(sermon delivered 10/2/11; originally posted to Isa 61)
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust. “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up” (Luke 18:9-14, CEB).
We’ve all heard the parables before of tax collectors and Pharisees. Again and again, Jesus is saying things that the Pharisees don’t like. The Pharisees are enraged and storm off in their funny hats and long robes. We can close our eyes and see them, these stuffy old men with long white beards and beady eyes, frothing at the mouth. They argue and condemn. They bicker and judge. For those of us who saw Mel Gibson’s movie years ago about the gory last day of Jesus, the Pharisees don’t exactly warm your heart. They are portrayed as ruthless and evil. After all, they plot against the very Son of God.
Not very flattering, is it? Who in their right mind would want to be a Pharisee?
And then we got the tax collector. Oh, poor tax collector, shunned by society. Little Zaccheus up in a tree, called down by Jesus. Nobody likes the tax collectors. But Jesus does. Jesus eats with them and preaches to them and tells them that God has a place in the Kingdom for them too. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. And since we hear again and again how cruel society places the poor ole tax collector last, then we know that if we could only be like the tax collector, if only we could get rid of our shame and take the hand of Christ we could walk hand in hand in the lovely Kingdom of God, forever and ever.
I mean, you get the impression that the tax collector can’t be that bad. A rough character maybe, but after all, the disciple Matthew, was a tax collector, right? So it can’t be that bad.
I have a question: Who has ever seen a real live Pharisee or tax collector? I don’t mean someone who we call a Pharisee or a tax collector, I mean a real live one? I know I haven’t. The answer is no one, because they haven’t existed for hundreds of years. In fact, there hasn’t been a Pharisee for almost 2000 years.
You see, when Jesus was telling the parable in Luke 18, everyone in ancient Judea knew what he was talking about when he said “Pharisee” and “tax collector.” Today, nobody knows who he’s talking about, not really. We only have these stereotyped impressions of who these characters were. And what we take away is the bottom line, “okay, I get it, Pharisees are bad, they killed Jesus, tax collectors are misunderstood diamonds in the rough, who Jesus hangs around with. Got it. Tax collectors are not so bad, Pharisees are really bad.”
Let me tell you a little bit about the Pharisees. The Pharisees were very good people. They were very faithful people. The Pharisees kept the Law, which means they didn’t murder, or steal or defraud. They gave 10% of all their earnings to the Temple. They observed the Sabbath and helped people maintain order. They dedicated their entire lives to the worship of God. Who else has that kind of dedication? Now, none of them were perfect, of course, but for 1st Century Palestine, the Pharisees were the good guys. They may have understood the Law different than Jesus understands the Law, but to vilify them doesn’t score us any points. They were good, ethical, faithful, religious people. Society would have been far more peaceful if there were more people living like Pharisees than like tax collectors. I assure you that. I don’t care what Mel Gibson says.
And on the flip side, the tax collector was the worst of the worst. They were the most ruthless kind of cheat and criminal. In the ancient Roman Empire, each province and territory owed a certain debt of taxes to Rome. Now instead of Roman soldiers coming to collect the money from each house, they contracted out the work. So an individual from a town would agree to pay the amount that that town owed, and then it was up to him, the tax collector, to go get the money from the people. And the Roman Empire didn’t care what means he used to get the money, and the Roman Empire didn’t care how much the tax collector actually collected, so long as they got their due. Everything extra that he got, he kept for himself. So instead of growing food or raising livestock or producing a good that contributed to a community in order to make a living, the tax collector supported himself by taking, by extorting, from society. They took advantage of the weak, who could not defend themselves. It was literally like the mob. The tax collectors were the bad guys.
Are you all with me?
I tell you, I think we need to hear this parable fresh. We need new characters, so that we get a better idea of what the heck Jesus is talking about.
If we were to tell this same parable today, I think a better person suited for the role of the tax collector would maybe be the drug dealer. Not just any old drug dealer, but the arrogant, aggressive drug dealer that hangs outside our kids’ high school. The one who doesn’t just sell drugs to our children, but cuts it with poisons to increase it’s volume and make more money, all at the expense of someone else’s health or life. Not so glamorous.
And today’s Pharisee is the young woman who goes to youth group and church camp, stays abstinent until marriage, never uses drugs, takes a great job teaching our children inside the building that the drug dealer is standing outside of, a job that doesn’t pay her what she’s worth, but she does it anyway. She takes her family to church on the weekends, gives the first 10% of her earnings, not of what’s left over, but 10% right off the top to the church. She feeds the homeless at Christmas and forgoes extravagant vacations to Disney so she can pay for her kids’ education, instilling them with good, Christian values. If Jesus were telling us this parable today, he would be telling the story of a person that we would all call a saint.
Why? Why would he do that?
Well, it’s because Jesus preached the Kingdom of God. Jesus preached the boundless love of God and the extravagant grace that is available to those in the Kingdom.
And here’s the deal. The Kingdom flips everything upside down.
What Jesus is not saying is that it is better to be a tax collector than a Pharisee. It is not better to be a drug dealer than a schoolteacher and mother. If people walked away from Jesus thinking that they all needed to quit their jobs and become ruthless thugs who extort money from the weak, he would slap his forehead in frustration.
What Jesus is saying is that God’s grace and love is so incredible, that even a drug dealer who looks to God and says, “save me, God. Save me because I am broken and hopeless and I can’t take even another step on my own. Save me,” even that broken, sinful person will be justified. And at the same time, the power of narcissistic pride is so great –so be warned– that it can keep even a saintly schoolteacher from recognizing and accepting that grace. The Pharisee is not a bad guy. But it is so tempting and so easy to look in the mirror and see how great our deeds are and say to God, “you have to save me. Anything less is unfair. You can’t bless this scoundrel who abuses your people and not bless me with all that I have done. God, you owe me.” You see, those are the competitive, survival-of-the-fittest rules of the empire, the salvation to the pious rules of the Temple. Those are not the values of the Kingdom. The only way that grace works is to accept it completely as grace. It appears before us like the invisible Kingdom of God already all around us. Anything less, and it vanishes.
I wonder what this Kingdom message of Jesus tells us today about who our neighbor is?
Let’s think about that.
Suppose we have the story of a man like our tax collector. Say we have a drug dealer who comes to the altar and falls to his knees and says, “save me, God. I am unworthy and hopeless and broken. I have done many rotten things that I can never take back and I can’t walk another step on my own. Save me.” What will happen to this man? Well, I think he will be transformed. I think that by looking past the mirror, by looking past the distorted reflection of himself, towards the great holiness of God, he will for once see how great and merciful God really is and in so doing, he will see who he really is. I mean who he really is. Not that made up character of thoughts, feelings and deeds, good or bad. You see, we are not the things we’ve thought, felt, believed or done. Who we are -in our essence- are the very children of God, created good in none other than God’s likeness. We must look past the distorted reflection of ourselves to see the image of God within us.
And this man, our old tax collector, will clean up his act and straighten out his life and make amends for the wrongs that he’s done and start to contribute. He’ll start to help people and become a role model and mentor for other misguided folks. He may do a lot of good. One day, he may look in the mirror and see no resemblance whatsoever of the old scoundrel he used to be.
And… And one day, after some time, he may look in the mirror, and like what he sees. He might think to himself, “not bad.” And he might even start taking credit for that good life that God has given to him. He will slowly stop seeing what God has transformed him from, and only see what God has transformed him to. You all know what I’m getting at? And not realizing it, he starts taking credit for that too. And without even knowing it, he’ll start ending his prayers with “…because you owe me.” And so long as he keeps looking in the mirror at himself, he’ll be blind to see that he has become like the Pharisee. Some of us are like that. We recognized that we were tax collectors and cleaned up our act and we hear parables like this and we say, “not me. Doesn’t apply to me. Thank God I’m not like these other people.”
The problem of thinking of the Pharisee as a villain is that we are never going to think that we could be like the Pharisee, and we’re not going to see it when it actually happens.
You see, none of us can see ourselves or each other, unless we look to God. Our mirrors are broken. God is the lens through which we look to see things as they are.
So again, what does this parable tell us about who our neighbors are?
Well, I think it tells you that we’ll never know, so long as we stare into the broken mirror. We must allow God to open our eyes when we give ourselves to God in Christ. And when we see the world through God’s eyes, we will see the image of God in everyone else.
It’s easy for us to draw lines around ourselves and say who’s in and who’s out. I can easily draw lines in a congregation with one question about politics. I can do it with college basketball, I could just say red or blue? (No one outside of Louisville, Kentucky knows what I’m talking about.) And immediately, we draw a line around those who follow the right team and those fools who follow the other. It’s easy for us to do. We look at ourselves and draw the lines around that and anyone who looks like me, believes what I believe, and does what I do is in and everyone else is out.
But that’s not where Jesus draws the lines. His lines are so encompassing that it includes the tax collectors and the Pharisees. He’s including the drug dealer and the schoolteacher. That’s nuts! But if we could just see the Kingdom like Jesus describes, we’d see that’s it’s not nuts, it’s called Amazing Grace. And we can only see this Kingdom of God when we stop looking in our distorted, funhouse mirrors, where’s it me against you and us against them, and start looking to God in Heaven. God will open our eyes. And when that happens, we’ll look into the eyes of the lost and broken, we’ll look into the eyes of thieves and thugs and we’ll say, “that’s me! That’s not just a person like me, or a person like what I used to be like, that’s me, today, now! Me looking back at me!” And we see that we are all the children of God. We’ll have a chance to draw new lines, lines that include our lost brothers and sisters.
So instead of me telling you who your neighbor is, let me invite you to look past the mirror towards God, to see who you really are. Because when your eyes are opened to that, when you catch a glimpse of the goodness and love that God put into you, I assure you, you’ll see it everywhere you look.