Jesus tells a parable contrasting a Pharisee with a tax collector. If you know Jesus at all, you realize that this isn’t going to involve a flattering portrayal of the Pharisee.
Just in case you’re not paying careful attention, Luke leaves nothing to chance. He says, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)
Now this might prepare you to hear a parable about Christian conduct and attitudes. And that is not entirely off the mark. But it doesn’t hit the bullseye either. Jesus’ parable is first and foremost about God.
The point of this parable is to teach us who God is, and Jesus does so indirectly. The Pharisee and the tax collector are each talking to God, and so they reveal to us just who they think God is.
The problem with the Pharisee is that he simply doesn’t understand God very well. He places all his bets on his own moral rigor and theological correctness. And let’s be clear, the Pharisee is no slouch. He walks the walk. Ironically, it is precisely his approach to the moral life and the life of the mind that distances him from God. He just makes God weary.
The tax collector can boast of neither moral achievement nor theological clarity. And yet, in his cry for mercy he has gotten something fundamentally right about God.
Let’s unpack this parable together by pondering three questions.
First, what does the Pharisee’s way of living mistakenly assume about God’s character?
Second, what does the tax collector’s cry for mercy tell us about God’s true nature?
Finally, how do we live as God’s agents in the world given what we now know about God’s character?
The Talent Show Judge
Jesus describes the Pharisee’s miscue. He trusts in himself that he is righteous.
Now you might be thinking that the Pharisee is just a hypocrite. He thinks himself to be morally pure, but he ignores his own moral shortcomings. That may be true. But Jesus is getting at something more fundamental about the shape of his life, and that life-shape reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of God.
The Pharisee thinks of God first and foremost as judge. And while it is true that God judges, the Pharisee has a distorted notion of what that actually means. A popular television genre will help me illustrate the Pharisee’s misconception about God.
Programs like Top Chef, American Idol, and Ink Master are talent shows at their core. A panel of judges assess the performance of chefs, entertainers, and tattoo artists according to the standards of their respective professions.
Each chef, entertainer, and artist draws on the talent within them to turn out their very best product. The judge’s role is simply to measure the quality of the dish, the song, or the tattoo. Viewers tune in to experience the tension contestants feel as they anxiously await the judge’s decision. Has the contestant measured up? Adding to the tension is the fact that those who do not measure up will be sent home.
The Pharisee sees God as a talent show judge and himself as a talent show contestant. His life’s purpose is to draw upon his own will and his own intellectual abilities to produce a life whose moral shape and theological content meet God’s standards.
He trusts in himself that he is righteous. In other words, he assumes that God has set him the task of moral performance and sits back like a distant, objective judge, poised to send him away for an imperfect performance.
But God is not a talent show judge, and he did not design us to draw upon our own resources so that we can win from him a favorable judgment. God created us to reach beyond ourselves to him for life itself. That’s what the tax collector’s prayer teaches us.
A Higher Power
Our second question is this. What does the tax collector’s cry for mercy tell us about God’s true nature?
When the tax collector asks for mercy he’s saying, “I’ve got nothing. Help, help, help.” He’s not just saying, “I’ve done some bad stuff, can you give me another chance, clear my record, give me a mulligan?” There’s something much deeper at work here.
The tax collector realizes that God is a higher power.
You hear that phrase “higher power” in Twelve Step circles. For some of those folks God-talk is a turnoff, so talking about a “higher power” helps them move forward in sobriety. But that phrase is more than just code for the divine. It gets at something fundamental about what it means to be God.
God is merciful. That doesn’t just mean that God forgives. It means that God initiates. He doesn’t just react and respond. God created us to draw upon him for everything. He never meant for us to draw upon only our own inner resources to produce a life for him to assess and to measure, to approve or to condemn.
In Twelve Step programs addicts and alcoholics admit that they are powerless over their substance of choice and must draw upon a power greater than themselves to live a sober life, to be restored to sanity. But that goes for all of us, not just addicts.
To put this a slightly different way, sanity—life as God originally designed it to be—is possible only when we reach beyond ourselves to a power greater than ourselves. It’s not just those with addictions issues who disintegrate by drawing only on their own resources. God designed all human beings to reach beyond themselves to a power greater than themselves to live the life he dreams for us.
The Pharisee trusts in himself to make himself righteous before God. The tax collector knows the folly of such an approach. He understands that our righteousness is not most fundamentally our ability to obey all the moral rules or to insist on the right set of theological concepts. Instead, righteousness is right relationship with God. And God is the one who makes that relationship happen.
God achieves right relationship with us through his Son Jesus. His life, death, and resurrection are the ways through which God imparts the power to us to be whole and joyful.
The Mercy-Powered Life
This brings us to our final question. How do we live as God’s agents in the world given what we now know about God’s character? Or, to put it another way, what does a mercy-powered life look like?
There’s a lot I could say about this, but for the sake of time let’s focus on one thing. Right relationship is more important than being right.
One of the things that gets in the way of a mercy-powered life is our desire to be right. Right in what we are doing. Right in what we are thinking.
We can be so obsessed with being right, that we will sacrifice relationships over it.
If someone refuses to act the way we want them to act, or get in synch with our agenda, or agree with our take on the world, some of us cannot rest until we win them over or drive them off. Trying to get our way, we wreck our relationships.
Jesus is apparently not so enamored of being right. Instead, Jesus teaches us that life is about right relationship.
On one occasion the religious authorities tested him on his own grasp of the moral law. “So, Jesus, what is the greatest law?” they asked. Jesus put it simply: Love God with everything you’ve got: heart, mind, will, and soul. Love your neighbor as if your whole life depended upon her or his well-being. We call Jesus’ response the Summary of the Law.
Those who feel justified by the quality of their own conduct and the content of their thoughts will frequently compare themselves to others. Like the Pharisee in today’s parable, they are especially keen on judging others who seem to be less morally accomplished.
Those who disagree with him are not merely different or offer a contrasting point of view, they are morally inferior. Like the Pharisee, they can’t wait for God to come and straighten those people out.
By contrast, the tax collector brings his brokenness and his need to God. He doesn’t come presenting his life as a great moral and theological accomplishment, assuming that God can only applaud.
Instead, he comes vulnerable and meek, seeking the love that will make him whole.
He accepts the crazy proposition that God loves him through thick and thin, acknowledging that so much of his life happens in the thin places.
And what does the tax collector see in everyone around him? Other fragile, imperfect souls seeking the gift of infinite, life-giving love. Just like him. Who is he to withhold
from anyone else the gift of love that has already been given to him?
You see, there’s the real difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The Pharisee believes that God will love those who make themselves lovable by acting right and thinking right. And so, the Pharisee is free to condescend to the unrighteous.
The tax collector has given himself as an imperfect gift to God and experiences the joy with which God receives him. That allows him to accept everyone he meets joyfully and gratefully as an imperfect gift just like him.
Instead of straining to impress a fearsome judge, we tax collectors have decided to entrust ourselves to a loving higher power and to embrace each other as precious, imperfect gifts.
This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, Louisiana.