A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. So begins the little parable that we hear today in the gospel reading. The temple was the center of Palestinian Jewish life in the first century. It was where necessary sacrifices were made; it was where pilgrims came from all over the Roman Empire to celebrate the great festivals of the Jewish year. It was also the nexus between Roman imperial power and the institutions of Judaism, especially the priestly caste.
It was not just a place. It was the center of Jewish religious imagination. As the psalm we just chanted reminds us, it was the locus of God’s presence on earth: a haven for both humans and animals. We might imagine the Pharisee and the tax collector both reciting the psalm as they walked up the temple mount:
Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.
A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. Were they pilgrims who had travelled a long distance, and whose visit to the Temple was a once in a lifetime event? Or were they residents of Jerusalem who came to the temple regularly?
Some parables are so familiar to us that their meaning seems fixed for all time and they become like movies or tv shows we’ve watched many times. We read them because of their familiarity and think there’s nothing new we can learn from them. Some parables seem simple, obvious in their meaning and we’re like the guy who says to interested passers-by at an accident, “Move along, there’s nothing to see here.” Some parables are strange and elude interpretation—we’ve seen some of those as we’ve read Luke: the parable of the Wicked Steward, for example.
On the surface, today’s parable seems to be one of the easy ones. A Pharisee and a tax collector go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee gives thanks to God that he isn’t a tax collector, and praises himself for his righteousness, he tithes on all of his possessions and fasts twice weekly. In both of those, he is going beyond the literal commandments of Torah, overdoing it as it were. On the other hand, the tax collector prays simply, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus finishes the story with the judgment that we all would come to: “the tax collector went home, justified rather than the other.”
It’s easy and tempting for us to read this parable in light of the way Christians have tended to understand Pharisees over the centuries, as legalistic hypocrites and implacable opponents of Jesus. But as I’ve reminded you many times, the reality was much more complex than that. Especially today, on this first anniversary of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, we need to acknowledge and confess all the ways Christianity has vilified Jews over the century, the anti-semitism that is rooted in our scriptures, and in many ways is at the very heart of our tradition.
The Pharisees, like Jesus, wanted to take Jewish law seriously; they sought to interpret it in such a way that it would have relevance to the daily lives of ordinary Jews, and their focus on holiness and ritual purity was intended to create a sense among Jews that they were a people set apart.
On the other hand, tax collectors were unpopular; perceived as complicit with the Roman occupation and greedy to boot. But we might take the Pharisee at his word when he prayed, “Thank God, that I am not like this tax collector.” He could have been, of course. He could have made the choice in life to become a tax collector. We’re reminded repeatedly of the decisions we make that take us down roads we could never have imagined and make us people we might not recognize or want to be. So the Pharisee has good reason to give thanks.
Still, it’s hard to overcome 2000 years of Christian usage and anti-Semitism. Pharisees are the bad guys: hypocrites who focus on minor issues while criticizing others—to use Jesus’ words from Matthew: they strain gnats and swallow camels.
Before we go to far down this line of reasoning however, it’s helpful to look back at the context of the parable. Luke introduces it with a verse that may shift the parable’s meaning away from a Pharisee and tax-collector and toward our own tendency to judge others: “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
How do we listen to this parable? Do we criticize the Pharisee, do we perhaps even say “Thank God that we are not like others, like that Pharisee over there?” As with so many parables, suddenly the ground shifts under our feet and we’re not quite sure where we stand. Are we listening to it as Jesus tells it, to some who consider themselves righteous and treat others with contempt? If so, who is it that we treat with contempt? Christians who believe or practice differently than we do? Political opponents? Suddenly what seemed a rather straightforward, even comfortable parable has us on edge and uneasy.
We might even begin to see our shifting perspective as a playing out in our own lives of Jesus’ final words in the gospel, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
There’s one more complication in the story, however. Jesus says of the tax collector, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” In fact the precise meaning of the Greek is ambiguous. What is translated as “rather than” could also mean “alongside” or “because of.” So what reads as contrast between the tax collector being justified and the Pharisee not, could also be interpreted to mean that they were both justified—made righteous, or that the tax collector was made righteous because of the Pharisee’s prayer.
That puts a rather different spin on things, doesn’t it?
I wonder whether the point of the parable is not the comparison between the Pharisee and the tax collector, but rather that we are to learn something about God’s nature from it. Remember, Jesus told the parable to those who considered themselves righteous and looked on others with contempt, in other words, to people, very much like ourselves, who are in the habit of judging ourselves and others. When we do so, we often think we are judging by God’s standards, not our own.
Here we see something quite different. A Pharisee who does all the right things, prays in thanksgiving to God for who he is and what he does. On the other hand, a tax collector, a sinner, who prays only, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus’ listeners, readers of the parable in the 21st century, often have a very clear conception of how God operates, how God judges. Sometimes, God acts very much like we would, judging based on our own values and assumptions, condemning our enemies and saving us. Sometimes, the implacable judgment of God is focused on our own shortcomings, real or imagined. We may fear the wrath of God.
The God revealed by Jesus, the God who is at work in this parable, is neither of those. The tax-collector prays from his heart, “God, have mercy on my, a sinner.” And with those words, God’s mercy envelops him. His contrition opens him up to the experience of God’s wide mercy.
We don’t need to worry that we get things right. We should also remember that the judgment we make on others, our contempt for their actions, their beliefs, their values, may not be the last word. Our word of judgment, on ourselves or on others, is not the last word.
The last word, the final judgment, is not ours but God’s. When we cry out to God, “have mercy on me, a sinner” we can be certain that we will be embraced by God’s undeserved, miraculous, eternal mercy.