The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 22-23, 2010
Text: Luke 18:9-17
Dear Friends in Christ,
Our first reaction might be, not another sermon on the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Pastor we know that one. Yes, but this is a seminal text. It explains in the clearest terms the nature of the Gospel. It also barbeques the conscience of every person. It is a portion of Scripture than no one can read and come away unscathed.
What is the point of this parable? What was Jesus’ target? He was going after the self righteous. He was attacking those who thought that they could please God by their own power and machinations.
In Jesus day, there were several groups that thought of themselves as religious reformers. You had the Essenes who said that Jerusalem and the temple was so corrupt it was beyond cleansing. There was no way to reform the temple. So they went out into the desert, separating themselves from the corruption of the temple, and preparing themselves to receive the Messiah. John the Baptist might well have been raised in an Essene community. But Scripture does not record a single encounter between Jesus and the Essenes. The next group of would be reformers was the Pharisees. They still had hope that the Temple could be saved - by them of course. They would restore Israel to obedience to the law. In fact they would go beyond the law to make certain that they were actually doing everything right. They made new laws to protect God’s commands. And they were very careful to keep away from anyone who was deemed a sinner. This would be anyone who wasn’t a Pharisee. They were certain if they did this, they would purify the nation so that the Messiah would come, trash the Romans, and make Judah the new power in the world.
Why were they so convince that this was the Messianic age? First, they new the Scriptures. The Messiah, that is the Christ, was to come during the time of the fourth empire, according to the Prophet Daniel. Then the Messiah would come and smash that empire into little pieces. First was the golden empire - Babylon. Then came the silver empire - Persia. After this came the bronze empire - Alexander’s Macedonia, and the successor kingdoms that followed. Finally would come the iron empire - Rome. But there was more to this, I am certain. Word of strange events passed through Judea. A barren old woman gave birth to a son. His father prophesied that this child would be a prophet of the Most High. It caught people’s attention because the man had been struck dumb and suddenly, without warning, broke out in his prophetic song, at the time of his son’s birth. Now it was the forth decade after these events. But people remembered them, I am certain. There were people who witnessed these things that were still alive. There also were probably stories about a baby born in a stable and angels appearing to shepherds. But my guess is that these were less well known. It was the birth of John the Baptist that primed the pump of messianic frenzy that still had not burned out. Now remember the Pharisees saw themselves as the religious reformers who were going to bring in the Messianic age, by their work.
Christ tells a simple parable. A Pharisee and a Publican or tax collector went to the synagogue to pray. Now to the Pharisees, the Publicans were the lowest of the low. They worked for Rome and got rich at the expense of their own people. They were invested in the status quo, while the Pharisees wanted to change things. The perception was that they were all crooks as well, collecting more taxes than they were required. In fact, I suspect that most of them were honest civil servants. Some were dishonest to be sure. But most were probably honest. Tax collecting, in those days, was a lucrative business. Typically they collected a market tax. To enter the market you had to pay a tax. If you were a vendor you probably paid a higher tax. The tax collector had a quota dictated by Rome. Anything above this amount he could keep. In many cases, one could get wealthy just doing it above board. The fact that Publicans were hated was in part due to the fact that they were in bed with Rome and also that they were rich. In other words it was the same kind of class warfare that we see in our political debates today. It was false then, as it is false now. But nevertheless, to a Pharisee, a Publican was the worst of sinners.
When the two men pray, the Pharisee boasts how good he is. The Publican prays for forgiveness. Christ then says something stunning. The Publican, the tax collector, the sinner, is right with God. But the Pharisee, who thinks that he has kept all the laws, is not right with God. The Publican trusted in the mercy of God. He was not disappointed. He asked and he received. The Pharisee relied upon his own works. These cannot stand. Why? Because everything we do is tainted by sin. The Prophet Isaiah tells us that all our righteous acts are as unclean rags before God. (Is 64:6) Isaiah is talking about the good things that we do - the very best that we do. The very best of our works are like medical waist before God. So the works the Pharisee was boasting about were worthless.
This parable is unique in its application. There is no character that corresponds to God, as would usually be the case. We are the Pharisee. We always want to show off how good we are. We always want to claim something by right before God. God we’ve earned this or that. We need to be the Publican. So in this parable Christ contrasts who we are by our sinful nature, with who we ought to be. We are to be beggars, as Luther said. We are to bring nothing before God other than our sin, for which we beg forgiveness. Only when we are empty of self, can we be filled with Christ. Only when we see our need for God’s forgiveness will we receive it. Any who think that they don’t need to be forgiven will be cast out from God’s presence. This is a stern warning to us. Often it is the most religious who turn to themselves. It is the most religious who get caught up in what they are doing for God. The Pharisees then and now have no place for a Christ who dies for their sins. And yet, that is exactly the thing every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve needs.
The message of parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a simple one. But it gets right to the heart of our faith. It divides heaven and hell, life and death. Those who turn to themselves and their own works will be condemned by God. Those who come as beggars, empty of self, and seeking grace, will be saved. It is that simple. The problem is that we are always fighting this battle. We want to be the proud Pharisee boasting before God. We need to be the humble Publican, begging that God would have mercy on me, a sinner.