Next week’s Gospel lesson from Luke about the prayer habits of a Pharisee and a tax collector seems pretty straightforward. We start with characters out of biblical central casting and a surprising judgment from Jesus that may not be quite what we think it is.
“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, … said, ‘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.”
What could clearer – a good guy who is a bad guy and a bad guy who is a good guy, and we are supposed to be like … the good guy? Maybe, but which one? The good bad or the bad good? As usual Jesus’ parables are often confusing.
In Sunday school we learned that tax collectors were nasty fellows who collected way more than required because that is how they got paid. They collaborated with the Romans, squeezing the people out of their hard-earned cash. Tax collectors were universally hated.
But Pharisees, according to our Sunday school teachers, were even worse. Pompous, pious, walking around waiting to catch Jesus and the disciples “working” on the Sabbath. This is a story about two bad guys, one of whom is pronounced “righteous” by Jesus.
Pharisees get a bad rap. We need to think of them as faithful, committed, learned, charitable and widely respected. The apostle Paul referred to himself as a Pharisee.
Historically Pharisees were the remnant who preserved the traditions after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. The Mishnah and Talmud are their heritage. We should beware of Gospel language denouncing Pharisees to avoid antiSemitism.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were truly bad guys. Our Sunday school teachers got that right.
Jesus’ story is about a widely admired religious leader and a despised representative of the Romans occupying their country. In fact, the prayer offered by the Pharisee was not the boastful arrogant thing it seems, but a version of a standard prayer of the faithful. As odd as it sounds to us, it is a prayer of thanksgiving for not being a long list of things.
So when Jesus says the tax collector is the one justified before God, the jaws must have dropped.
The Pharisee did not ask for anything and the tax collector asked for mercy. Both men got what they sought. The Pharisee did not seek and did not receive. The tax collector was made right with God (justified). It is that simple.
If we say, “I am like the Pharisee,” it means we stand fully sufficient before the Lord and need nothing. If we say, “I’m like the tax collector,” we mean “I’m a no-good greedy SOB” but the one who goes home justified before the Lord.
Just like Jesus to give us a story that calls into question even our answers.
The Rev. Dr. Mike Fay is rector of Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Salida.