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[the tax collector] went down to house his justified rather than the [Pharisee]. (Luke 18:14)
In the Name of Jesus. AMEN. The Pharisee’s not at all like this tax collector, this tax-farmer, who’s the worst kind of crook. A legal one, a big operator, a mafia-style enforcer working for the Roman government on a nifty franchise that lets him collect – from his fellow Jews, remember, from the people whom the Romans might have trouble finding, but whose whereabouts he knows and whose language he speaks – this lets him collect all the money he can bleed out of them, provided only he pays the authorities an agreed flat fee. He’s been living for years on the cream he’s skimmed off their milk money. He’s a fat cat who drives a stretch limo, drinks nothing but expensive champagne, and never shows up at a party without at least two $500-a night call girls hanging off his arms.
The Pharisee, however, isn’t only good, he’s religious. And not hypocritically religious, either. His outward uprightness is matched by an inward discipline. He fasts twice a week and he puts his money where his mouth is: ten percent off the top for God. If you know where to find a dozen or two such upstanding citizens, I know several churches (including ours) that will accept delivery of them, no questions asked, regardless of all Jesus’ parables to the contrary. But best of all, this Pharisee thanks God for his happy condition.
Luke says that Jesus spoke this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous. But Jesus shows us the Pharisee in the very act of giving God the glory. Maybe the reason he went up to the temple to pray was that, earlier in the week, he slipped a little and thought of his righteousness as his own doing. Maybe he said to himself, “That’s terrible, I must make a special visit to the temple and get straight what’s important by thanking God.” But what does Jesus tell you about this good man, about this entirely acceptable candidate for the communion rail at our church? He tells you not only that he’s in bad shape, but that he’s in worse shape than a tax collector who’s as rotten as they come and who just waltzes into the temple and does nothing more than say as much. In short, he tells you an unacceptable parable.
For you, you would gladly accept the Pharisee’s membership application and welcome him into our congregation. But would you accept me for long if I had my hand in the church till to the tune of a Jaguar? Would you think it was quite enough for me to come into church on a Sunday, stare at the tips of my shoes, and say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner?” Would the district president write me a letter commending my imitation of the parable and praising me for preaching not only in word but in deed? Faith without works is dead, after all. Jesus says that God would. I myself, however, have some doubts about you and the district president. You might find my living a bit too … vivid. There seems to be just no way of dramatizing this parable from our point of view. That being the case, turn it around and look at it from God’s point of view. God’s sitting there in the temple, busy holding creation together, making it all happen, speaking it all into existence, concentrating on making the hairs on your head jump out of nothing, preserving the seat of your pants, reconciling the prostitutes on Lyndale and Lake Avenues in Minneapolis, the losers on Grand Avenue in Burnsville, the divorce lawyers in Northfield, and all the worms under flat rocks in Lonsdale. And in come these two characters.
The Pharisee walks straight up to the front, pulls up a chair to God’s table, and whips out a pack of cards. He fans them, bridges them, does a couple of one-handed cuts and an accordion shuffle, slides the pack over to God, and says, “Cut. I’m in the middle of a winning streak.” And God looks at him with a sad smile, gently pushes the deck away, and says, “Maybe you’re not. Maybe it just ran out.” So the Pharisee picks up the deck again and starts the game himself. “Texas Hold ‘em, okay?” And he deals God a two of fasting and a king of no adultery. And God says, “Look, I told you. Maybe this isn’t your game. I don’t want to take your money.” “Oh, come on,” says the Pharisee. “How about seven-card stud, tens wild? I’ve been real lucky with tens wild lately.” And God looks a little annoyed and says, “Look, I meant it. Don’t play me. The odds here are always on my side. Besides, you haven’t even got a full deck. You’d be smarter to be like the guy over there who came in with you. He lost his cards before he got here. Why don’t you both just have a drink on the house and go home?”
Do you see now what Jesus is saying in this parable? He’s saying that as far as the Pharisee’s ability to win a game of justification with God is concerned, he’s no better off than the tax collector. As a matter of fact, the Pharisee is worse off; because while they’re both losers, the tax collector at least has the sense to recognize the fact and trust God’s offer of a free drink. The point of the parable is that they’re both dead, and their only hope is someone who can raise the dead.
What Jesus is saying in this parable is that no human goodness is good enough to pass a test like that, and God’s not about to risk it. He will not take our cluttered life, as we hold it, and carry it into eternity. He will take only the clean emptiness of our death to sin in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. He condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use. He commends the tax collector because he rests his case on a death that God can use. The fact, of course, is that they’re both equally dead and so both receivers of the gift of resurrection. But the trouble with the Pharisee is that for as long as he refuses to confess the first fact – that he’s dead – he will simply be unable to believe the second – that he’s a receiver of the resurrection. He’s so busy doing the bookkeeping on a life he cannot hold that he will never be able to receive God’s gift of new life raised from the dead. It’s just misery and grief and hopeless to try to keep count of what God is no longer counting. Your entries in your accounting ledger of good and bad deeds, holy and unholy living, those who are worthy and those who are unworthy keep disappearing.
If all this makes you uncomfortable, that the Pharisee is on the wrong end of Jesus’ judgment, it’s because that while you understand the thrust of the parable intellectually, your heart has a desperate need to believe its exact opposite. We all long to establish our identity by seeing ourselves as approved in other people’s eyes. We spend our days preening ourselves before the mirror of their opinion so we will not have to think about the nightmare of appearing before them naked and uncombed. And we hate this parable because it says plainly that it is the nightmare that is the truth of our condition. We are in fact our worst nightmare. That is our true self. We fear the tax collector’s acceptance because we know precisely what it means. It means that we will never be free until we are dead to the whole business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life’s-work, that means not until we are dead. Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, improve the improvable, or fix the fixable…
As long as you’re struggling like the Pharisee to be alive in your own eyes, especially for what is holy, just, and good, you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification: first the death of Jesus, then yours. Only when you’re finally able, with the tax collector, to admit that you’re dead in your sins will you be able to stop resisting grace. It is certainly a terrifying step. You will cry and kick and scream before pries open your hands to receive it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know. For your comfort though, I can tell you three things. First, it’s only one step. Second, it’s not a step out of reality into nothing, but a step from self-deception into fact. And third, it will make you laugh out loud at how short the trip home was. It wasn’t a trip at all. You were already there. Death – for the third and last time – is absolutely all of the resurrection you can now know. The rest is faith that trusts all God’s baptismal promises to you will be complete when Jesus returns to call you out of the grave. Dead forever to sin, alive forever with Christ Jesus. AMEN.