level, listening to each other’s stories, each other’s concerns, each other’s desires. Something happens. Humility. Fertile soil for something….to grow. Something that looks like the Kingdom of God.