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The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

Good Evening to anyone  that reads my blog tonight.

Ive been a tad  too busyto blog,  but here is my little offering based on todays gospel reading about a Pharisee and a tax collector.

It comes from various sources including the useful commentary by Martin Warner in this weeks Church Times on the parable. It also comes from my heart felt belief that its so important to welcome into our churches anyone and everyone who seeks to find faith and comfort and blessing on their lives – at whatever stage they may be at. And what they might like to experience may not be quite what we are used to.

The Pharisee and the tax collector.

Luke 18:9-14


Comparisons are odious – comparisons are hateful – is a very old saying in the English language which goes back to literature in the 15th century.  Aware of the phrase, Shakespeare  includes it in his play Much Ado about nothing – only he tweaked it a bit and had his character Dogberry say  “ comparisons are oderous” – ie  stink – a deliberate misuse  of the well known phrase.

Whether we say odious or oderous – the massage is the same. To make comparisons especially when people are making judgements about other people can be hurtful and cause a lot ill feeling. Its true we cant help but make comparisons in our every day life – whether we  “ Go Compare” when looking for car insurance or trying to weigh up which shop to go to for the best bargain. But when comparing ourselves to other people – that can be another matter which isn’t always helpful.

Here is a little story about making comparisons – before we take a look at what is one of Jesus’ most challenging parables that of the Pharisee and the tax collector – a story where certainly a comparison is being made.

This is a story about two brothers.

They were known all around town for being as crooked in their business dealings as they could possibly be.

They grew wealthy together but unexpectedly, one of the brothers died.

The surviving brother found himself in search of a minister who would be willing to put the finishing touches to the funeral service that he had planned for his brother.

Given the reputation of the deceased, it was not easy to find someone.

He finally made an offer to a minister that was too hard  to refuse.

“I’ll pay you a large sum of money if you will just do me one favor. In the tribute to my brother, I want you to call him a ‘saint’ and if you do, I will give you the money.”

The minister, who  always looking for money for church funds agreed.

When the funeral service began, all the important  people a who had been swindled

Through the years by these two brothers filled the church.

Unaware of the deal that had been made for the tribute,  they were expecting to be vindicated by the public exposure of the man’s character.

“Surely,” they thought, “a minister would finally tell the truth.” At last, the much-awaited moment arrived, and the minister spoke.

He said: “The man you see before you in a coffin was a vile and debauched character. He was a liar, a thief, a deceiver, a manipulator, a reprobate, and a hedonist. He destroyed the fortunes, careers, and lives of countless people in this city, some of whom are here today. This man did just about every bad thing you can think of.  But compared to his brother who is here, he was a saint.”

Todays gospel features the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – and at first glance it seems as if Jesus is making a very big comparison between two characters who would have been very well known to those listening. Let’s not forget that his primary audience on this occasion  was a group of Jewish Pharisees.

Depending on which biblical commentator you might care to read when studying this passage you will get various takes on just how good or bad the Pharisees were, Some have  sympathy for these leaders of  Judiasm  who showed great devotion to the practices of their faith even if they were very legalistic and obsessive.

Martin Warner writing in Church Times this week says “ Familiarity with the gospel stories and the regular run-ins that Jesus has with the Pharisees makes it easy for us to imagine that all Pharisees were bad. But they were generally close to the people and respected for their sincerity and discipline. It is possible that there were some like Nicodemus who were genuinely searching for the Kingdom of Heaven and could see that it was evident in Jesus.  The Pharisee in our story today shows his great commitment to fasting and charitable giving”

Jesus, surrounded by Pharisees hanging on his every word  tells a confrontational parable about two men, a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee symbolizes a person with a set of unattractive attitudes and behaviors. The  “tax collector,” symbolizes   a person with a  set of positive attitudes and behaviors.

In Jesus’ parable this Pharisee has become a symbol of a person who thinks to himself,

“I thank God that I am not like those thieves, rogues, adulterers and even that tax collector here. Let’s face it. I am good.  I am a lot better than these other riff raff. I go to church every week. I give ten percent of my income. I say my prayers daily. I am not like that riff raff of society who I choose not to mix with.

But on the other hand, there was this tax collector, standing far off in the distance. Tax collectors were much hated people seen as agents for the oppressive Roman government who extracted unfair taxes from people not to mend roads or help needy people but to advance their Roman armies and conquer the world. But often men became tax collectors as a way of earning money to feed their families and keep their heads above water. And we must not forget that Matthew was a tax collector – and that didn’t stop Jesus calling him to follow his way.

“God, please, be merciful to me” the tax collector cries out in the story.  I am such a lousy human being. I am such a sinner. God, please, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The self-righteous Pharisee went home after his prayers, feeling justified and good in his own eyes. The other poor soul was still down on his knees, still begging, still pleading with God for mercy towards his sinful life.

Jesus said, “The person who exalts himself will be humbled. The person who humbles himself  will be exalted.”

Talk about “in your face.” Jesus was “in the face” of the Pharisees. Jesus was calling them  hypocrites.  No wonder they wanted to kill him. The animosity between Jesus and the Pharisees  had been there from the beginning of his ministry and built up to a great crescendo at the end. We only have to read some vivid passage from chapters towards the end of Matthews gospel:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in. Mt 23:13

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Mt 23:15

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Mt 23:27

No wonder, faced with this kind of language, the Pharisees set out to kill Jesus.

So, what does all of this mean for our lives today as Christians? What is Jesus trying to teach us today? What are we to make of the strong comparison he makes between the Pharisee of his day and the tax collector? And who would we most identify with? The devout Pharisee who says their prayers and observes all the rules and regulations of his church – or the tax collector perhaps making a dishonest living but  aware of his deep shortcomings before God?

What does this parable mean for you and me?

Jesus does not want us to be like the Pharisees, to have hearts that are hard towards God, to have hearts that are hard towards other people whom the world considers “obvious sinners,” or  appear to lead lives very different to ours.

Jesus was angry at the Pharisees because their hearts were hard. Their hearts were not soft. Their hearts were not full of the compassion of God. Jesus’ heart was full of compassion for the lepers, the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame and those regarded as outcasts.  The hearts of the Pharisees were not. This was the problem. This is the problem if our hearts are hard and not compassionate to the “so-called” sinners of society.

And the Pharisees thought that they were better than the other more obviously sinful folk like the lepers, the poor, maimed, blind and lame. The Pharisees were proud of their uprightness and moral rectitude and did not perceive that they were lost. The Pharisees were like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son who stayed home with the father and did not realize that he was lost.

None of us are attracted to people who are conceited and full of themselves like the Pharisees were.  When we think of a person who is conceited and puffed up and putting themselves above others, do you like such people? Are you attracted to them personally?  Probably not.  I doubt that any of us are attracted to spiritually conceited people.

Jesus wants us to have the heart and attitudes of the tax collector. Jesus wants us to be humble, to be honest in our self assessment of our sinfulness. Jesus wants us to come to him on a daily basis and ask for his forgiveness for the mistakes we make.

. At the heart of the parable today is the tax collector and his deep seated awareness that he was a flawed person in need of the mercy of God. We never outgrow that need for Gods mercy as gift.

And because of we this deep seated awareness that we are  flawed human beings, Jesus counsels us not to  look down our spiritual noses at other people and secretly confess, “I thank God that I am not like them.

Jesus taught at the beginning of his ministry: “Those who are well have no need of a physician. Those who know they are sick know that they need a doctor.” We Christians never outgrow our need for a physician to heal our inner selves from all manner of hurts and prejudices and shortcomings.

A question is always asked of us after we have heard one of Jesus’ parables: “Who are we in the parable?” Are we like  the self righteous Pharisee who thinks that he/she is better than the other poor sinner  whose life are not as good as ours?  Or are we like the tax collector who never gets off their  knees as he/she begs for mercy? Who are you in this story? Where would you fit in?

And where does our church community fit in?

Let us pray to God that our hearts are open and welcoming to all those who seek to find God in our midst and that we may never think we are better than those we long to serve in Jesus’ name. Amen

So, after a very ong day at the coalface of ministry I shall put my feet up and watch the X Factor results and then the splendid Downton Abbey on ITV.

Sleep well everyone.

October 24, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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