“The Righteous & The Repentant” Colchester Federated Church, October 23, 2022, (Luke 18:9-14) Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Today Jesus tells a parable “to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.”[1]  Jesus relates that two people went up to the Temple to pray.  One was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.  Let’s remember that the Pharisees were part of a Jewish movement devoted to observing Torah, ritual purity, and piety before God.  The Pharisees established the authority of Oral Torah alongside the Written Torah.  They opened observances that were once undertaken exclusively by priests to every Jew.  Whatever their role within Judaism might have been in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the leaders who redefined Judaism after the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.  They were democratic and popular—reforming and reinterpreting the Jewish faith in a way that lasted in a rapidly changing world.  Given instances of anti-Semitism of late, we must be careful in the Christian Church when we encounter Pharisees.  They were not all bad.  In fact, it was the Pharisees who basically saved Judaism after the harsh reality of Roman rule.

So in our Gospel story, we have a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Now tax collectors were despised.  In the First Century, tax collectors were often untrustworthy cheaters.  This tax collector in the parable is Jewish; we know that because he goes to the Temple to pray.  By nature of him being a Jewish tax collector we can wonder whether he’s taking advantage of his own people.  In his line of work, he collected tolls, market duties, and all kinds of local taxes (sales tax, income tax, property tax, and inheritance tax.)  But tax collectors made a better living by overcharging people.  Some saw them as Roman collaborators.[2]

Jesus sets the scene by talking about these two people going to the Temple to pray.  One was a Pharisee and one was a tax collector.  Now if we are his First Century Jewish audience, we are preparing ourselves to be united in our hatred of the tax collector (because they’re crooks!)  Except leave it to Jesus to tell a story where the tax collector is the one in the right and the Pharisee is the one in the wrong. 

In the parable, the Pharisee stands and prays, “God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.”[3]  Basically, I’m so awesome, hope you’re seeing how great I am and paying attention, God, especially compared to that horrible tax collector over there.

Meanwhile the tax collector “stood at a distance.”  This could mean standing at a distance from the most holy place in the Temple (the holy of holies), standing at a distance from the Pharisee, or even standing at a distance from others at prayer.  The tax collector might have been standing in an outer courtyard—to signify that he felt unworthy before God and in the presence of others.  It would be like someone coming to worship and standing out in the narthex because they can’t bring themselves to come inside the sanctuary and sit in a pew.  The tax collector’s manner of prayer shows that he’s ashamed, beating his breast in extreme anguish and contrition.  He prays: “God, show mercy to me, a sinner” while looking down at his feet and not making eye contact with anyone who may have passed by him as they walked into the inside courtyards of the Temple.[4]

The tax collector doesn’t compare himself to the Pharisee.  He shows up to pray because it’s clear that he needs to be in the presence of God asking for mercy.  Now where the Pharisee is in the wrong isn’t necessarily because he lists out what he’s doing as he’s observing his Jewish faith.  He could be thinking of these categories to make sure that he’s being faithful.  He’s in the wrong because he begins his prayer by comparing himself to people he deems unworthy and quite literally thanking God that he’s not them.

Jesus uses this exaggerated parable where the tax collector is in the right and the Pharisee is in the wrong to call out people who convince themselves that they are righteous and look upon everyone else with disgust.  It remains a parable that helps us to think about who we want to be and how we want to make our way through the world.  Are we able to do our thing and be true to ourselves and not put other people down in the process?  Must we always compare ourselves to one another or to some cultural ideal that may or may not be possible to attain anyway?  Over the years when people have complained to me about organized religion or even the Church being full of hypocrites I have sometimes said, “Yes, the Church is full of hypocrites.  And there’s always room for one more!”

Or we can recall the story that one day in the South Pacific, a ship captain saw smoke coming from a hut on an uncharted island.  When the crew arrived on the island, they were met by a grateful shipwreck survivor.  The man said, “I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve been alone on this island for more than five years!”  The captain replied, “If you’re all alone on the island why do I see three huts?”  The survivor said, “Oh. Well, I live in one, and go to church in another.” “Well, what about the third hut?” asked the captain.  “Well, that’s where I used to go to church.”

Here’s a secret—there is no such thing as a perfect church.  Why?  Because there is no such thing as a perfect person and every church is made up of people.  This parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is Jesus reminding us that religion can be used to build people up or tear people down.  If we get in the habit of tearing people down and we use our faith to do it—that is a dangerous place to be.  That is not a great path to go down to say the very least. 

Churches are full of perfectly imperfect people.  That’s the point!  Churches are full of people who recognize that there is something powerful about gathering in community, working together for the common good, sometimes asking one another for forgiveness when we mess up and hurt each other, being grounded in Jesus’ loving teachings.  Churches are often full of people who attend because we know that we aren’t perfect.  It was William Sloane Coffin who related, “It is often said that the Church is a crutch.  Of course it’s a crutch.  What makes you think you don’t limp?”[5]  Friends, let us remember that our church is full of perfectly imperfect people, sometimes limping along as we do our best to love God, ourselves, and one another.  Thanks be to God that we have a place to do so side by side.  Amen.

[1] Luke 18:9, CEB.
[2] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 118-127.
[3] Luke 18:11-12.
[4] Luke 18:13.
[5] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, pg. 137.

Photo by Rev. Lauren L. Ostrout