Holier than Thou?
A sermon preached by Eleanor Childs on 27 October 2019
It’s a familiar parable, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, isn’t it? Sometimes the sheer familiarity of Scripture stops us realising how startling and radically subversive Jesus’ teaching was then – and still is, now. Just previous to this Jesus had been teaching his disciples about prayer. Ostensibly this parable is also about prayer, but about much more than that because in the audience now are ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt’. People who thought they were good people, not like all those bad people out there. So Jesus tells them a rather unsettling story about a stereotypically good person and a stereotypically bad person.
The apparent ‘goodie’ was a Pharisee. Now because the Pharisees spent a lot of time trying to trap Jesus and ultimately rigged a trial and had him condemned to crucifixion, down the centuries Christians think of Pharisees as baddies, hypocrites. That is not how they were seen in Jesus’ time. They took their religion seriously, tried to observe the law in every detail. Generally speaking, they were upright, responsible, moral leaders who had a lot of power and influence.
The tax-collector, on the other hand, was an apparent ‘baddie’. Tax collectors were generally despised by the people. They were regarded as traitors, collaborators with the hated Roman Occupation, extortioners, corrupt. They lined their own pockets by exploiting others as they raised taxes for the hated enemy.
So In this story Jesus compares a representative of the most religious people in society with a representative of the most unprincipled. They are both going up to the temple to pray. Now the temple ritual provided for a morning and evening atonement sacrifice to be offered each day, but the temple was a massive complex and its courts would have been thronging with pilgrims throughout the day, some bringing their private sacrifices and praying individually, probably out loud.
So that is the scenario of the parable. The Pharisee, we are told, is standing by himself, why , we don’t know – so he can be seen? so he doesn’t get contaminated by others? the Tax Collector stands afar off. We get the impression he doesn’t want to be seen. We are told what they pray. Prayer reveals a lot of what we think about ourselves and what we think about God. The Pharisee thanks God he is not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers or that tax-collector over there. He fasts twice a week and tithes everything he has. Jews were required to fast only once a year on the day of Atonement, but those who wished to gain special merit fasted also on Mondays and Thursday. Jews were required to tithe only their wine, grain and oil, to give this tenth to God, but this Pharisee tithed everything he got. So this Pharisee performs above and beyond the call of duty. He is super-good. He practises honesty, sexual morality, discipline and generosity. And he wants God – and others – to know this. He is really giving himself a testimonial before God. We assume he imagines God is pleased with him and his good works. Yet prayer in Judaism involved primarily the offering of thanks and praise to God for all his gifts, and then petitions for the worshipper’s needs. But this man is not thanking God for his gifts. He uses the word thanks but under cover of that word he boasts about his self-achieved righteousness. He assesses his goodness in comparison with others such as the tax-collectors, and he seems to have a very partial or selective understanding of God’s standards. God’s standards are not ours. Ps 101:5 Whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure.’ Micah 6:8 ‘What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ By these standards he is an abject failure. Neither does he petition God. Presumably he is completely satisfied with himself and what he has and blind to what he lacks.
The tax -collector, on the other hand, does not even look up, but beats his breast, which in that culture is an indication of deep feelings of anguish or sorrow. He is not making speeches to God or presenting himself in the best possible light but crying out, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Early versions of this text translated it literally, ‘make an atonement for me.’ Which is particularly appropriate when we remember that here in the temple the atonement sacrifices were being made. This man is aware of his own unworthiness, with no merit of his own to commend him and he longs that the atonement sacrifice might apply to him. Jesus indicates that it was the one who turns to God and trusts in God’s atonement who is made right with him, and the self-righteous Pharisee returns home unjustified.
So what is the relevance of this parable for us today? Not many of our religious leaders swan around saying. ‘I’m the greatest!’ and as for moral outcasts, who are they? -probably drug dealers and child abusers. So what is the message for us?
I think there is a lot of both the Pharisee and the tax-collector in each of us. I’ve heard a number of people over the years say, ‘I do my best, I don’t cheat or lie or sleep around. I’m no saint but I try to be a decent person and not to do any harm to anyone. And I deplore the behaviour of x, y and Z. Or words to that effect. It’s easy to feel good when we measure ourselves by what we personally consider bad. But that is not God’s standard. When we think like that, we are behaving like the Pharisee. Jesus often appears gentle with sinners but hard on religious people; He ate with tax-collectors and prostitutes, but he denounced the scribes and Pharisees. I think this is because religion so easily breeds the deadliest sin – pride and a false sense of security in our own righteousness. But Scripture declares that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. ‘ We cannot trust in or justify ourselves by our own righteousness.
I grew up in fundamentalist circles where they kept banging on about what dreadful sinners we all are, and how we need to repent. I tried very hard to psyche myself up to believe this, but deep down, I couldn’t, because I thought I was a good girl. I conformed to all the expectations of good behaviour. It took me more years of living before I recognised how selfishness, jealousy, bitterness, anger and fear so easily took up residence in my heart. And, ironically, it was an experience of the love and acceptance of God which caused this recognition, not hell-fire preaching.
Llike the tax-collector, many of us sense we have not measured up to our own standards, let alone God’s. We are all in need of grace and forgiveness and healing. And we need the humility and trust to ask and receive his forgiveness and grace. St Paul builds on Jesus’ teaching about justification in his epistles. ‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, though faith in his blood.’ Paul saw that atonement for sin was fully and finally achieved through Jesus’ death on the cross.
The righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and is a gift of God’s grace. I think that grace is the hardest thing in the world to understand and accept. We have all grown up with notions of merit and consequences and just desserts. If you are good you are rewarded, if you are bad, you are punished. Our legal system is based on this. Justice is about getting what you deserve whether it’s good or bad. Deep down most of us approve of that. But God’s economy operates on other principles too. Yes, he is a God of justice, but he is also a God of grace. Grace has been defined as ‘unmerited favour’ . It is not deserved, it’s a gift. This is wonderful news for those of us who recognise we have come short of God’s standards and open our hands to receive his grace which is forgiveness, acceptance and Jesus’ righteousness paid into our account. But it is a deadly blow to our pride. We have to acknowledge we cannot earn our salvation, we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We all stand on level ground before God, the good, the bad and the ugly. This is scandalous to those like the Pharisees who consider they have worked hard to be good by outward standards. How dare God treat them on a par with rogues and criminals? What incentive is there to be good if all and sundry are eligible for grace? So they crucified him. The good, upright, religious people crucified him because he offended their pride and self-righteousness. How utterly blind they were to the evil lurking in their own hearts.
I said at the beginning that this parable was ostensibly about prayer , but it is about much more than that. It is about righteousness. And righteousness is about being right with God, with ourselves and with our neighbour. We cannot make ourselves righteous. Righteousness is a gift of God granted by means of Christ’s atoning sacrifice to all who come to him in honest awareness of their sin and inability to achieve righteousness. All that is required is that we are humble enough to acknowledge our sin, receive His grace, which brings forgiveness, acceptance and the gift of His Spirit to enable us to follow in his footsteps and live as he lives.