Two men walked into the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. The other, a tax collector. In the end it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee. But, you knew that. That is the problem with these parables. We have heard them before. We know how they end. So, from the beginning we identify with the person who is going to come out looking good in the end. We are rarely surprised any more.
As soon as we heard the word, “Pharisee” we knew we wanted to identify with the other guy because the Pharisees don’t fare so well in the Gospels. Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees was . . . it was complicated.
Even so, for the parable to make sense to us we have to do some rearranging in our minds. For this to make sense the Pharisee has to be judgmental and self-righteous. You know, one of those religious types who goes around sticking his nose into everyone else’s business and tells everyone else how to live, but never does anything to help anyone.
And the tax collector becomes sort of a lovable scamp! He is good ole’ Joe the bartender. He doesn’t go to church. But, he is quick to help anybody who needs something. When someone gets injured in an accident he is the first one to give money to the fundraiser. He has a big heart. He is kind to everyone.
So then it makes sense to us that God would be pleased with good ole’ Joe’s prayer instead of the prayer of the self-righteous, religious person. If we clean this story up like that it makes sense to us.
The problem is that is not how Jesus told the story. The Pharisee is a guy who is quite serious about keeping Torah. He sincerely believes that by keeping the rules he is pleasing God. He is the guy who is always in church. He serves on several committees. He volunteers for workdays. He even gives more than ten percent of his income and gives to special offerings too. The Pharisee is the faithful, dependable, tithing, church member who pays the minister’s salary so he can preach on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector! (Craddock) The truth is we preachers love people like him. As a matter of fact I’ll bet you would have liked him too.
And the tax collector wasn’t likable ole’ Joe the bartender. Most tax collectors were crooks. The way they made their money was by overcharging you for the taxes they collected. Whatever they could collect above what the government required they got to keep. This tax collector worked for the enemy. He worked for the occupying government. “[He] works to squeeze money out of you and your neighbor so that the Romans can stay in control of your country. He gets rich while your friends and neighbors have to sell their farms to pay their tax bills. He is a leech, he’s a traitor, he ought to burn in hell for what he has done to the poor, and he’s got a lot of nerve coming to the temple to pray.” (Vinson) If everyone were like him the church would have to close its doors. If you had known him, I don’t think you would have liked him very much.
Yet, he is the one who went home justified, not the Pharisee. Now do you feel the sting of this story a little bit more? Do you feel the confusion of it?
The parable could have happened in reverse as well. The Pharisee could have been just as committed and yet remained humble. It happens. I know some people who have managed to pull it off. And the Tax Collector could have been full of himself, bragging about how he is not like those hypocrites down at the church.
This parable teaches us to see the truth about ourselves. Our default setting seems to be self-righteousness, whether we are religious or not. We have to constantly be on guard against looking down at others who are different from us and who live differently than us.
The parable teaches about others. It teaches us that no matter how rotten a person may be, he or she is only one prayer away from redemption. Think of that the next time you run into someone you don’t like. He or she is only one prayer away from God beginning the process of redemption in his or her life. Think of that next time you are angry with yourself. We are all only one prayer away from being redeemed.
The parable teaches about God. Self-righteous or sinner or, if you are like me, a combination of the two, God loves us all. Thank God for that!