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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Pentecost 22     Luke 18:9-14

Most good stories have a plot with a conflict. In most good stories, there is the protagonist and the antagonist. A hero and a villain. A good guy and a bad guy. A white hat and a black hat. Almost all good stories in life have this simple yet complex interplay between the protagonist and the antagonist, the hero and the villain. 

There are numerous examples. In STARWARS, the protagonist/good guy is Luke Skywalker and the antagonist/bad guy is Darth Vadar. What would the story be without the dark masked figure of Darth Vadar? In CINDERELLA, we have Cinderella herself and the old wicked stepmother. In SUPERMAN we have Superman himself and all the bad guys who are stealing purses of old grandmothers. In all the old cowboy movies from the last generation, there was the good cowboy and the mean villain. In story after story after story, part of the tension of the plot of that story is the developing conflict between the hero and the villain. We are interested in these stories because of the developing conflict.

So it is with the story of Jesus. We love the story of Jesus primarily because Jesus was/is the perfect personification of love and grace to us. We learn about God’s grace and love by simply looking at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

But also, we also love the story of Jesus simply because it is a gripping story, a good story of this unfolding conflict between the hero and the villain, the good guy and the bad guys, the protagonist and the antagonist. Between Jesus and the Pharisees.

In today’s gospel, we hear a parable that Jesus fired at the Pharisees. Jesus told an “in your face” parable directly to the Pharisees. Talk about a direct encounter. Not behind their backs. Not privately whispering innuendoes about them to his disciples.  Not privately and surreptitiously spreading rumors to the crowds. No, Jesus told his anti-Pharisees’ stories directly to the Pharisees and got right into their faces. No wonder the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus. Jesus repeatedly told the truth about the Pharisees and their phoniness, their hypocrisy and puffed up pretenses as he looked them in their eyeballs. Jesus didn’t beat around the bush with the Pharisees but called a “spade a spade.” 

That is what happened in the gospel story for today. Jesus told this parable to those who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt. He then told this confrontational and insulting parable about two men, the Pharisee and the tax collector. The two men are not actual men with names and families and jobs. Rather, the Pharisee and the tax collectors had become symbols. The word, “Pharisee,” symbolizes a set of unattractive attitudes and behaviors. The word, “tax collector,” symbolizes another set of positive attitudes and behaviors.

In Jesus’ parable for today, this Pharisee has become a symbol of a person who thinks to himself, “I am better than those other people, those other people who are riff-raff and detestable and contemptible. I am better than those prostitutes who cruise Highway 99 on Saturday nights, those bums sleeping on benches in downtown Seattle, those poor souls who sleep in our church for the homeless ministry, those addicts who are strung out on booze and drugs, those welfare folks who use their coupons to buy cigarettes in the grocery store in line in front of me, those people who never darken the doors of the church, those bar hoppers who spend their life with their friends at the bar, those Muslims, those Jews, those gays, lesbians, and transvestites, those marriage losers who have lost many a marriage, those prisoners who spent months, years or decades in jail. You know, those detestable people whom I can’t call detestable in public. It “ain’t politically correct to do so.”

In Jesus’ parable, the Pharisee said, “I thank God that I am not like those thieves, rogues, adulterers and even that tax collector here. Let’s face it. I am good.  I am a lot better than these other riff raff. I go to church every week. I give ten percent of my income. I say my prayers daily. I am not like that riff raff of society. I am much better than that.”

But on the other hand, there was this tax collector, standing far off in the distance. There was this prostitute from Highway 99, this bum on a bench in downtown Seattle, this homeless derelict who stays overnight at our church in the homeless shelter, this addict, this gay, this lesbian, this marriage loser, this criminal who has a jail record, those bar hoppers, those people who never darken the doors of the church. Such people said to themselves, “God, please, be merciful to me. I am such a lousy human being. I am such a sinner. God, please, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The puffed up pompous prig of a Pharisee went home after his prayers, feeling justified and good in his own eyes. The other poor soul was still down on his knees, still begging, still pleading with God for mercy towards his sinful life. 

Jesus said, “The person who exalts himself will be humbled. The person who humbles himself will be will be exalted.”

Talk about “in your face.” Jesus was “in the face” of the Pharisees. Jesus was calling them a bunch of two bit hypocrites. To their faces. Eyeball to eyeball. Nose to nose. No wonder they wanted to kill him.

As human beings, we all like a good story. And a good story often involves simmering and deep seated conflict. Jesus had a simmering and deep seated conflict with the Pharisees. And the Pharisees had a simmering and deep seated conflict with Jesus. It seems the feelings and assessments were mutual.

We need to go back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This conflict begins at the beginning. That is the way it is with all good stories. 

At the beginning of his ministry, after his baptism and temptation, Jesus called his first disciples. As Jesus called his first disciples, we hear the story of the call of Matthew, the tax collector. Now, Jesus knew that tax collectors had the worst possible reputation of all people in Jewish society. The tax collectors were scum if anyone was scum. The tax collectors were the dregs of society. Why? For three reasons. First, they collected taxes. Second, they collected taxes for the Roman government. Third, they made big money off of collecting taxes. Common folks often resent people with big bucks and those tax collectors made big money.  If anyone was considered a thief and a betrayer in Jewish society, it was the tax collectors. The tax collectors were the richest people in town. They had the finest donkeys, the finest houses, the finest clothes. And they worked for the hated Roman government.

Jesus invited one of these shysters, a tax collector, of all people, to be his disciple. This was not politically correct.

Let me tell you the story about Matthew, the tax collector.

One day, Jesus was invited to the home of Matthew, the tax collector, his new disciple. All the other people whom society regarded as “big sinners” were there at the home of Matthew. Who was there for dinner that day at Matthew’s home? People whom the Pharisees would consider “big sinners.” The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. The lepers. The riff raff. The scum of Jewish society. Jesus was eating with these people, having a meal with them, chatting, laughing, drinking wine, telling stories. The Pharisees were watching the action around the table. The Pharisees didn’t approach Jesus directly. Instead, the Pharisees approached Jesus’ disciples and asked them, “Why does Jesus eat a meal with such contemptible folks as these?” Overhearing the Pharisees, Jesus replied, “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."

Oh, oh, Here’s trouble. From the “get go,” from the very beginning of his ministry, from the very first chapter in Galilee, Jesus said that his disciples would be sinners and not self-righteous folk like the Pharisees. Yes, his closest disciples would be sinners and not self-righteous folk. This was Jesus’ first run in with the Pharisees. And it was only the beginning.

In the very next story, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The text continues, “Then Jesus said to the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But Pharisees were silent.  He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. … They (the Pharisees) were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.” (Mark 3)

Jesus was angry with the Pharisees and the Pharisees were angry with him. The text says, “He looked around at the Pharisees with anger. … He grieved at their hardness of their hearts.” There was only one set of people in the gospels who had hard hearts and it was the Pharisees. And what was the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus’ blunt assessment of them? The text says, “The Pharisees were filled with fury and plotted how to kill him.” The dye was set.  The mold was cast. The plot was beginning and would end only when the Pharisees plotted, planted and killed him on the cross. They wanted him dead…for saying and believing and teaching such things.

Yes, we human beings like a good story. Often within a good story, there is a plot that gradually unfolds about the good buy and the bad guys, the hero and the villains, about Jesus and the Pharisees. 

In his teachings throughout his life and in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was clear about the Pharisees: The Pharisees were hypocrites, phonies, pretending to be religious but they were not. The Pharisees felt superior to others around them who did not attend synagogue, felt superior to those who did not tithe and felt superior to those who did not pray in public. The Pharisees wanted praise and attention more than any thing else. They would pray in the synagogues so people could see them praying. They would give money to the beggars so other people could see them giving. They covered their clothing with ashes so people could see them being pious. It was all for show. They wanted praise, respect, honor. They wanted to be treated as “top dog.”

You then get to the end of the Jesus story. You get to Matthew 23 where Jesus was in Jerusalem for his last chapter of life here on earth. You listen to Jesus’ sharpest, most cutting, most lethal teachings about anyone in the New Testament. Listen to Jesus’ seven woes against the Pharisees. Talk about “in your face.” Talk about “eyeball to eyeball.” Talk about nose to nose.

"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in. Mt 23:13

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Mt 23:15

"Woe to you, you blind guides, who say, 'If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' Mt 23:16

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Mt 23:23

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity.

Mt 23:25

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Mt 23:27

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and you say, "If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Mt 23:29

Wow. Talk about strong medicine. Talk about strong language. Talk about laying down the gauntlet. Talking about calling a spade a spade. Nose to nose. Face to face. Eyeball to eyeball.

And what was the reaction of the Pharisees. The same reaction they had at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees plotted and planned to kill him. And they did.

So, what does all of this mean for our lives today as Christians? What is Jesus trying to teach us today?

We go back to the parable that Jesus told in today’s lesson when Jesus told the following parable.  “He/Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'  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!'  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."

What does this parable of Jesus mean for me and my life today? That is the big question. What does this parable mean for you and me?

Jesus does not want us to be like the Pharisees, to have hearts that are hard towards God, to have hearts that are hard towards other people whom the world considers “obvious sinners,” “outsiders,” “back sliders.” Jesus was angry at the Pharisees because their hearts were hard. Their hearts were not soft. Their hearts were not full of the compassion of God. Jesus’ heart was full of compassion for the lepers, the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame and other despicable people in Jesus’ society. The hearts of the Pharisees were not. This was the problem. This is the problem if our hearts are hard and not compassionate to the “so-called” sinners of society.

And the Pharisees thought that they were better than the other more obviously sinful folk like the lepers, the poor, maimed, blind and lame. The Pharisees were proud of their uprightness and moral rectitude and did not perceive that they were lost. The Pharisees were like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son who stayed home with the father and did not realize that he was lost.

None of us are attracted to people who are conceited and full of themselves like the Pharisees were.  In your imagination, would you think of a person or persons who are conceited, who puff themselves up and think they are better than other human beings? When we think of a person who is conceited and puffed up and putting themselves above others, do you like such people? Are you attracted to them personally? I think not.  Usually, they are not likeable people. I doubt that any of us are attracted to spiritually conceited people.

None of us are attacked to people who are essentially selfish, who think about putting on a good religious front, who do things religiously to gain the positive appreciation of their church friends, who are pure hypocrites but do not realize it. I am suggesting to you that self righteous people are not attractive to us. 

On the other hand, a Mother Teresa and her life and legend is recognized the world over because of her selflessness and humility. Mother Teresa’s name is exalted above all other names on earth because she embodies the opposite of selfishness, self glorification and hypocrisy.  She was totally selfless in her giving to others, and in some measure, we want to be like her. Mother Teresa embodied the attitude of the tax collector: She was humble, contrite, knew that she was a sinner who needed forgiveness and grace. She did not look down on the lepers of the world but reached out with them in love. The lepers of the world were her fellow brothers and sisters. Jesus wants us to be like her. Jesus wants us to have the heart of Mother Teresa with deep penitence for our own sins and compassion for other people in their tragedies.

Jesus wants us to have the heart and attitudes of the tax collector. Jesus wants us to be humble, to be honest in our self assessment of our sinfulness. Jesus wants us to come to him on a daily basis and ask for the forgiveness for the multitude of our sins that we never escape. Jesus does not want us feeling inside our secret hearts that our sinfulness is not as bad as someone else’s sinfulness. At the heart of the parable today is the tax collector and his deep seated awareness that he was a flawed sinner in need of the mercy of God. We never outgrow that. Throughout our whole lives, we have this deep seated awareness that we are sinful and imperfect people who need God’s grace and mercy as a gift.

And because of we this deep seated awareness that we are deeply flawed human beings, we do not look down our spiritual noses at other people and secretly confess, “I thank God that I am not like….”

Jesus taught at the beginning of his ministry: “Those who are well have no need of a physician. Those who know they are sick know that they need a doctor.” We Christians never outgrow our need for a physician to heal our sinful and imperfect hearts and actions.

A question is always asked of us after we have heard one of Jesus’ parables: “Who are you in the parable?” Are you like the self righteous Pharisee who thinks that he/she is better than the other poor sinners and slobs whose life are not as good as yours? Or are you like the tax collector who never gets off his knees as he/she begs for mercy? Who are you in this story? What is your answer? Who are you?  Amen.

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