SORRY, LIFE IS PASS/FAIL

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

August 30, 2015; Non-Lectionary Sermon

Psalm 123; Luke 18:9-14

 

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than

the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,

but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:14

 

It’s always an interesting thing to me — as it is to most pastors — where people choose to sit in church.

Some seek out their accustomed places (you know who you are). That’s a handy thing for me, because if I have to talk to somebody after church, I can very often tell at a glance if that person is here.

It’s not so handy for first-time guests who come early. They’ve never seen the invisible seating chart. Like as not, they may end up in somebody else’s favorite pew. (If you’re a regular, and this ever happens to you, I sincerely hope you’ll be gracious; nothing’s so off-putting to a newcomer as a steely glare from some stranger, for no apparent reason!)

Other people intentionally move around. You never know from one week to the next where to find them. Such a person was Jane Van Dyke, wife of the longtime pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Toms River. My wife Claire remembers a little piece of advice Jane gave her, soon after my ordination, when I was serving that church as associate pastor. “I always sit in a different place each week,” Jane told her. “That way, nobody thinks that, as the Pastor’s wife, I’m special friends with the people sitting around me. And besides — if I’m not there at all some Sunday, it’s harder for people to notice!” Smart woman, Jane.

Some worshipers are more accustomed to sit in the front — the Hallelujah rows, in the words of the old-timey evangelists.

Others make a beeline for the back. I can see, some Sundays in high season, there can be quite a competition for those folding chairs back there. Good old Presbyterians, loving to sit in the back! I have to wonder if it’s because some of you find the folding chairs more comfortable, or whether you’re more like old Moses, keeping his distance from the burning bush.

*****

          Reading today’s parable — the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, from Luke 18 — you get the sense that, even in the ancient Temple, in Jerusalem, they had an invisible seating chart.

If that’s the case, the Pharisee is in the front pew. He can be counted on to occupy that same place, week after week. As for the tax collector, he’s tucked way back in a distant corner — so he can slip in and out, without attracting attention.

The Pharisee doesn’t mind being seen. Truth be told, he enjoys it. He’s one of those “church people.” Temple worship is a big part of his life. As we’ll see in a few moments when we examine the words of his prayer, this guy’s more than a little prideful, when it comes to his religious devotion.

As for the tax collector, it’s clear he’s not there that often. He’s a fish out of water. As a matter of fact, some people in the Temple are surprised to see him there at all. His occupation is not one most people associate with deep piety. But more on that later….

*****

          As with a great many of these very familiar parables, we’ve got to spend a little time up front getting rid of some of the baggage we’ve been carrying around, as we try to understand it. An awful lot of mistaken ideas have gotten stuck to this parable over the years that have nothing to do with the original text.

First off, let’s take a look at the Pharisee. The number-one disclaimer I have to make about this character is: he’s not a bad guy.

Now, there are plenty of times in the Gospels when Jesus is engaged in debate with one Pharisee or another, and always gets the best of them. There are other times when Jesus calls the Pharisees, as a group, some pretty nasty names. He’s got a whole string of insults, in Matthew chapter 23. In the space of just a few verses, Jesus calls the Pharisees:

  • a brood of vipers
  • hypocrites
  • blind guides
  • fools who strain out a gnat but swallow a camel
  • really bad dishwashers, who scrub the outside of a cup till it shines, while leaving the inside dirty; and — this is my personal favorite —
  • “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all sorts of filth.” (23:27)

Now, you may assume, from that chain of invective, that Jesus considered the Pharisees his worst enemies — but that isn’t true. He often disagreed with them, sure enough — but it’s also clear he respected them for the depth of their learning. (If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have wasted time debating them at all.) John tells us how, in the case of at least one Pharisee, Nicodemus, Jesus receives him with respect and engages him in thoughtful discussion.

Now that we’ve painted a more three-dimensional picture of the Pharisee in our story, let’s take a look at the tax collector.

First of all, the title isn’t completely accurate. It may be more appropriate to call him a toll collector. The true tax collectors were people like Zacchaeus — those known as “chief tax collectors,” who held a commission from the Roman authorities to fill a certain revenue quota. Many of these government functionaries became very rich from amassing more money than their quota.

Not so with the mere toll collectors: like the man in this parable. For the most part, these were people of modest means who were employed by the tax collectors to carry out their work. The toll collectors were the ones everyday people ran up against. They collected money from people crossing bridges (as toll collectors do today — or did, prior to EZ-Pass). They hit up merchants in the marketplace for something like sales tax. They also issued documents similar to building permits, collecting taxes on new construction.

The common people of Judea deeply resented these low-level government functionaries. Because they cooperated with the Roman occupiers — and served, in many ways, as the face of the occupation — their fellow citizens shunned them as turncoats and collaborators.

Some Bible scholars claim the tax collectors’ work made them ritually unclean, branding them outcasts from the faith who didn’t belong in the Temple at all — but there’s scant evidence for that. Tax collectors, as members of the Jewish people, had every right to go into the Temple and pray. Nobody would have stood at the door and barred them from coming in. If a tax collector did venture through those massive doors, though — out of the Court of the Gentiles and into the place where only observant Jews congregated — he would have attracted more than his share of sidelong glances. (“What’s he doing here?”)

*****

          Now that we’ve clarified who these two men really are, let’s take a look at what they actually do — and what about that behavior Jesus’ original listeners would have found shocking.

First, the Pharisee. He “stands by himself” — not all that unusual, because standing was the position for prayer in the Temple. Nor is standing by himself very remarkable — because the very word “Pharisee” means “separate one.” Pharisees were people who aspired to particular holiness. They were extra-scrupulous in their observance of the law. In their attention to purity laws, they went way beyond what most of their fellow Jews typically did. Some resented them for this extreme devotion, but far more people admirred them for it.

Jesus chooses a Pharisee for this parable not because he’s trying to run down Pharisees in general, but because he needs a visibly holy person to play this part. A Pharisee’s about as holy as you can get — at least as his audience would have understood it.

The surprising thing, for Jesus’ listeners, was that this particular man is not a shining example of what a Pharisee ought to be. He’s petty and insulting to the tax collector. He takes a famous old prayer of Judaism — thank you, Lord, that you have not made me a Gentile, or a slave, and especially not a woman (sorry, ladies, don’t shoot the messenger) — and adapts it to the particular man he sees praying on the other side of the room: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

Did you notice the switch, there? He’s not saying, “God, I thank you that you have not made me like other sorts of people.” He’s saying, “I thank you that I am not like other people.” It sounds like he’s thanking God not for his God-given condition in life — as the classic prayer does — but for his own behavior! It’s like he’s taking credit for making himself who he is.

“Insensitive” does not get at what a lousy prayer this is. It’s downright insulting! So, what we’ve got here is a Pharisee who’s supposed to be holy, who’s supposed to treat others with kindness and respect — and who does just the opposite.

Now, let’s look at what’s surprising about the tax collector’s behavior. Instead of just standing there, in the shadows — maybe having been dragged there by some relative, a bored expression on his face, gazing at his own hands — he actually seems to be getting this religious-devotion thing. He’s not being splashy about it. It’s just that anybody looking at him can see the tears misting his eyes, can hear the anguish in his voice as he confesses his sins. More than that, he’s beating his breast. In the Hebrew scriptures — the only Bible Jesus knew — such a gesture is performed almost exclusively by women. There’s only one example of a man beating his breast, and that’s King David, as he mourns the death of his son, Absalom. Only in the most extreme circumstances did men in that culture perform such a public gesture of anguish and mental pain.

The tax collector is doing it as he confesses his sin. For him, this is obviously no rote exercise, no set liturgical prayer. He’s pouring out to God the deepest anguish of his heart. He’s right in the middle of what appears to be a religious conversion — and all that puffed-up Pharisee can do is nail him in his spoken prayer as a bad example.

How colossally insensitive — and, how positively un-Pharisaical (in the best sense of that word)! A true Pharisee — a religious reformer with a passion for bringing his fellow Jews back into the fold — would have been over there, talking with the tax collector, listening to his story, praying with him. Instead, this guy is a one-man mutual-admiration society!

It’s a little like the difference — on a college campus — between taking a course for a letter grade, and taking it pass/fail. Some students are supremely confident in their ability to pull down an “A.” They don’t want their work to be hidden in that one-size-fits-all “pass” grade. And so they do all the right things. They attend all the lectures, read all the books. They cram for the exam: and they ace it.

There are other students who know their academic skills are marginal. They register for the course pass/fail. They leave the examination room not knowing how they’ve done. They throw themselves on the mercy of the professor.

Do you know what happens, more often than not? The grades come out, and both students get credit. There’s no difference, in the end, between the one who chased a letter grade and the one who registered pass/fail. They both earn the credits.

Jesus is saying life is like that. Not even the Pharisees could measure up to the high standard of piety they set for themselves. At the end of the day, we’re all dependent on God’s grace.

*****

          So, what Jesus has done here is to craft a story about religious devotion. It’s got two characters who are as opposite as opposite can be: a bad Pharisee and a good tax collector. Either one would have sounded like an oxymoron to his listeners. How can a Pharisee be bad? How can a tax collector be good?

What so many Christian commentators have done, over the years, is to miss the fact that this man is uncharacteristic of what everyone in that place and time knows a true Pharisee to be. Instead, they’ve used the parable as a way to slam all Pharisees. “What a typical Pharisee this guy is!” is the way the story’s interpreted. There’s even an adjective, “pharisaical,” that hammers the judgement deeper.

Jesus makes the point clearly in the final verse, speaking of the repentant tax collector: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus’ chief point, in a great many of the parables, is to teach what the kingdom of God is like. Turns out, it’s a very odd sort of kingdom indeed. Most kingdoms of this world are characterized by rigid social classes. That’s what a kingdom is. The whole structure of such a society is a pyramid: the king and queen on top, the nobles just below them, the rich merchants below them, the commoners below them — and, at the very bottom, the slaves. Things don’t change much, in kingdoms of this world. It’s always a hard thing to move up to the next-higher level.

The kingdom of God is very different. The whole structure’s flipped on its head. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” God’s kingdom is a wild, unpredictable — even playful — place, where you can find bad Pharisees and profoundly good tax collectors.

The problem comes — as it does for the Pharisee in the story — when we fail to trust God to sort people into their proper places. You and I are way too eager to take that godly task of judgment onto ourselves. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns — in a famous saying — “Do not judge, and you will not be judged.” Judging another person is exactly what this bad Pharisee is doing. Before him is a man who’s profoundly overcome by the power of God, who’s in the process of letting God transform his life, and all the Pharisee can see is the man he used to be!

As our society sinks deeper into the culture wars, we seem to be getting far more adept at judging people who are different from ourselves, than truly understanding them. Democrats judge Republicans, and vice versa. Gun-control advocates judge NRA members, and vice-versa. Somebody declares, “Black lives matter,” and somebody else comes back with “Police lives matter” — or even “All lives matter.”

Listen to presidential candidates on the campaign trail, and you’ll see extreme examples of this knee-jerk judgmentalism. Some candidates seem to have no positions of their own, other than, “I’m not my opponent!” The snarky voice of the bad Pharisee echoes down through the centuries. It expresses itself in flashy electronic incarnations. The power of the media — both traditional and social — to amplify such snarky comments is something to behold.

Far better for us to emulate the repentant tax collector. He doesn’t think he’s better than others. In fact, he’s convinced he’s worse than others. But he knows what to do. He’s going to turn it over to a merciful God. He’s going to make a change. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

We should all be grateful that the God we serve — the God we come to know in Jesus Christ — is a God of mercy and of love!

Let us pray:

We are who we are, O God.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ have mercy.

Lord, have mercy. Amen.

 

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.