Luke 18: 9-13
The parable Jesus gives to his disciples this morning is for our spiritual growth. Could you worship a god who would justify Hitler if he was to cast his eyes humbly to the earth, smite his breast and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” Many could not. Could you worship a god who would justify a person like Paul Bernardo if he would cast his eyes humbly to the earth, smite his breast and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I’m not sure the Homolka, Mahaffy or the French families could ever do that, and not many of us would blame them. Could you worship a god who would justify a child molester?
What makes you think what God does is contingent upon your opinion or judgments? That is the basic message for today’s parable from Jesus. You see, although we villainize the Pharisee for his arrogance and putting down of the tax collector, the problem is, the Pharisee was right. The Pharisee is a very just person. The Pharisees’ attention to things like rituals for cleansing one’s body or one’s cookware was part of a larger effort to help people encounter God’s holiness in their everyday lives. The difficulty was that often the rituals they had developed had become outdated and simply labourious in their observance.
I’ve been slowly cleaning out some things in my office in preparation for retirement. I am astounded by the language found in some of the books I once considered the foundation of our faith. We no longer condemn divorce. We no longer say women cannot speak in church. We no longer don white gloves and patent leather shoes and bonnets for Easter Sunday. When I once asked my father why we had to wear suits to church, because to this day I still lament wearing a suit. He responded with the following wisdom. “Do we not get dressed up when guests are coming to our home? We do this out of respect for our guests. We wear suits on Sunday out of respect for God.” All these rituals, we felt, made church a special event. It was a way of encountering God’s holiness in our daily lives. This helps explain why Jesus had so much interaction with Pharisees in the gospels.
Remember that Jesus was born into and raised in the Temple, with Pharisees as his teachers. The similarities he shared with them led to dialogue, which made some Pharisees sympathetic to Jesus’ movement. The similarities also exacerbated the differences, for Jesus came not to destroy the law but give it new life. He wanted these laws to be relevant to the people he grew up with, to speak to the realities of foreign occupation, of ending the divisions in society, to heal and lift up.
So in this parable, Jesus is not debating that the Pharisee was a just person. He fasted twice a week. How many of us can say that? He gave 10% of all he possessed to the temple which meant the Pharisee gave to the widow’s poor box, money for missions. He wasn’t an extortionist. He wasn’t unjust. He wasn’t an adulterer. He wasn’t like the tax collector. In fact, if this man was to come to our church, we’d do anything in our power to convince him to stay. He’s the kind of person we want in our church.
So, this man, this Pharisee, left the temple justified. But so did the tax collector, according to Jesus. And here is where it gets challenging.
The Roman Empire’s taxation system repeatedly offended many residents of first-century Galilee. It is difficult to determine just how severe the taxation demands were on individuals and their families, but the tax gathering system was notoriously corrupt. To collect taxes in places like neighborhoods, highways, markets, and docks, Roman officials enlisted members of the population to bid for contracts. Tax collectors could line their own pockets with whatever they could collect over and above their contractual obligations. The gospels operate with an understanding that tax collectors were generally viewed as dishonest and greedy. The reasons are obvious. They were slimy opportunists and collaborators, willing to victimize their own neighbours while assisting the occupiers. They upheld Roman interests at the expense of the people of God. It would have been dangerous to oppose such men who appeared to have traded their social consciences and religious self-worth for financial gain. Many likened them to mobsters, who extort money from the people in their neighbourhoods.
And here’s the catch. It never says in the story that the tax collector went home via a different way, or that he became a reformed man.It never says he stopped extorting money from his neighbours. Never says he was willing to make restitution for the poverty he kept them tied to. Yet, God justifies him? The hearers of Jesus’ parable were absolutely dumbfounded by this story.
When Jesus says, “I tell you this tax collector went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee”. Today we assume it is because he Pharisee was arrogant in his reproach of the tax collector and the tax collector was at least honest enough to humble himself before God, smiting, hitting himself firmly upon his breast and confession, “God be merciful to me for I am a sinner.”
This is appears to be a story about the spiritual value of humility as opposed to the dismissive properties of arrogance. And maybe it is. But I am sensing that Jesus is also laying a trap for us in this story. Jesus’ willingness to associate with tax collectors compounds the scandal of his ministry in the eyes of some. Why would someone so interested in holiness and liberation spend his time in the company of mobsters? Why would he extend mercy to those who made a living off of denying mercy to others? Jesus deliberately reaches out to scoundrels. He does not cast off those who enrich themselves by enabling the empire. It’s rather outrageous that God shows mercy so easily to such a villain. The grace on display here is so absurdly generous.
The Pharisee’s main problem may not be his arrogance. Rather, he assumes his corrupt neighbor, unlike himself, has situated himself beyond God’s mercy. The contempt is the point. The greatest difference between the two praying men lies here: one has written off the other, while the other can speak only of his own brokenness. There’s no arrogance in his belief that he, a Pharisee, has chosen or inherited a better way. It is true. He has. Where the Pharisee falls short is in his unspoken assumption that the tax collector resides beyond the limits of divine mercy.
Whether he actually hears the tax collector’s prayer or not, he wrongly assesses the tax collector and his dignity. What’s even more tragic: the Pharisee misunderstands God. The trap of the text is sprung and it is called disdain. What is disdain? It is the manifestation of a belief that we know better than God who should receive mercy and how they should receive it. Here’s your spiritual memory verse for this week.
Disdain is the manifestation of a belief that we know better than God who should receive mercy and how they should receive it. Justification is not about you. It is not about your humility or lack of pride or even about your being a child of the Reformation or one justified by faith only.
It’s not about you; it’s about God. It is us believing we know better than God who is deserving of God’s mercy. It is us telling God what God should do or be about IF God is to be worthy of our worship. And, in all honesty, none of this is about us. We are the creations of God. We did not, should not, can not create God. If we could, God would not be God.God can extend God’s mercy to whomever, whenever God chooses to do so. Humility means we speak, eyes down, smiting our own breasts,
speaking only of our own brokenness and nothing more.
How can any one of us know what in on the hearts of others when they pray? Don’t make narrow the wideness in God’s mercy. We don’t know what God hears when God listens to the prayers of the world. Only God can hear the beatings of another heart.
This parable was and is an attempt to shift our attention from ourselves – our piety or our passions, our faith or our failure, our glory or our shame – to God, the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, welcoming the outcast and healing all who are in need. Can you worship a God who would justify Hitler, Paul Bernardo the pedophile? Quite frankly, it is none of our business. I am simply grateful that in the days I feel so laden that I can no longer raise my eyes to heaven, and I beat my chest firmly trying to exorcise the demons within me, that I can still lift my cry to God and plead, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” knowing God will allow me to go justified by the absurd grace of God. That is enough. And the rest of it is none of my business.