Society of Modern Tax Collectors and Pharisees

Luke 18:9-14
In her memoir Breathing Space, Pastor Heidi Neumark tells of giving out ashes on the street outside her church in the South Bronx on Ash Wednesday. It was long before ashes-to-go were a thing – it was almost a necessity. You see, that neighborhood was one of the most hard-scrabble and forgotten places in NYC.
Pastor Heidi knew the people of the neighborhood. She often walked its streets and visited with neighbors. Some of the folks she met had started coming to the church. Some became members and leaders in the congregation. 
But others would not step inside the church. No matter how many times Pastor Heidi visited with them on the street or prayed with them in their apartments.
They would not come inside. They were the addicted, the sick, the people who’d burned all their bridges. They didn’t come inside because they believe they weren’t worthy of God’s grace.
So, Pastor Heidi came to them: outside. She spoke the words, “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” and made a dark smudge on their faces. They understood what that dark smudge meant. It was their sin, their unworthiness, their messed-up lives. It told the truth about them, but it was also in the shape of a cross—a sign that no life, no person is beyond redemption.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells a story about two men who come to the temple to pray. 
One is what we’d generally think of as a good guy: 
  • He is a Pharisee, which means that he was educated, an upstanding member of the community, likely a family man.
  • He’s a model of faithful living. He prays at the temple and fasts regularly—he even tithes. 
By all the usual standards, this guy’s got his life together. So, when he comes to the temple, he comes right inside and prays with confidence: Thank you, God, for making me what I am!
The other man who comes to pray, on the other hand, is a tax collector.
  • Tax collectors worked for the Romans, the occupying power.
  • They made their living off the backs of the common people, and often skimmed money off the top to line their own pockets.
So, when this guy came to pray, he was public sinner #1. He stood ‘far off,’ not even coming near the temple. Like the people receiving ashes on the street, he wouldn’t come inside. His prayer was not one of thanksgiving, but a heart wrenching plea for mercy.
Jesus’ parables always invite us to imagine ourselves as one of the characters. We don’t want to be the despised tax collector. We don’t want to be the bum outside on the street getting ashes. Given a choice, I think most of us would rather be the Pharisee in this story. We want to be the one on the inside with our life together, the one people look up to and say, “Wow! I want to be like her!”
But the Pharisee, for all his achievements, really misses the boat. Jesus tells this story in such a way that we can see right into his heart. We see that his goodness becomes a way for him to look down on other people. It becomes his measuring stick for judging others. And when they don’t measure up, he takes it as a moral failure. He stands separated from them, out of touch with their suffering, aloof and arrogant.
That’s when Jesus turns the tables. The tax collecting sinner—the one who’s messed up his whole life, who’s lied and cheated and maybe even been in jail—This is the one Jesus lifts up as an example. “This [tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the other; for all who humble themselves will be exalted, and all who exalt themselves will be humbled.”
Jesus lifts this man up, because he understands the fundamental thing: his need for God’s mercy.

It’s a hard parable, because I don’t want to identify with either of the characters.

I don’t want to try on the shoes of the tax collector who feels on the outside of God’s grace

Or be such a smug jerk like insider Pharisee.

The truth is, my friends, there is little difference between those on the outside and those within. We all have a little of the Pharisee and the tax collector within us. We are all in recovery from something that has shaken us to our core. We come here out of our deep and abiding need for forgiveness, love and mercy. This, says Jesus, is what makes a person justified, right in the eyes of God.

  • Not your good life
  • Not your success
  • Not your education or your 401k
What makes you right in the eyes of God is recognizing your need.

This parable invites us to consider who is on the outside today, who might be uncomfortable setting foot into a church.

  • The person going through a divorce
  • The person with a child on the spectrum
  • The person who loves someone incarcerated or lives with mental illness


It might be me or you whose life seems to be a mess. It invites us to consider who might feel on the inside track today, hard hearted and Impervious to the struggles of others. Someone who needs an infusion of humility and compassion – and it might be us.
It leads us to understand we are in the same boat. And so, we can let go of judgment, and instead reach out to others, embrace them as brothers and sisters on the journey.
Jesus’ parable teaches us that there really aren’t insiders or outsiders to God. There are just people who know their need for God, and those who still need to see it. 
We are a community of forgiven sinners, the society of modern tax collectors and Pharisees.
If we can put on those shoes, then we’ll all go down justified. 

We’ll live out the extravagant and transforming love of Jesus.

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