First there is the Pharisee. Please understand: The Pharisee is not a bad guy: he is a member of a lay movement that follows the Law of Moses and then goes beyond its requirements. He fasts twice a week, he gives 10% of his income to God’s work, he doesn’t cheat on his wife and he doesn’t rob the poor. He is a good man, who can be proud of the obituary that will be written when he dies.
This is the kind of man we want in our church, especially during Stewardship time! He calculates what his income is and then gives 10% back to God. His pledge not only pays the staff running synagogue and Temple, but also helps the poor when they are hungry. This Pharisee is a good man.
And because he is a good man, he builds his life on his goodness. He doesn’t need someone to catch him, he stands tall on the foundation of the good things he has done in his life. He is a man of devotion, discipline, and dedication.
(A good man. Maybe we could get him to serve on the vestry.)
The Pharisee feels good about his life, but Jesus tells us he does not see all there is to see and therefore, he does not experience the fullness of joy to be found in life with God. He does not experience God’s forgiveness, because he does not acknowledge there is anything significant to forgive.
He does not enjoy fellowship with those outside his circle, because he despises them.
He mentions God at the beginning of his prayer, but then it’s all about himself and how he is better than others.
One commentator puts it this way: The Pharisee’s “trouble was not that he was not far enough along on the road, but that he was on the wrong road altogether.” Tyndale Commentary on Luke by Leon Morris, page 289
Then, there is this other man in the parable, the tax collector, that we definitely do not want on the vestry. He works for the evil empire, and participates in the subjugation of his Jewish neighbors. To his neighbors he is a despicable human being.
Who do you despise in your life? Who do you look down on and feel superior to? Take a political enemy, which shouldn’t be too hard to find in the political climate we’re in, or take that person at work or school you can’t stand to be around. That guy, that girl.
Put that person in the role of the tax collector: that person you despise is praying in the Temple, and does something surprising. Every other time, he prays like the Pharisee. He tells God about all the good things he does this week: he’s faithful to his wife, loves his children, and is a fair boss. Every other time he prays he stands tall on his own accomplishments, ignoring his hardened heart. He doesn’t need anyone to catch him when he falls, because he isn’t going to fall.
But this time, for reasons we aren’t told, there has been a major shift in his soul. This time he sees his mistreatment of his fellow Jews and HIS being a lacky for the emperor. He realizes he is not Luke Skywalker but Darth Vader, not Han Solo, but Kylo Ren.
He now realizes there is nothing in himself upon which to stand. He is falling and falling apart, so he does the only positive thing left for him to do: he falls into the Mercy of God.
And this, Jesus says, brings him into an awareness of a living connection with God. It’s not that God CHANGES from hating to loving the man. Rather, the tax collector CHANGES from trusting himself to trusting God and God’s mercy. He confesses there is a stone in his soul that is destroying his life and Mercy removes the stone. Now, he can experience the Acceptance of God that is always present.
Now he can change the direction of his life; move off the road to nowhere and turn onto the road to Life and Peace in God.
The parable makes us asks, “Who are we in the story, the Pharisee or the tax collector?”
It depends on the day, because we have both living inside us.
But here’s a key to help us discern which road we’re on: when we tear down others in order to build up ourselves, we can be sure we have forgotten we are living inside the mercy and grace of God.
The Pharisee lacks this one thing: Sure, his outward behavior is much better than the tax collector. But his inner core, is the same: every person is a beloved child of God and therefore to despise others is to hurt oneself and damage the family of God.
The Pharisee in us keeps forgetting that the ground is level at the foot of the cross.
The tax collector in us, however, sees the need for mercy and therefore is in no position to despise others. There is no one lower to despise. No one to berate or laugh at. To condemn others requires an inner sense of being superior to others. The tax collector has only one prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
You’ve heard me talk before about a little spiritual classic called the Way of the Pilgrim, which is about a man in 19th century Russia who goes on a journey to find someone who can tell him how to pray without ceasing, as Saint Paul tells us to do. He finally finds a monk who gives him the answer. He teaches him the prayer known as The Jesus Prayer, which is one of the most popular prayers in the Western Church after the Lord’s Prayer and the “Hail, Mary”. There are many versions, but the basic prayer in the book is: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
The practice is to silently repeat this prayer throughout the day, until it becomes anchored in your heart, and begins to pray itself.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!
This prayer puts us on the right road, giving voice to our inner tax collector and silencing our inner Pharisee. But it doesn’t put us at the end of the road. There are still miles to go before we sleep. For instance, we will need to resist the common temptation to reverse the parable and say as we leave church today, “God, I’m glad that I’m not like those Pharisees over there.”
And we hope as we walk the road of the Jesus Prayer we get a picture of the Mercy of God that includes everyone, so that one day we notice the prayer changing slightly, and we hear in our heart:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on US!”