I’m Glad I’m Not A Pharisee. Or Am I? Pentecost 20

I’m Glad I’m Not A Pharisee. Or Am I? Pentecost 20

Year C, Proper 25, The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
October 23, 2022

Year C:  Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 63; 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Luke 18:9-14

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Jesus is well known in the Gospels for two things: miracles and parables. The genius of Jesus’ parables is how they shock and surprise his audiences by subverting conventional wisdom and expectations.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses “those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”[1] He then tells a familiar story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. As Luke tells it, it is clear that the Pharisee is the “fall guy” in the story – that is, among those who trust in themselves and regard others with contempt.”

We have a few problems right off the bat. First, there is nothing further from Judeo-Christian values than to regard others with contempt. Any time we baptize new Christians, we promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

Second, it is also unfortunate that the term Pharisee has taken on such negative baggage over the years. It is a regrettable truth that the Gospel sometimes uses designations and labels that have contributed to stereotyping, bigotry, and even antisemitism. The Pharisees are not understood as legalistic, rigid, and elitist within the broader Jewish tradition. Indeed, “…they are seen to have played an essential role in ensuring the theological and spiritual continuity of Judaism, and rabbinical Judaism, in particular, to this day.”[2]

So, while it is tempting to think, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not a Pharisee,” I suggest that we be careful about the trap into which stereotyping can lead us.

Our Gospel, however, does capture a natural human tendency. The love of God can so quickly turn into idolatrous self-love. Prayer can be transformed into boasting.[3]

Today’s Gospel reading underscores this. This story comes on the heel of the Parable of the Unjust Judge, which was the Gospel reading for last Sunday.[4] Both stories are unique to Luke’s Gospel.

The parable of the unjust judge and the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector underscores the unexpected and unconventional ways Jesus taught. The judge, clearly not always just and hardly genial, granted the unrelenting widow’s request, not because of the merit of her case, not because he aspires to be impartial, but simply to be rid of her.

And Jesus shocks his listeners by saying that between the Pharisee and the tax collector, the latter was made right with God.

To appreciate the shock of this story, perhaps a contemporary retelling might be helpful to understand the way people would have heard it in Jesus’ time. A model Christian and a criminal went to church to pray. Without hesitation, the Christian entered the church, dipped her fingers in the holy water, made the sign of the cross, genuflected, and headed straight to her favorite pew in the front rows. Looking up, she raised her hands and prayed, “Thank you, God, for blessing me and making me, unlike those corrupt and miserable sinners who cannot tell good from evil, who live their lives separate from you, who do not come to church, like that criminal over there. I pray for the less fortunate, advocate for justice and human rights, support Episcopal Relief and Development and other organizations helping the poor, and pledge.”[5]

On the other hand, the criminal was unsure how to pray and had not been to church in a long time. His only claim to fame was his notoriety as a thief who stole to support his drug addiction. Full of shame, he whispered: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

According to Jesus, the tax collector – in this case, the criminal –was put right with God.

The message seems pretty straightforward.

As I said, we must be careful not to pat ourselves on the back too much. As we listen to this parable, there is often a strong temptation to align ourselves with the tax collector who humbled himself to God. We like to think of ourselves as humble people.

Are we genuinely humble? I wonder?

We live in an area where we get hit with political advertising for candidates in Virginia, Maryland, and DC. I’m honestly tired of it. I remember the days when ads started in the six to eight weeks before the election. Instead, we’ve been inundated with hate ads since June.

When I listen to these ads, which is not often because I usually put my headphones on to block them out, I typically hear people accusing others. They’re certainly not humble. Instead, they’re angry, full of recrimination, and full of people essentially saying, ‘I thank God that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even the tax collector.’[6] It is tempting to regard others with contempt, particularly in the current political climate in our country.

 To be sure, I can become as angry as the next person, and sometimes in that anger, I have characterized others as the unrighteous and myself and those I agree with as righteous. I’m not always so humble.

But who does this Gospel call us to be?

Jesus challenges us to avoid trusting in our own efforts and instead humble ourselves before a loving and merciful God. Jesus calls us to trust in God’s mercy.

Admittedly, I’m not much of a Rite I person in my prayers, but the Prayer of Humble Access is something I have always loved. It gives us insight into how the tax collector and the criminal can be seen as righteous in God’s eyes.

“We do not presume to come to this Thy Table, O Merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”[7]

We can’t trust in our own righteousness but in God’s mercy and grace. For by grace, we have been saved, and this is not our own doing.

It’s all about God. All about God and God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We are what God has made us.

We need to hear this parable for the good news that is it. It is an invitation to come clean, be honest, tell the truth, be humble, surrender to God, acknowledge our sins, and repent.

The tax collector was well aware of how things were in his life. It wasn’t just that others despised tax collectors because they were associated with Roman rule and got substantial income and privilege from their work. Getting along in that job often meant that a tax collector went along with and practiced things beyond ethical boundaries.

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other….” [8]There’s no easy answer in this story. But the tax collector could receive God’s mercy because he was trying to live into his truth.

How common is it in our lives that we are tempted to avoid acknowledging the truth? How common that we tell small white lies to make ourselves look better. And how common is it for people to pretend they don’t need God’s mercy and don’t have to ask for forgiveness because they can’t remember any wrong they have done?

When have we not respected someone else? Whose dignity have we not respected?

Here, in this place of God’s mercy and love, it is safe to acknowledge how we have failed. When we do so, we are healed.

Consider all that God has done for you and in this, give thanks. Let God judge your heart.

[1] Luke 18:9, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[2] Francisco Gracia, “Commentary on Luke 18:9-14” – Working Preacher website for October 23, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/

[3] Fred B. Craddock, “Interpretation – A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 274

[4] Cf. Luke 18:1-8

[5] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/sermon/sinners-pentecost-20-c-october-23-2022/

[6] Cf. Luke 18:11, NRSV

[7] Episcopal Church. (1979). The Book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the church : together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of the Episcopal Church. New York :Seabury Press, p. 337

[8] Luke 8:14, NRSV