Saved by Grace
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
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.”
When I think of reformation Sunday, I cannot help but think about our current circumstances in the United Methodist Church. I’m sure the story we know about reformation is not the whole story. It isn’t just about Martin Luther nailing a list of complaints to a door. Yet it is the beginning of our Protestant faith. The most important part of our faith is that we are saved by grace alone. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. Our salvation is an unmerited gift from God.
Now our United Methodist Church is in a season of conflict over the issue of human sexuality. But I contend the conflict is larger than this single issue. In my spring semester this year, I took a United Methodist Polity class. As part of that class, I had to watch the whole 2019 special called general conference. It was hard to watch. I experienced two groups of people speaking past one another. The folks for the one church plan seemed to believe that with a day of song and prayer the Holy Spirit would change hearts, the one church plan would prevail, and we could all go home happy with our church intact. That didn’t happen. Then there were the speeches. Each side was equally pleased with the quality of their own speeches. But the speeches did not appear to change any hearts or minds. Each side grew more and more entrenched in their beliefs.
I remember one woman sharing that we were disagreeing about was not whether to love people, but how we love people. One group believes that the best way to love people is to embrace them for who they are. To recognize their full humanity in the world, in relationships, and in the church. The other group believes that the people who practice homosexuality are sinning. To condone their behavior by allowing them leadership positions in the church, or to be married in the church would be harming them. It would be as though we are encouraging the sin. That would not be loving.
Now is the time for all of us to stop trying to be right. Because it isn’t a matter of who is right, it isn’t a matter of the inerrancy of scripture. But if you need to talk about this further, if you want your voice heard, I encourage you to come to the listening post this Saturday, November 2nd, here with Rev. Brian Kent.
Right now I want to talk about having compassion for each other. That means we recognize that we are all created in the image of God and that God loves us completely. Then we learn to love ourselves because we accept the image of God flickers within us. Next, we can learn to love our neighbor, because the image of God dwells within them too.
There are issues on which we will never agree. In Manny’s sermon last week, he talked about how we need to be careful about how we speak to people. He explained that not everyone receives and processes information in the same way because of their different cultures, life experiences, and frame of mind. We may never be able to come to the same conclusion because we have a different understanding of how the world works. Each of us in this room has had a lifetime of learning and experiences that have shaped who we are. We may never agree on how to interpret scripture. We may never agree on the best way to use the church building, the best way to spend the church’s money, or what music is appropriate for worship. We may never agree on what are the best refreshments to serve after church. That is the reality and that is okay.
We don’t have to agree with each other to love each other. I believe that we are all created in the image of God and I will do my best to recognize that within each of you. I pray you will do the same for one another. My prayer is that we care enough about each other to be curious. I want to get to know each of you. I want to learn not only what you believe, but how and why you came to believe it.
There is a group of people that Jesus encounters in our scripture today, who were mostly avoided by civilized society. They were the tax collectors, persons responsible for collecting taxes on behalf of the Roman government. Tax collectors were responsible for paying to the government the revenue they had promised, but they were generally free to collect extra taxes from the people to make a profit. Opportunities for theft, fraud, and corruption abounded, and tax collectors are portrayed negatively in almost all Greco-Roman literature. Thus in the New Testament, “tax collectors and sinners” are cited together as examples of undesirable types.
The Pharisees were a group of observant and influential Jews, mainly in Judea. The meaning of the name itself is obscure. It may mean “separate ones” in Hebrew, referring to their observance of ritual purity laws in ways that separated them from others, or it could mean “interpreters,” referring to their penchant for studying and teaching biblical law. In many Gospel stories, the Pharisees function as the opponents of Jesus in Galilee. The apostle Paul, however, was raised a Pharisee and continued to regard himself as a Pharisee even after he became a missionary for Christ. The Pharisees in Luke’s story are stereotypically persons who justify themselves in the sight of others and who consider themselves righteous while regarding others with contempt. They proclaim their righteousness, exalting themselves at the expense of others. They are quick to denounce others as sinners and to exclude such individuals.
In the parable today Jesus compares the prayer of a Pharisee with that of a tax collector. True to form, the Pharisee’s prayer is self-centered and self-righteous. ‘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.’ In other words, thank you, God, that I am superior to so many, especially this pathetic tax collector.
I have to stop here — the Pharisees’ prayer borders on ridiculous. But when I dismiss the pharisee as ridiculous, I’m behaving the same way the pharisee did. It’s almost as if I am saying, geez God, thanks for not making me a self-righteous looser like the pharisee. When I am busy noticing the sins of those around me, I am oblivious to my own sin. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The prayer said by the undesirable tax collector is acceptable to God. The tax collector knows he requires mercy. ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
Most often I find myself in the shoes of the Pharisee. I wonder what is wrong with people that they don’t see my way is the best way. But it comes down to this, it is not my job to judge people or their sins. It is my job to love them and to show them God’s love, to help them see the image of God within themselves. The moment I put myself above another human, I am asking to be humbled. In the eyes of God, we are all his beloved children, created in his image. And, by our very nature, we are all sinners. Praise the Lord, there is enough grace for all.