The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is probably the wrong one to preach about on the Sunday when we ask people to return their pledge cards for the coming year, seeing as Jesus insists in this tale that reminding God that you are a tither is not necessarily going to put you on his good side.
I do want to be fair to the Pharisee, however, who comes out looking pretty bad in this story. There really is a lot to admire him for. He was not a thief or a rogue. He was honest. He didn’t cheat on his wife. He was faithful in his religious observances and, yes, he did give a tenth of his income as an offering. Those are all good things. The two problems that he had were that he patted himself on the back too much and that he looked down on other people who didn’t match up to him in these areas.
In some ways, what he was dealing with was a problem of success. Chances are, Jesus implies, if you have to tell God what a good person you are and all the good you do, you’re wasting your breath. If that’s really the case, he already knows it. If it’s not the case, he knows that, too. As for other people, they really don’t want to hear it. For some people that’s a hard lesson to learn.
I did pretty well through most of my years of school. I worked hard. I did my homework. I got my assignments done on time and had my footnotes in the proper format. Not everything was straight A’s, and I spent a lot of extra time on math when I was a senior in high school that I would rather have spent doing other things, but all-in-all the grades I got were pretty good.
Then, my junior year of college, I took organic chemistry. I never worked so hard on any subject as that, and for such pathetic results. I memorized formulas on Monday and they were out of my head on Tuesday. I followed directions in the lab step-by-step and it made no difference: things that were supposed to be liquids turned solid right there in the test tube and things that were supposed to be red turned green and every compound that I was supposed to break down into its components always turned out to be, by my estimate, a mixture of charcoal and rubbing alcohol. When I went home for the summer, an envelope came with my grades and there it was: all that work for a low C. I knew I took it to heart, but didn’t realize that I was making people around me miserable about it, too, until after a few days my mother said, “Stop this moping. C is average. That means it’s normal. Get over it.”
It’s good to have high standards. It’s good to hold yourself to them. We probably don’t hold one another accountable enough. The early Methodists organized themselves as accountability groups. (They used the term “classes” instead of “accountability groups”, but that was partly what they were.) They would meet weekly and ask how things were going. “Brother Smith, have you been more diligent in prayer? Brother Jones, how is your struggle with your anger? Sister Carter, have you visited your neighbor in prison? Sister Harper, how has your trust of God’s grace grown since we last met?” In some cases they were like our modern AA or NA meetings, where people speak about their struggles with others who faced the same trials. High standards are good.
What is not good is to apply those standards in an unforgiving way, whether you’re judging yourself or others. In Jesus’ parable, the tax collector doesn’t get off the hook with a shrug. Tax collectors in that time and place made their money by deliberately overcharging or by seizing people’s property for non-payment, often by sheer force. The Pharisee was not wrong to guess that a tax collector would have a lot to answer for. What he didn’t realize is that the tax collector was grappling with that at that very moment.
“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!’” [Luke 18:13]
He didn’t need one more person beating him down about it. He needed to change his life, and that would only start with the mercy of God, a mercy that the Pharisee could also have shown if only he had gotten over himself.
Humility is an absolute necessity for holiness. The word comes from humus, dirt. In English we speak about being down-to-earth. It means recognizing that we all come from the same place and all are made of the same stuff. None of us are perfect, and I don’t mean it in that Mickey Mouse, aw-shucks, kind of way. We are all profoundly flawed, even to the point where we cannot always see those flaws. There is that about us which we have to rely on God to forgive, no matter who we are. All of us need God’s mercy. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s not, but it’s always true. We often learn that by getting knocked to the ground, but we all have to learn that.
In the Wednesday night Bible study a couple of weeks ago we watched an interview with Nadia Boltz-Weber, who is a Lutheran pastor and the founder of a church in Denver called “House for All Sinners and Saints”. She has quite a story about how she came to faith, and she has been instrumental in outreach to people who live sort of on the boundaries and edges of society. She tells the story this way:
“So um, when my church was mostly young adults, and it was sort of , you know, hip, urban young adults. And then I preached at Red Rocks Easter Sunrise services – 10,000 people. And The Denver Post ran a front-page, full-page picture and story …about my church and whatnot. And we only had about 40, 45 people every week at this point. And the next week, we doubled in size, like overnight.
And we were excited because we were really struggling to grow, but what happened was it was like the wrong kind of people. I mean, it was the wrong kind of different for us, right? Like some churches might freak out if the drag queens show up, but these were like bankers wearing Dockers, right?
…I freaked out. And I kind of went on this little rampage about, like wait a minute. …And like, why are they coming – it was almost like, oh, well, this is just so neat! Oh, this church is neat! They’re so creative! You know, and I just thought you’re ruining our thing, man; you are like messing it up.
…and I would call my friends and I’d rant about it and what am I going to do, and I called one of my friends who has a similar type of church in St. Paul, Minnesota, called House of Mercy. And I called up Russell, and I was like, ‘Dude, have you ever had normal people take over your church?’
And so I go on this – I tell him the whole story expecting him to be like, man …, and instead he goes, because our community holds this value of welcoming the stranger, and he goes, ‘Yeah, you guys are really good at welcoming the stranger when it’s a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad.’ I was like, you’re supposed to be my friend! Click!”
“Thank you that I am not like other people,” [Luke 18:11] can take a lot of forms. In the end, though, we are like other people. Other people are sinners, and so are we. Other people need God’s mercy, and so do we. Other people need our understanding, and we need theirs. You may not be tempted in the same way as somebody else, but you are tempted. You may not fail the same way they do, but you do fail. And when that happens, it is the same God who loves you and your neighbor the same way, and shows mercy to all.