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Isn't it nice when a Gospel lesson is so very easy to hear? Finally, Jesus affirms the right person, the one with whom we most closely associate, and he condemns those other people who think they are so great in the eyes of God. Finally, God is on our side. It feels so nice, doesn't it? Maybe we should give God thanks for this great Gospel story. “Lord God Almighty, we thank you that we are not like other people; those hypocritical Roman Catholics, overly righteous baptists, and pesky Mormon's. We thank you especially that we are not like that ridiculous Pharisee with his long robes, flashy tassels, and huge phylacteries singing his own praises to you, as if you didn't know. We, on the other hand attend church regularly, we listen attentively to the lessons as they are read and the sermon as it is preached, we give a portion, maybe not a full 10%, but a good portion of our income to your Church, and we have learned that we should always we humble, and thank you God that we are so very good at it. Amen.”
Ahh, that feels good. Bask in it for just a moment. God is on our side. Except. Except, well, I can't help but feel like I've fallen into a trap. That thank you sounded a lot like the Pharisee's prayer that I found so icky. This is precisely why I hate the parables so much. As soon as I think I've got them figured out, I'm sitting in the bottom of a hole wondering how I got there. Maybe we need to take another look at this parable, read the map a little better, and find our way around this insidious trap.
Two guys went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. This story takes place at the Temple for a reason. Jewish society was pretty stratified. If the story of the rich man and Lazarus tells us anything, it is that the rich and the powerful lived at arms length from the poor, outcast, unclean, and needy. But there was no place where the lines between those who were “in” and those who were “out” were more visible than at the Temple. The walls, porticoes, entrances, and curtains were meant to show who was allowed where. The holy of holies, where the presence of God resided, was only to be entered into by the High Priest once a year, on Yom Kippur. Outside of the curtain that veiled the holy of holies was the Court of the Priests, a location set apart for the work and sacrifices of the Priests and Levites. Outside of that walled area was the Court of Israel where the men could stand and see the Priests as they offered the sacrifice. Then came the Court of Women where all Israelites would be allowed to enter. In this area there was even an area set aside for Lepers. Outside of that was the Court of the Gentiles, where outsiders would be allowed and where merchants usually set up shop to sell the animals needed to make various atonements. Everybody has a place and everyone knew where they were allowed. You were no where more aware of your place in Jewish society then standing in your permitted location within the Temple Courts.
So the Pharisee took his normal place at the Chair of Moses, the seat of the Teacher, and began his usual prayers. In the same way that many of you enter the Nave on Sunday morning and kneel to say your prayers, the Pharisee stood, looked up to heaven, and quietly prayed to himself a prayer that was as standard in his day as “Now I lay me down to sleep” is to you and me, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers” and seeing the Tax Collector off in the distance, he added, “or like that Tax Collector over there. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Truth be told, this prayer is probably more palatable than the typical morning prayer of any Jewish man, “God, I thank you that I was not born a Gentile or a woman.” There is no dishonestly in the prayer of this Pharisee. He is a righteous man, one who strives to live up to the letter of the law. He fasted regularly as a sign of his penitence. He gave generously so that those who were in need in Israel could have food and shelter. He did all the right things. As he came to the Temple he was righteous. As he prayed this prayer, he was righteous. As he went home at the end of the day, he was righteous. And to the hearers of Jesus' parable, the Pharisee has done everything right. He gave thanks for the things he should be thankful for; he is a righteous man and that is worth thanking God for.
The Tax Collector, on the other hand, took his usual place “far off.” Tax Collectors were some of the lowest life forms in Israel. They earned the name, publicans, because they were considered totally secular, existing outside the life of the faith entirely. Ethnically Jewish, they shook down their own people for the pagan-worshipping Romans and always managed to take enough to keep their families fashionably clothed and well fed. He stood outside not only the Temple, but publicans were outsiders religiously, politically, and economically. Though a leper could take his rightful place in the Court of Women, the Tax Collector was considered so unclean that he would have to stand outside with the Gentiles. His posture matches that of his stature, he is the lowest of the low. Without even lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his chest repeatedly and says, presumably out loud, maybe even with a shout, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” To the hearers of Jesus' parable a Tax Collector has never spoken truer words. If he was anything, he was a sinner. He was a sinner when he arrived at the Temple. He was a sinner as he prayed this prayer. And he'd go home a sinner; a dirty publican (spit) who deserved every bad thing that ever happened to him.
The way this story is supposed to end is the Pharisee goes home righteous and the Tax Collector goes home unrighteous. Of course, it wouldn't be much of a parable if it ended that way; so Jesus once again pulls the rug out from under his audience and says, “I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other.” There is no way for me to give this story the shock-value it deserves. There is no way you can hear this the way Jesus' audience would have, but suffice it to say this is probably another one of those “let's throw him off the cliff” moment's in Jesus' ministry. He had a lot of those. Here he tells the crowd that while the Pharisee went home righteous, the Tax Collector went home justified. He was accounted as righteous by God. He was restored to right relationship with God. Basically, Jesus says to the crowd, if it weren't for all the rules, the Tax Collector could have safely walked straight into the holy of holies because God had washed him clean.
Its just not right. Its unfair. How can this hated Tax Collector (spit) go home justified? He hasn't done anything. He didn't offer a sacrifice. He didn't pay his atonement. He just stated the truth, he is nothing but a low down, dirty sinner and that's all he'll ever be. Except, of course, by the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord.
And that's where this story spins on its ear. That's how the parable trap is avoided. If this were just a story about the need for humility it would be impossible to live up to because humility is impossible to hold on to. As soon as you have it, and realize you have it, its gone. Hey, I'm being so much more humble than that guy. Oh wait, no I'm not. If humility is just another virtue, another law, God is calling us to live up to, it too will lead only to death.
But this is a story about grace. The Tax Collector wasn't being humble, he was being real. He, like you and like me, was nothing more than a sinner in need of God's great mercy. And so, he asked for it. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, mercy became freely available to everyone. He died for the sins of us all, so that we might no longer live for ourselves; for our own piety and good works, but for him who died for us. He died that we might all have life. He offers the gift of mercy and all we have to do is recognize that we need it.
The Pharisee didn't think he needed any mercy, he was doing just fine on his own. The Tax Collector knew he needed the grace that only God could give and so he received it. He went home justified, redeemed, restored. And he woke up the next day and went back to the despicable work of collecting taxes from his own people and collecting his own salary from their threadbare pockets, and would return to the temple again and again saying “God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
This morning we gather in one of God's many Temples. We sing praises, we offer prayers, and we confess our sins. At the table, we remember the sacrifice Jesus made so that his mercy might be freely offered to all. If you know you need God's mercy, take it, for it is given to each who has need. If you don't think you need it, you best take it anyway. There is a lot of grace required in finding the humility necessary to turn your eyes to the floor, beat on your chest, and ask of God only six words, “have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen.