Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

To get the full impact of the parable Jesus tells in this morning’s Gospel, I think we need to step back and examine the preconceptions with which we enter into the story today. “Two men went up into the temple to pray,” Jesus says, “one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Even if we hadn’t heard this particular parable a hundred times, we’d know who’s supposed to be the good guy and the bad guy, right? Well, no. If you’ve grown up in the Church you might have a pretty strong sense that Pharisees were Jesus’ enemies, the “bad guys.” They have come to be regarded as a lot of hypocrites.

But, Jesus never denounced the Pharisees as a whole, only individual Pharisees. To his audience, the Pharisees were well-respected religious leaders, and I think they’re due for a bit of rehabilitation in our own day. Yes, they were a bit rigid. But, if nothing else, they were on the whole a faithful group of religious Jews who spent a great deal of energy in their quest to abide by God’s law. At the beginning of the story, Jesus’ audience would have assumed the Pharisee was going to be the good guy.

And then there’s the tax collector. We know that tax collectors were not well-loved by Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, but I don’t think we know the extent of their unrighteousness. To us, taxes are a necessary evil. None of us likes paying taxes, but it’s for the common good and the men and women who work for the Internal Revenue Service are doing an important job.

Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were not just officious bureaucrats executing a necessary task. They were thugs. You see, the Roman Empire would have told these tax collectors how much they expected from each taxpayer, and then it was up to the individual tax collector to determine by how much he would overcharge each of them. His salary would basically be how much extra money he could collect through extortion. The Empire understood that this was the case, and would encourage the tax collector to wring as much out of his already overtaxed compatriots as he could.

So, Jesus sets his audience up to expect the opposite of what he gives them in the parable. We have a good, faithful person and a thug, and a standard view of justice would hold that the Pharisee—whom we can assume was being honest about fasting and tithing and so forth—would go home from the temple justified, and that the tax collector would get his just deserts. Perhaps the Pharisee was being a bit haughty, but he had earned the right to be proud of his faithful obedience.

Jesus turns the expectation of his audience on its head, and we can assume that they didn’t like what they heard. We wouldn’t if we were in their shoes.

It all gets back to that same old struggle we have in accepting how God works. As much as we might affirm the fact that our salvation is not our own doing, that our justification is a gift from God rather than a reward for our goodness, we never seem to believe it deep down. And, sometimes, our religion can have the opposite effect of what religion ought to have. It can convince us that we are righteous people set up to reap the rewards of our righteousness, rather than sinners in need of saving. It is paradoxical, but it seems that the best among us can have the hardest time being justified. The tax collector knew that he was a sinner, and could say the one prayer that really meant anything besides “look at me, ain’t I grand.” He could say that prayer which needs to be on the tip of our tongues, too: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” When we can get beyond being impressed with how good we are, we can say that, and we can remember how merciful God has always been to us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.