He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “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, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘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.”
A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into the temple. One praises God for making them so good. The other cries out to God, “Have mercy.” One is justified, the other is not. Humility separates one from the other, but what sort of humility are we talking about? How do we keep ourselves honest about our standing before God without resorting either to self-exaltation or self-deprecation? The task begins in identifying what kind of people Jesus is using for this example. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
For most modern readers, we immediately associate the term, “Pharisee” as something bad, but this was not the case. Jesus had several Pharisees among his followers – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea among them. They were people who had a certain way of following God, one defined by asceticism that was not in itself wrong, but when taken to extremes produced a great deal of trouble. They taught that whatever the law was, it was better to go above and beyond it, that way you never even approached violating it and you always treated those around you better than was prescribed even by the strictest interpreters.
The Pharisees were a neutral party in the Jewish context. There were some that were only Pharisees in appearance – they kept their strict code in public but not in private, or else only to look good. Others did not keep the Pharisetical codes but used the association the title gave them to amass power or a strong reputation. Still, others were genuine, keeping their strict rule of life out of devotion to God and service to their neighbors. They were a diverse group of people, some among them good, others bad, but never so cut and dry as we like to read them as today.
The Tax collectors were universally hated though. They were either Roman dignitaries or Jewish locals, but in either case, they had the unsavory job of collecting Roman taxes to fund the empire. This would be enough reason for people to have a cut reaction of dislike – very few people are excited to get a call from the IRS after all, but not enough reason to hate them.
The hatred came from how they made the bulk of their money. The ancient tax collectors would receive the taxes they were to collect – let us say 3 denarii a month, one-tenth of a working person’s salary. The tax collector would then go to each house and ask for the money, telling the people within that the tax was 4 or 5 denarii for the month. And that extra bit of money was enough to let tax collectors amass a decent amount of money off the top of the imperial amounts. There is a reason that Jesus was so scandalous when he called Matthew and welcomed Zacchaeus.
These were the two actors in the parable. The upright Jewish citizen that, although there were some bad apples among them, were largely considered to be good and the no-good lousy thief who sold out their own people to Rome. The parable is positioned, just like so many of Jesus’ stories to have the listener look at two examples from their life that they already had a view of. The Pharisees as mostly good, the Tax Collectors as completely evil. Both approach God in the temple, and the listener has a preconceived ending to this story.
The proud Pharisee is given all honor and glory for having practiced a good life. The Tax Collector for having stolen from those around him is reviled and cast out. The ending was written on our hearts. Before the story ended, we know it. As soon as the charges were laid against the Tax Collector, we can think of everyone we know who fits the description. Pathetic sinners – greedy, unrighteous, lustful, and fundamentally ungodly. Our eyes dart across the room because we can pick them out even as we hear their sins read to us.
Jesus was not content to give us the ending we wanted though. The tax collector, of all people, is lifted up as a paradigm to be followed. The Pharisee is the deluded party, not because they have done anything wrong, but because of why they did it. Their hearts condemned them, even with such radically different actions being played out by either party.
The two model for us how we can approach God. There are times when we question God, and so we lament. There are times where we oppose God, and so we fight. What about in the day to day though? When life is not tumultuous and we are at peace. When we are not knocked to the ground or locked in battle with God what is our attitude toward God? Or perhaps asked better toward ourselves?
We are not called to self-hatred by the Gospel, but into a radical self-love that sees ourselves improve over time. We chase off what is sinful and embrace all that is good and lovely. We push away selfishness and self-interest, all desire for notoriety and power. We embrace a self-emptying that allows us to be filled with Godliness. We embrace a future which is better than our present, one in which we own all our actions as good because they really are.
However, we can only make this sort of movement toward good when we first face up to what we have done wrong in the past and what we are doing wrong now. The Pharisee in this story is not wrong for having done all this good work, but they are looking to God and praising themselves rather than God. Jewish prayers traditionally praise God and thank God for God’s existence. “Blessed are you God, Ruler of the Universe,” but instead the Pharisee praises God for what they do not do, “Lord, I thank you for me.” So radical is the self-interest of the Pharisee that the Greek can be translated in several ways, “The Pharisee stood up and he himself prayed,” “The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself,” or most scandalously, “The Pharisee stood and prayed before himself.” His self-interest was so great that even as he stood before God, he was really looking in a mirror and praising what he saw.
The Tax Collector knew their sin though. They knew they did wrong, they acknowledged their failure to do right. They threw themselves on God’s mercy and they acknowledged that only that mercy could preserve them. They were not convinced of themselves like the Pharisee but were convinced of God’s power to deliver them. More than that, Jesus assures the audience that anyone who is willing to do this, to throw themselves down and acknowledge their sin will be exalted. Not only in that they will one day see heaven, but that what keeps them there will be removed. They can grow beyond their sinfulness, put away the evil in their heart, and truly be raised beyond where they are.
A favorite song of mine, which recounts someone struggling with some unnamed problem contains a line that for me can teach us about humility. This song, “Thunderbird,” by secular prophets, “They Might be Giants,” tells us that, “Before you fall, you have to learn to crawl. You can’t see heaven when you’re standing tall To get the whole sky On the ground you have to lie.” This is what a humble heart is like. Before we are knocked flat, we can take the time to fall on our knees, to acknowledge what we have done wrong. Standing up and looking down on everyone we will never understand God’s ways. However, the moment that we who acknowledge our sin, who truly let the mercy of God into our hearts do look heavenward. In that moment we will see all of Heaven, all that our sin and the Pharisee’s pride has kept hidden suddenly imprinted on our eyes, written on our hearts, and resting in our ears.
Let us be humble, let us look on ourselves as we are – no more and no less, and let us be lifted up into the goodness which Christ is working in our lives and in our hearts. – Amen.