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I Thank You, God, That I’m Not Like Him!

October 23, 2016

A Sermon prepared for the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost, October 23, 2016, though I was unable to deliver it because I had to attend to a medical emergency at the hospital on Sunday morning. The exegetical portion only is offered here for reflection. It was to have continued with a stewardship appeal, which I save for another occasion.

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus also 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.”

jesus_mafa_pharisee_publicaJesus MAFA

There are several things to note about this short parable. The first is that two men went up to the temple to pray. When we think of someone praying, we tend to think of something quite personal, or even private. Something one does alone, quietly, interior – not aloud, an intimacy with God. However the prayer in this parable is something more akin to worship. “And two men went up to the temple to worship”: to participate in the liturgy, a formal service where people join together in the public worship of God. We must picture here a whole congregation if we are to understand the story.

Let me further add that the two men went up to the Temple at dawn to worship.” There are several clues in the story, including the mention of atonement in verse 12 (in the Greek), that suggest that the service these men were attending was one of two daily services of atonement, the first of which took place at dawn and the second near 3:00 in the afternoon. The priest would sacrifice a lamb as an atonement of the sins of the people, and while the meat was the slowly roasting, filling the room with a pleasant aroma, and smoke from the burning fat ascended heavenward, personal petitions, “prayers,” would be offered. Their sin being covered by the sacrifice, the people could offer personal petitions, not unlike the pink prayer request slips we use, except that each person spoke aloud for themselves. After the morning service, petitions could continue throughout the day and cease with the afternoon sacrifice. That both men pray aloud suggests that when he telling the story, Jesus was imagining the sunrise service. You can imagine it, can’t you? The people pressed together, the pungent smell of roasting lamb, the liturgy spoken by the priest, the petitions being spoken by the congregation, from their mouths to God’s ears on the smoke rising from the burning sacrifice.

So “two men went up to the Temple at dawn to pray during the morning atonement service, one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, and as the smoke from the morning sacrifice filled the room, the Pharisee, standing alone, began to pray thus…”

Now here I must say, particularly in light of all of the potential anti-Jewish readings, the long legacy of anti-Jewish readings, the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, that we, today, must assume the greatest respect for the Pharisee. I would assume that for those to whom Jesus first told this story, the Pharisee was a figure of great honor, some scholars think Jesus was a Pharisee. Jesus doesn’t tell this story because people expected the Pharisee to be a hypocrite, but because they would be shocked by his hypocrisy. So it is all the more surprising when this guy begins “to pray.” His piety is off the charts, even for a Pharisee. He fasts twice each week, even though fasting was only required once a week. He tithes everything he owns. Now the Bible required a tithe, sacrifice of 10%, only all basic grains, olives, wine, and oil. But it specifically exempts other agricultural products from the full tithe, and nowhere invites a tithe on non-agricultural products. But this guy tithes everything. We’re supposed to admire him.

Which is what makes his so-called prayer all the more surprising. What he says can hardly be called a prayer. Public prayer would consist of giving thanks to God for life, for one’s life, and for God’s many blessings. It could then include petitions for one’s needs. “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Give us this day our daily bread. And lead us not into temptation.” But this guy doesn’t give thanks for life, only that his life is not the life of another who he disparages. There’s no thanksgiving for God’s blessings, only an inventory of his own accomplishments. And there’s no petition of need, because he apparently doesn’t have any. He stands alone, apart from the congregation, finding fault in others, apparently unaware that “the search for faults and failures in others does the greatest harm of all to the critic himself.”[1] “I mean, who does that?”[2]

And then comes the prayer of the tax collector. Tax collection brings up images of the IRS, income statements and individual tax returns. But Roman Law simply apportioned obligations to each region based on population, and then hired a third party to collect the revenue in any way they could. The tax collector would’ve been a Jewish collaborator, a local, someone who knew the people and where to find them, but worked for the occupation. So long as the tax-collector met his obligation to Rome, in any way he could, then he could keep everything else. He was a figure of hatred, rather than pity, which meant he had to work hard to meet his obligations, and often failed. Rome was a tough master. Nevertheless, it was his job to find everyone, and make them pay for the occupation they hated.

This man, beats his chest in lamentation, and standing far off, prays. Our translation says, “have mercy on me, a sinner,” but the Greek is much clearer – “O God, make atonement for me, even me, a sinner.”

In the end, both men who had gone up to pray in the Temple during the atonement service, go back down, but this time the tax collector is in the lead. And it is he who has been justified, made right, at-one with God, atoned.

God, we think, I thank you that I’m not like the Pharisee!  

Ah, and there is the rub, the way the parable works, it sucks us right in to making that judgment, ensuring that as we try to distance ourselves from becoming the Pharisee, we do exactly the thing we condemn him for.

And before we think, oh I guess I’m the tax collector in the parable or I should want to be him, remember the tax collector collaborated with Rome; siphoning off a little extra often for himself. He may have felt he had no choice and was compelled to perform this service to his nation’s military and political masters. But one always has a choice.

The trap here in the parable is that while in everyday life the Pharisee is the one to emulate, in worship life he is not. And while in worship life the one to emulate is the tax collector, in everyday life he is not. In other words, neither of these guys are the role model. Both of the characters, however, invite hearers and readers to think about our faithfulness to God and whether we have what St. Augustine called “the right measure of ourselves.” The trick of the parable is we are to emulate neither – rather both characters invite us to ask, what does faithfulness require – in life as part of a worshiping community and in life as part of the wider world.


[1] Ibn al-Salibi, cited in Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet and Peasant & Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke. Combined Edition. (Eerdmanns, 1983). P. 150. A good bit of my exegesis is drawn from Bailey, as well as Luise Schottroff, The Parables of Jesus. (Fortress Press, 2006).

[2] I couldn’t help myself:

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