The parable that Jesus tells in our gospel text for this morning almost sounds like the setup to a joke: a tax collector and a Pharisee walk into a
bar temple. But the punchline to Jesus’ parable is one that his listeners probably did not see coming. Two men go up to the temple to pray, but only one of them comes away justified – and it’s not the one you’d expect! It’s the tax collector, not the Pharisee. Scandalous!
Of course, this story hits a bit differently for us now, reading this in the 21st century. We’ve gotten all of our ideas about what a Pharisee is from these texts written centuries ago by early Christians trying to distinguish themselves from Jewish religious leadership. So when we hear this Pharisee’s prayer, in which he actually thanks God that he is not like this scummy, tax collector guy, we are already primed to hear what a hypocrite he is and to have a poor opinion of him. And I mean, honestly, who prays like that?? It’s true we may not always be the most saintly of saints here – but at least we can be thankful that we’re not like that guy, right?
Ha! And there’s the punchline of the joke. Even for us, it’s almost impossible to hear this story and not go away thinking some version of, “God, I thank you that I am not like that pharisee!” It turns out, being judgmental and hypocritical is something that just seems to run deep in our human DNA.
It’s a disturbingly easy trap to fall into with our thinking, and Jesus knows it. In our personal lives, in our public lives, and especially in our religious and political lives, we have this tendency to categorize people into groups of “us” and “them.” We might not mean to, or even realize that we’re doing it – but we often subtly build ourselves up by focusing on someone else’s flaws. We justify our own actions, because, “at least it’s better than what that guy is doing!” Political parties, workplaces, rival denominations, even within the same congregation or the same family, it seems humans are constantly jockeying to prove that we’re the ones who’ve got it figured out; that we’re the ones who’ve got it right.
But if we come away from this story thinking that the plot of it is about pitting this Pharisee against this tax collector – about judging which of them is better than the other one – then we have missed the point of this story completely. The punchline of Jesus’ parable has sailed right over our heads.
This gospel reading follows right on the heels of our gospel reading from last week. Last Sunday, you might remember, we heard Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge and we talked about the importance of persistence in prayer. Now, this week, we have this story about these two men praying in the temple. Jesus connects these two stories with a question that points toward their actual meaning. He asks those listening to him: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” The point of these stories isn’t about judgment or about deciding who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about faith.
So how do we see faith come into play in this story? You could easily argue that both the tax collector and the Pharisee show some kind of faith simply by their act of going to the temple to pray. At the temple, the tax collector beats his breast and cries out to God. He throws himself on God’s mercy as a sinner, begging for forgiveness, in faith that God is the one who can justify him and make him right again.
The Pharisee professes a similar faith in God. He is a righteous, generous, and educated person who has dedicated himself to trying to live by God’s commands. However, his prayer and his actions reveal that his faith isn’t truly so much in God as it is in himself. In his prayer, he congratulates himself for essentially earning his justification through his own righteous actions. He pats himself on the back instead of crying out to God for mercy like the tax collector does.
But even if he were right – and pretty much any Lutheran could tell you that he’s not – even if this Pharisee really has pulled himself up to where he is by his own sandal-straps, that’s really not good news for him. Even if he were actually earning his own justification, the life he lives – of constant sacrificial tithing and feats of fasting – sounds difficult and stressful and exhausting. And it means that his justification depends entirely on his ability to keep going and keep doing all of these things in perpetuity. But it’s just not sustainable. What if he gets sick and can’t fast anymore or go to the temple? What if his house burns down or something happens to a family member and suddenly he can’t tithe because he needs that money for something else? No matter how well he’s doing toward justifying himself at any given moment, his human effort will always be limited, and sooner or later, he will fail.
This Pharisee has lost sight of his need for God’s mercy. And, even more tragically, it seems he’s forgotten that God’s mercy comes to us freely and abundantly, as a gift. God has taken away from us the burden of trying to prove ourselves worthy and righteous, and in its place, God has given us the free gift of grace. All of us, whether we are tax collector or Pharisee or anything else under the sun, we are all equally in need of grace. Jesus invites us to set down the heavy yoke of putting our faith in ourselves and in our own efforts alone – and instead to take up the gentler yoke of putting all our faith in God.
It’s a timely reminder for this season of the church that we’re living in. These are strange and uncertain times. Even before the pandemic, we knew that the church was changing in major ways. We already saw worship attendance declining, younger generations moving away from religion, the same handful of tired people showing up for everything, and the church’s place in the broader culture getting smaller and smaller. And the pandemic has only accelerated these trends.
We as a congregation are still worn out, still working to recover from the toll the pandemic has taken on our finances, on our level of energy, and on our community. Things are getting better, undoubtedly. But we’re still left facing the same challenges we had before: offerings that struggle to keep up with our budget and expenses, too much being asked of the same people over and over, uncertainty about how to build deeper relationships with a community that looks very different from the make up of our congregation, and so on.
To our credit, we do have this excellent ongoing focus on prayer. But we – and I do mean we– still give into this temptation to buckle down and focus on our own efforts to make church happen. We try to come up with new ways to increase giving to match expenses. We try to convince more people to take on different roles at church. We rack our brains trying to figure out what avenues we should try to reach out to our community. We try to think of clever things to do at our events or in our worship life to keep people engaged or to get more people to come.
But we, we, we can’t carry on doing everything forever. Sooner or later, our time and treasure and talent will be tapped out. For some of us, that may already feel true. Some of us are probably already feeling a lot of anxiety about what the future holds for us as a congregation and for the church at large.
But the invitation I hear in this parable that Jesus tells is to let go of that anxiety and, instead, to follow the tax collector and the Pharisee up to the temple – to stand before God and beat our breasts, to vent all this worry that weighs on our souls – to cry out like the tax collector, “God, be merciful to us, sinners!” It’s an invitation to recognize that we can’t do it all on our own – and that we don’t *have* to – an invitation to remember that this church and our lives are in God’s hands, not ours.
We have every reason for hope when it comes to the future of the church. After all, we are the body of Christ for the sake of the world, and God has already raised that body from the dead once. God’s history with the church is full of mystery and miracle, and that gives us every reason to hope that the future will be just as wondrous and unexpected. It also frees us to let go of our fear and worry and instead to look forward toward the future with creativity and imagination. It frees us to relate to one another and to our world more fully, without the pressure to prove anything to ourselves or to anyone else.
So today, let our prayer be, “God, we give you thanks because we are like other people, like pharisees and tax collectors” – because just like them, we are daily justified and redeemed by God’s mercy, God’s grace, and God’s love. Praise be to God!