October 23rd, 2022

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Reverand Ann Conti

Sometimes, at meetings, I’m asked to describe our congregation. And when that happens, I say something like this:

The people of Holy Trinity really love each other and they truly understand the biblical mandate to always offer hospitality. And then I give examples. I tell them about the couple who attend each summer when they are passing through on vacation and even renewed their wedding vows with us. Or Marcy and Danny who became part of our family this summer and plan to return, or the compliments we get from guests. And it’s all true. And wonderful. To have the insight and empathy and strength to welcome whoever walks through our doors, to continue this hospitality through our outreach activity, helps to bring God’s kingdom to here and now. Believe it. Be joyful doing this work.

But let’s not let it blind us to other needs. We should walk the middle path: too mature in our faith for false modesty and too humble to be tricked into the sin of pride. We don’t want to be like the person who won’t give their award-winning recipe to anyone because they want that claim to fame, their 15 minutes to last forever. We want to use the same energy and thoughtfulness, and hard work that made hospitality part of our church family DNA to do more and more and more.

So this is a wonderful lesson Jesus is teaching. There’s no bad guy here. Only imperfect, broken, misguided humans, just like us. It tells us to look at ourselves with honesty and appreciate our gifts but also acknowledge our shortcomings. Both the Pharisee and the tax collector had trouble with this.

The Pharisees were a Jewish sect who believed in following the purity laws of the Torah. They held themselves apart because they didn’t think “others” were doing it right. And doing it right was what it was all about.

So, when this particular Pharisee comes to pray, he stood by himself and prayed a prayer that was more like self-congratulations. Listing all the things he does right. All the things he felt he accomplished on his own due to his righteousness. He thanks God for nothing. He trusts in only himself, not understanding all he has is a gift from God.

The pharisee in this story is not a bad man. He’s what any society needs to thrive. He’s law abiding, gives money to the temple, he’s employed and successful and has a sense of civic duty. He’s a pillar of society. But his piety stopped with his sense of personal goodness. He can’t appreciate the interconnectedness of life. He is a metaphor for the foolish prison of the self-made man. Because the self-made man really isn’t. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and our successes are due to the efforts of others as well as ourselves. Sometimes we can’t reach our bootstraps and we need help pulling them up. This fabrication of the self-made man is a prison because it sets up a barrier between him and other people and him and God. And the righteousness the Pharisee is so proud of is laced with judgment for others, like the tax collector in the next pew.

Tax collectors in Jesu’s time were hated. They were seen, and often were, corrupt agents of the oppressor. Remember, Israel at that time was an occupied land. The Romans were the conquerors. The tax collectors did the Romans’ bidding by collecting harsh taxes made harsher by the cut the tax man took for himself. The tax collector at prayer knows he does bad things, knows he’s an outcast, and he prays for mercy. He knows he’s so far from perfect. But he has a better understanding of prayer that the Pharisee. Because it’s not about worthiness. Compared to God, none of us are worthy. But God loves us and freely surrounds us with grace each and every second of our lives if only we can see it. The tax collector was on the brink of transformation. He had the trust in God that the Pharisee lacked.

The Pharisee’s mistake was his failure to confess his common humanity. We’re all in this together. The tax collector realized his sin and asked for forgiveness. For all his truly bad behavior, the tax collector could be transformed. The Pharisee whose lifestyle wasn’t bad had an attitude full of the sin of pride and, because of this, was farther from God than the tax collector. In Paradise Lost, Lucifer says, “better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” That’s the sin of pride on steroids. The tax collector could accept healing and transformation, the Pharisee wouldn’t recognize healing if it hit him over the head.

The tax collector knew he was unworthy but also had a sense of all of us being interrelated and trusted that God would listen to him, as sinful as he was, so he could ask for God’s grace to change. The Pharisee thought his life was worthy – and it was – but he trusted only in himself; he couldn’t give thanks to God for his life or aspire to be better because it wasn’t part of his theology.

So we need to look inside ourselves and decide how we can trust God more. Do we appreciate that everything we have comes from God as a gift lovingly given? Good. But if you have a sense of unworthiness that has you frozen on your faith journey, uncertain about asking for God’s grace, not believing that God loves you as you are, you need to let that go. Whatever holds you back from widening and deepening your expressions of faith needs to be explored. God is patiently waiting for us to seek a relationship with him. We all need to move out of our piety safety zone.

Part of my ministry is to show people those at the margins. To see that God is there with the disenfranchised, the feared, the hated, the mocked. Those who are different. That they are beloved children of God, just like you and me. It’s my hope for us and all the world that we can continue to do all sorts of good to all sorts of people for as long as we can so that someday, there are no margins, that our comfort zone is every person’s comfort zone and we all are safe and filled with joy in the circle of God’s love.