Notes for a sermon on Luke 18:9-14 at Holy Trinity, Strathcona, Oct. 23, 2022
Many interpretations of today’s Gospel reading end up saying, “Thank God we’re (I’m) not like that Pharisee,” portraying the Pharisee as the “bad guy.”
Don’t be like that Pharisee? I would suggest that there is much about him for us to emulate. He is almost a paragon of faithfulness. The things he points to go far beyond what the Torah (the written Law) requires.
We tend to see the Pharisees in the negative because of the bad press about them in the Gospels, but they were held in high esteem by many of their contemporaries. They appeared as a movement around the time of the Roman occupation of Judea, almost a century before Jesus. They were a religious resistance movement, dedicated to keeping themselves separate from the Romans by keeping the Law in its fullness, keeping covenant with God to remain in God’s favor, observing both the written Law (the Torah), and what is often called the oral law (Halakah). One of its principles was “building a fence around Torah,” which means doing things to ensure you will never violate the written Law. For instance, the third commandment forbids taking the name of God in vain. How do you know if you have used God’s name in vain? The easiest way to avoid doing that is never to utter the name of God, the norm among Jews to this day.
The Torah has laws about fasting and tithing, the two practices the Pharisee in our lesson points to in his prayer. Fasting and tithing more than the letter of the Law requires ensures that you don’t miss your legal obligations. He is striving actively for the purity to which all faithful Jews were to aspire. He appears to be an admirable and pious person, worthy of emulation.
I have no hesitation in saying, “Be like that Pharisee.”
Then there’s the tax collector. While most citizens of Judea detested the Romans, and the Pharisees and most other Jewish sub-groups had their own ideas about how to shed the invader’s yoke, some actively collaborated, including tax collectors. Operating under contract, they collected the taxes levied by the Romans, allowed to add something for themselves. Laborers do deserve their wages, but it seems that many used their position to line their pockets. Out of greed, they were both actively working for the oppressor and oppressing the people in their own way. Their practices may not be expressly banned in the Torah, but they were certainly regarded in the same light as sinners. They weren’t necessarily ritually impure, but they lived on the edge of the community, unwelcome in most places.
I have no hesitation in saying, “Don’t be like that tax-collector.”
If Jesus had told the story up to the content of the two men’s prayers, and then asked which of them went home justified, most of his hearers would have replied “The Pharisee,” the seemingly obvious answer.
However, Jesus did not ask a question, instead making a pronouncement which stood the standard view right on its head. Which of these two went home justified? Not the well-intentioned and pious Pharisee, but the sinful tax collector. The likely response from the listeners was likely “What?!” The response from many of us today would likely be the same.
Why does Jesus upend his audience’s perception of the story? The second half of the pronouncement is “…all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted”, reflecting one of the major themes of Luke’s Gospel, reversal of fortunes, seen very clearly in Mary’s song in 1:52-53:
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Reversal of fortune challenges our comfort with the way things are and contrasts it with God’s desire for the world. If we are seeking like the Pharisees to fulfill God’s desire for the world, we need look no farther than Micah 6:8:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
The Pharisee’s prayer is all about himself and his acts. Do we hear justice in his word? Kindness? Hard to find. And humility? I think not. The prayer is more a pride-filled boast about the pious life he has achieved, mostly without ascribing it to God. He sets himself above others, using the tax-collector as a handy target.
The other man is “standing far off,” perhaps meaning just inside the door to the Court of the Israelites, where Jewish men went to pray. (Not women, who had their own court, separate from the men.) He is on the edge of the inside. Where he gets it right is in acknowledging his sin and casting himself totally on God’s mercy. His prayer is about what God can do, and which the supplicant hopes will happen. Will he leave his work and make restitution in the community? We aren’t told. What we can see is that he has placed himself in God’s hands in a way that the other has not.
If we hold up his prayer against Micah’s words, I believe we can see self-understanding of his lack of justice and kindness, and true humility before God. Humility does not mean to count ourselves as worthless. It means being honest about ourselves—our gifts, achievements, and failures—before others and before God, without exalting ourselves in any way.
There’s no sin in being pious like the Pharisee. But let us seek to understand that our piety is not of our own doing, but rather a Spirit-led response to the God who is already at work in our lives.
Friends, let us seek to be like the Pharisee, living faithful and pious lives, striving to do what God needs done in this world. But let us do so as we seek to be like the tax-collector, presenting ourselves humbly before God and others, seeking to be as God has called us to be.
May we know who we are before God, giving humble thanks for what God has already done in us, seeking to amend our ways where needed, and praying for the grace to put God’s gifts to work for all of God’s people.