Pharisee and the Tax Collector

By Bill Lang

Today, the lectionary gives us three diverse readings to contemplate. Imagine the three readings as books on a bookshelf. Three books each with one name on the spine of the book. Joel, Luke and Timothy. Old Testament, Gospel and Epistle. Each book contains important words for us to hear today. Joel and Timothy are more like bookends holding up the one in the centre, the Gospel according to Luke. Joel holds a message about our birth as a Christian, Timothy words about our death, and Luke has some important words about our life as a Christian.

The important words from Joel are those we hear each Day of Pentecost – the day which we understand as the birth of the church. Peter used Joel’s words in his sermon to emphasise that this great gift of the Spirit was for everyone. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your 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.”

What an amazing promise to Israel. The countryside had been ruined by swarm after swarm of locusts which stripped the land of every growing thing – wheat, barley, grapevines, fig trees, pomegranates, date palms and apricot trees. The people were starving and even the temple had closed as some rituals that depended upon olive oil, grains and wine.

In Australia, we are quite used to natural disaster – drought, floods and fire. A plague of locusts is not uncommon here and would be seen as a natural disaster, no doubt calling for the appointment of a Locust Envoy. But in those days, this was seen as a judgment by God for the people’s apparently faith-less behaviour. Joel enforced this message laying the blame squarely on the people’s indifference towards God.

But, amazingly, Joel brings them a message of hope – the promise that God had not deserted them but was in their midst and would indeed save them even in the worst of times. And so, Joel brought them the message that the land would be restored, and God’s Spirit would be poured out on all people. This is a great message of hope that has become reality for people throughout the centuries.

Is this promise – this message of hope a reality for us as well?
The other bookend’s story– from Timothy – contains words which we often hear as words of hope at funerals of faithful church members. These words were attributed to Paul as he neared the end of his life. “the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

I guess it is not uncommon that there are times when folk have a sharpened perspective on the significance of their life. Perhaps when they – we – are in the so-called third age, or when they face grim medical diagnoses. This text from Second Timothy gives us such a valuable perspective from one who has faithfully completed his God-given calling.

It highlights how at the end of a Christian life, what matters is not material wealth or what we have accumulated, or social status, but rather being able to share Paul’s confidence that one has lived a Christ-like life through whatever calling God has given them.

So there we have the bookends each containing words which relate to faith – about beginnings and endings. So – what important words concerning faith does the Gospel of Luke hold for us today?

Luke gives us a familiar parable – one told by Jesus to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
The parable describes the condemnation of the self-righteous and the appreciation of the self-humbling.

In the temple, there were two groups – the religious ‘in-group’ and the religious ‘out-group’.

This Pharisee is definitely in, and in his prayer, he seems to be grateful to God for the benefits he has and how he uses them. He seems a model of true piety.

On the other hand, the tax collector is definitely ‘out’. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were viewed with as much affection as are politicians today.
The tax collectors exploited people by claiming more taxes than the Romans demanded and then keeping the extra for themselves. Jesus’ listeners were probably appalled by the fact that the tax collector – a member of a group of accepted sinners – had the gall to pray for God to show him mercy. Especially since the tax collectors were most unlikely to have shown much mercy to the his neighbours.

And this is our take-out from the parable – that God’s mercy constantly overrules our religious definitions of who receives mercy and who doesn’t.
The problem with the Pharisee was his belief that by doing the right thing, being honest, sincere, by fasting, tithing even more than was required, he had run up a credit balance with God. Therefore he had God in his debt.
And his attitude to his neighbours was wrong. He felt that his good and upright life put him above others. It was therefore quite natural for him to look down on them – especially people like tax collectors.

What then, does the parable say to us? One writer says that the Pharisee and Tax Collector in Jesus’ story are timeless characters. Every age produces their like, and we might even catch an occasional glimpse of them in the mirror.

Jesus indicates that what was missing was humility.

Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and author, has this to say about humility.

Humility is the foundation of our relationship with God, our connectedness to others, our acceptance of ourselves, our way of using the goods of the earth and even of walking through the world, without arrogance, without domination, without scorn, without put-downs, without disdain, without self-centredness. The more we know ourselves, the gentler we will be with others.

Maybe the challenge for us is to notice that there are times we rather like being exalted. We might think of it as the satisfaction of a job well done or a duty fulfilled. And we might begin to believe that things we do – giving money to the church, doing religious or charitable activities, being upstanding members of society… or things we don’t do such as being thieves, rogues, or adulterers – really might justify us, at least a little, that it might make us just a bit better than those who fail where we have succeeded.

But the parable suggests that until we let go of that notion, we will not go home, like the tax collector, justified. We will be captured by our own self-righteousness. And as a church we will not present a face to the world that is welcoming and inviting.

The good news of the parable is that the role of the tax collector is available to all of us. We, and everyone around us, are all sinners and all beloved children of a gracious Father.

The parable is presented to us in a context where we are inviting people to join our church council, to put their shoulder to the wheel, to take on jobs and responsibilities and roles and to get busy with the task of nurturing and growing our church community.

So instead of offering us strength and fortitude and resilience – and all the things we think we need for success – the parable invites us to experience the freedom that comes with simply letting go knowing we don’t have it all, and throwing ourselves into the arms of God, who is already there, who has already found us, and who wants more than anything, to lift us up and embrace us.


Photo of Bill Lang

Written by Bill Lang

Bill Lang is the convenor of the communications group and also Secretary of Church Council. He has been a regular preacher at TUC since he and Jenny joined the congregation in 1975. He is a presbytery representative, and a member of the Karralika outreach team and the Child Care Advisory Group.

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