Pharisees And Tax Collectors

Text: Luke 18:9-14

Preached at UPC of Amsterdam, NY on July 13, 2014

Families Reunite At US-Mexico Border Fence

A man – a powerful man, a powerful and religious man – walked into the Temple. He was a member of the ruling religious class, which was a group that knew and followed all the rules in a society where religious devotion was the measure of a person – the measure of a family. And this powerful man came into the temple, at a time and on a day in which the commoners were coming into the marketplace to purchase goods – coming into the Temple for prayer. The powerful man raised his arms, he raised his arms and he said, “Thank You God, Thank you that I am not as them. I go to church every week, I give a tenth of everything I make, I fast, I pray at all the prescribed times, I am a good person. I am not like them, I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this guy, this tax collector!”

And here, here a new character in this story is introduced. A tax collector – powerful yet hated; wealthy – yet despised in all the community. The tax collector was viewed as part in parcel with the government he was representing, in this case part of the Roman occupation, part of the enemy. And so, this tax collector comes into the temple for a time of prayer. And the Pharisee has found his target. He can look down on this person, this tax collector and say, “Thank you God, that I am not this. Thank you God that I am righteous even when there are so many unrighteous around me, thank you that I am good, when there is so much evil around me, Thank you!”

On the other hand is the tax collector. In this time, when a villain needed in a story, it would have been the tax collector. If anyone was more symbolically attached to the negative qualities of life, it would have been a tax collector. And he has the audacity to come into this place, this holy place of God to pray. But how does he pray? How does he come to God? Is it like the Pharisee, high and mighty, convinced of his goodness, convinced of his righteousness? No, he stands far off from everyone else, too ashamed to even be with the rest of the community. And when he prays, he prays in a way that conveys the reality of life. He prays in a way that acknowledges the goodness of God and the fallenness of humanity – the profane in the midst of the holy. He prays, beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful on me, a sinner.” Theologian William Barclay notes the language found in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible does not convey the depth of this man’s pain. He suggests a better translation would be, “God, be merciful on me, the greatest sinner in the world.” And what then does Jesus say?

This man, this tax collector, this one confessing all his pain, all his shame to God, this man gets it. He gets it over the Pharisee, over the one who did everything according to the book, according to traditions, according to the ruling religious class. This tax collector left the temple justified in his faith. This man left justified because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. The tax collector found a greater experience with the Divine because in his pain, in his shame, he threw himself headlong into the saving power of God, headlong into the mystery of God, until he found the light. He threw himself headlong until he found the light.

It is difficult as a preacher to try to preach the parables of Jesus. It is difficult because they are dense in their simplicity, they are complex even as they are always short in length, and often they cover a multitude of topics. This parable is no exception. In it, Jesus’ words cause his followers to consider the nature of prayer, what it means to be a child of God, and who is a child of God. In the case of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we are asked to deal with all these questions, we are asked to try to place ourselves in the role of the Pharisee and the role of the tax collector as we seek to hear the word of God emerge from the words on the page. For our time and in our place, a series of questions arise, that will be the basis for this message.

Who are we and how do we define ourselves? Who are we and how do we think about ourselves? It is an important time to ask these sorts of questions. We live in a world in which our loyalties are constantly divided, constantly being questioned. We find ourselves in a multitude of communities. Each possessing symbols and language. Each possessing meaning and point of view. Each asking for devotion from its members. Are we American? And if so, what does that mean for our commitment to the faith of the followers of Jesus? Are we Presbyterian? If we are Presbyterian, what does that mean as we strive to be in community with those who do not think like us? Are we Christian? If we are Christian, what does that mean in a world in which other religious traditions try to speak their experience of God, their experience of redemption and hope? Are we rich? If we are rich, what does that mean in a world that often lacks the basic necessities of life, in a world that often cannot feed itself? What communities do we find ourselves in? What communities offer us meaning and point of view? And how does each of these interact with one another? What is ultimate?

Jesus often used parables to convey messages that could not be said simply. He used stories because within their simple words was a depth and a complexity not found in merely offering his followers guidance. And so, on the occasion we encounter in our scripture for today, Jesus is surrounded by some of his followers. The scripture notes of this group that, “they trusted in themselves and their own abilities.” “They trusted in themselves and their own abilities” more fully than they trusted in the Divine and the abilities of God. Do we know what it means to trust in ourselves, to trust in our own abilities to do something, to live a good life, to be as God would have us be? We are told those who gathered around Jesus thought very highly of themselves and looked down upon others. And so he offered the tax collector and the pharisee.

We are all on a journey. We are all searching for meaning in a world and a creation in which, often times, meaning cannot be found. We claim membership in communities that offer meaning. We claim membership in communities that help us deal with the lack of meaning that we often encounter. And these groups help us to make sense out of life – help us to have language and symbolism and understanding. But in the end, we have to ask, “Do they offer what we need?” Does nationalism offer everything we need? Does being a Presbyterian offer everything we need? When we come into this place, this sanctuary, our Temple, do we come in saying, “Thank God, we are not like those other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers and tax collectors?” Or do we come in saying, “God, be merciful on us, sinners?” How do we pray?

If our prayers are words that praise ourselves, are we like the Pharisee, only praying so others can hear us speak, can know that we were here today? Or, are our prayers – those intimate times in which we totally let our guard down, totally sit in contemplation, totally open ourselves up to the movement of the spirit, to the movement of God. It is not easy to be the tax collector, to feel as if you have the weight of the whole world sitting squarely on your shoulders – believing that you are the most sinful in a world of sin; the most cracked in a broken world. We all sit on the precipice of being where the tax collector is. We all sit on the edge of the darkness. Not just those in this place today, but each person in creation. The tax collector ran headlong into the mystery of God while sitting in the Temple. The Pharisee, he just pushed it to the side. The tax collector made an honest assessment of creation and his relationship to it. The Pharisee merely pushed the assessment away to another time and place. We are all, all of us, on a journey in search of ultimate meaning, in search of truth, of love, of mattering. And so we find ourselves in communities – communities that offer us meaning, that offer us symbolism, that allow us to believe we matter. But communities fall away. The Pharisaical tradition of ancient Israel has passed away. Nation-states have passed away. All communities eventually fade away, save one, and the tax collector for the moment has found it.

Once we begin to realize we are on a journey – that everyone is on a journey – we also begin to look at those around us with new eyes, with more holy eyes. We see each person we encounter as a fellow traveler on the journey – as a kindred spirit within God’s beautiful creation. And at that point, no longer are they stranger, but friend; no longer are they enemy, but sister, brother. The person who you like the least and the person you like the most become equal in your eyes, the community you like the least and the group you love the most, become equal in your eyes, and all are made beautiful and lovable in your eyes, just as they are in the eyes of God.

Martin Luther King, in his theological reflection, believed that superseding all that divides us, one thing unites us. One thing overcame all the divisions within the human race. That one thing was his belief in a beloved community where all people belong, all people are invited, all people are welcome.

There is a crisis going on on our southern border. As we speak, thousands of refugee children escaping situations and conditions that are hellish and chilling. Throughout the world, we have seen this phenomenon occur time and time again. Mothers and children fleeing from genocide in Darfur in the Sudan into refugee camps opened by the UN. Camps that run for miles, taxed beyond their limits, as primarily folks from outside that world seek to take care of many children. Similar episodes have happened in Rwanda, in Kenya, and in Jordan. In our own country, we have opened and continue to open facilities to try and address the huge influx of primarily children, some with their mothers, most entrusted to shady groups of people who charge huge amounts of money to get this desperate class of people across the US-Mexican border. Think about that. Parents who find their situations so horrid that they believe that the best chance for survival for their children is to send them far away knowing, in all likelihood, that this means they will never see them again. Images from this week show that these children, once they are picked up, are kept in cages that many of us would be uncomfortable keeping our dogs in. Children Seamus’s age, crying out for their mothers when they get hungry or scared. Other images are equally chilling. Images of seemingly whole communities gathered together to keep the buses of these children from getting to the processing center where at least officials can begin the work of figuring out just what to do in the midst of this crisis. Video clips of children under a year old and hungry being greeted with chants of “not our kids, not our problem.” Well meaning adults on many sides of the conversation around immigration can debate the best course of action in creating policies to address the movement of persons across the southern border. Having spent a fair amount of time on the border in the very places that are making the news today, I can assure you that the conditions in those border towns is worse than you can possibly imagine and I am not surprised that many believe that a country with the resources and opportunities that the Unites States offers represents the best hope not just for thriving but for surviving. But today, on this day, there are children suffering.  Our faith tradition teaches us that in Christ there is no east or west, no north or south, no Greek or Jew, slave or free, man or woman. Our faith tradition teaches us that we are called to be brothers and sisters with all whom we encounter in our lives. And if we believe that to be true than we cannot possibly greet these children with chants of “not our kids, not our problem!” because they are our children, our sons and our daughters, and they are suffering. And we are called to relieve suffering in whatever form it takes.

Our world may seek to divide us. To create walls of division in which we cast our eyes across the wall at those who suffer and reassure ourselves that those people are someone else’s problem. But our faith has to be something different. Our faith has to move us to enter the Temple and say, have mercy on us, while realizing that each individual faces the same challenges, and asks the same questions. In a world that so often divides us into this community or that – Guatemalan, Honduran, Salvadoran, or American, Republican or Democrat, Presbyterian or Baptist – we must seek membership in a different community. A community in which all are welcomed because all are already members, all are welcome because all remain inexorably connected to God, all are welcome because God loves all people in all times and places, and so should we. God, have mercy on us, sinners though we be. Alleluia, Amen.

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