9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 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.”
On certain Wednesdays around here, Pastor Pam and I teach what we call “CAT” classes to 4th and 5th graders. CAT as in catechism class. This month we’re talking about stewardship and how all that exists and all that we have belongs to God and has been entrusted into our good care.
I teach the 5th grade class and a couple of weeks ago we were doing activity called “The Giving and Getting Game” – where each person began with a cup of M&Ms and a spoon. The point of the activity was to show that much of our world teaches us to get for ourselves. The more you have, the better and more valued you are.
But the 5th graders didn’t know that point yet. The only instruction for the game was this – You can only give or get m&ms with your spoon. You have two minutes. Go.
At first the group of 5th graders stood there a little confused – wait, what are we supposed to do? And so I simply repeated the instruction – You can only give or get m&ms with your spoon. You have two minutes. Go.
And to this proud pastor’s surprise, a few of them began by sharing their M&M’s. They just started dolling out their share to others and had this wonderful effect on the group. Everyone began sharing their m&ms with each other.
Now for as beautiful as this was, this wasn’t exactly proving my point. So, I may have started going around taking everyone’s m&ms with my spoon, which interestingly enough created a chain-reaction of everyone else transitioning from their generous mode of giving to a more selfish mode of getting. My greediness started to infect the whole group. Everyone, except two 5th graders. They just gave away and gave away. It was beautiful.
And the end, we all held up our clear cup of M&M’s to see who had what. And while most of us had about the same amount, those two students had none. Completely empty cups. And we asked the question – who won the game? Because the world tells us that whoever has the most wins, right? Well, everyone agreed that it was the two who humbly gave everything away who won. Now to be fair, since we were going to eat our candy as a snack, I instructed all of us to give a spoonful of M&M’s back to the two with none.
And as soon as I said this, the face of the student with none suddenly shifted from this calm, humble look…. to a sly snear, as she reached out her arms and said, “Oh yes, give ‘em to me!”
And suddenly we all felt like we had been tricked. Trapped by her generosity. As if she out smarted us, knowing that being generous to others would really benefit her in the end. Or maybe she was even tricked and trapped by her own generosity. She sought to be generous and not greedy. But in the end, she became the very thing she sought to avoid.
The parables of Jesus have the tendency to do the exact same thing to us – to trick and trap us, until we aren’t sure which way to turn or which position to take. And sometimes we end up becoming the very thing the parable wants us to avoid. And our parable for this morning is no different.
Two men go up to the temple to pray –a Pharisee and a tax collector.
Most of us have an immediate reaction to this parable and it is a reaction of disdain and disgust for just how arrogant and selfish and holier-than-thou the Pharisee sounds. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
And then we hear the prayer of the tax collector and they just sounds so honest and humble. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
And then we make this parable to be about a seemingly Lutheran repentant tax collector who relies solely on God’s grace alone, and is worthy of our compassion, over against a self-righteous Pharisee who thinks their good works can save them.
And with a sly sneer, we walk away saying to ourselves, “Thank you God that I am not like that Pharisee. I’m way more humble than he is.”
And suddenly we are trapped by the parable, becoming the very thing we thought to avoid – arrogant and selfish and holier than thou.
And isn’t it interesting that at the end of the parable Jesus proclaims – for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Well, my question is – how can we heed Jesus’ words to be humble without the secret hope to then be exalted, which then makes us the ones who exalt themselves and thus the ones who will be humbled. It seems to be a trap us and it’s hard to figure out.
But as Pastor Pam shared last week, parables aren’t problems to solve once and for all, but rather they are a story to wander around and get lost in. Asking questions along the way.
So let’s do that.
We have a Pharisee and a tax collector. My first question is – what do you think of when you hear the word “Pharisee”? I think most Christians have been trained to hear that word with a negative connotation. But Jesus’ audience would likely have heard that word with great respect. A Pharisee was one who followed God’s law, which is to be commended. They were the respected teacher who walked the walk and talked the talk.
And the tax collector? In the church we’ve often put tax collectors into the category of the marginalized deserving our compassion and care. But for Jesus’ audience, the tax collector would be the despised Jewish traitor who works for Rome and not for God. He is likely dishonest and corrupt, overcharging the population for his own gain. The very fact that a tax collector would be in the temple, let alone praying, would be unsettling and laughable.
So a respected Pharisee and a despised tax collector walk into the temple to pray.
Now, the Pharisee is standing by himself and begins to pray. And it is easy for us to see this prayer as selfishly self-promoting and braggadocious. But it is worth noting that he does not simply see himself as a self-made person. He does give thanks to God for his lot in life, showing that he does see himself dependent upon God. Now, we could spend an entire sermon talking about whether that’s how God actually functions in the world, giving people their lot in life. But for today, let’s just note that perhaps the Pharisee isn’t as selfishly arrogant as we might assume.
And his prayer about all that he has done, which can sound to us as cocky, can be found as a command in Deuteronomy – to pray to God about all the things you have done, following the law. This Pharisee is just simply following the law.
Now, what is startling about his prayer is that what he has done – fast twice a week and give a tenth of all he owns – goes above and beyond what was expected of him as a Pharisee. There was no requirement to fast twice a week and there was no requirement to tithe from everything you owned.
He did more than was expected of him. In fact, the Pharisee’s fasting and tithing would’ve been seen as commendable acts that benefit the entire community, even as atoning payment for the sins of others in the community. As one preacher has said, this Pharisee could’ve run for office without any fear of skeletons in the closet.
And so it is because he is such an up-standing citizen, that it comes as a great surprise that he would judge this tax collector, a member of his community. What is surprising about this Pharisee is not that he’s self-centered and arrogant. He should feel good about the good he’s done. But rather what is surprising is that while speaking of his abundant good works that benefit the community, he judges a member of his community for their sins- the tax collector.
Which is where we turn next. Now, the tax collector is standing far off and begins to pray. But did you notice that the tax collector confesses his sin, but makes no resolve to stop sinning? It is quite possible that he will leave the temple and return to his occupation as a traitor tax collector on behalf of the Roman Empire. Can we trust this tax collector? It is sort of like when just about any politician suddenly starts showing up at church during an election season. We all are just a little suspicious of it. Can we trust him? Is this tax collector genuine in his need for mercy or is he simply using and abusing the temple as an ATM of forgiveness so that he can sleep at night? Who knows?
So who do we want to be in this parable? The judge-y Pharisee who does amazing good works? Or the honest tax collector who feels bad but might not actually stop what he’s doing?
And then we get that line from Jesus – I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.
And this is where we get into trouble.
Because now we think we’ve got the answer. Aha! Better to be the honest tax collector desperately in need of the grace of God. And that’s when we can say, “Whew, thank God I’m not like that Pharisee.”
But Jesus’ words here aren’t as clear as they seem. That phrase “rather than”. It can mean that. Or it can mean “because of.” What if the phrase is – And Jesus said, I tell you this man went home justified because of this one.
Remember this Pharisee did more good than was expected of him? He had more good works than he needed. You see, the Jewish community emphasized the need for community. They would pray in the plural – our Father, Give us our daily bread, and forgive us of our sins. It was a community in which each member was responsible for the other. The sin of one can negatively impact the other. AND the good deeds of one can positively impact the other.
In the beginning, we had a Pharisee who stood by himself, thinking his praise-worthy good works belonged to him and him alone. And we had a tax collector who stood far off, thinking his destructive sin isolated him from the community. But in the end, perhaps, both men walk away justified, one because of the other. And erasing the distinction between them – they both are recipients of the justifying grace of God.
And as a result we are reminded not of who we are in the parable or who we should be – that’s the trap of the parable. But rather we are remind of who God is. A God whose grace cannot be limited to one over the other. A kind of grace that is not privatized and individualized, but a grace that is communal and shared, stretched over both those who don’t deserve it and those who think they do.
In just a few moments, we all will make promises to McKenzie Marie through baptism. To raise McKenzie Marie in the faith and to support this family. But we don’t to this simply because we think we have something to teach McKenzie about God. But it is because McKenzie has something to teach us about God. We share in God’s blessing together, because of each other.
And in this season of stewardship, as we ask you to support this place of St. John’s ministry, we don’t ask so that you can support our ministry, as if we are separate. It is to support the ministry we all share, because of each other, through this place, as a community. This stewardship season our goals are to support our continued ministry, but also to grow our feeding ministry and our welcoming ministry. This week, you’ll find an insert on your bulletin on our feeding ministry. When you give to support the feeding ministry, it not only benefits you because you can feel good about following God’s call to love your neighbor – which you can! But it is also that because of you your neighbor and the whole community benefits.
My dear friends, there is no limit on God’s grace. If one person receives it, it is not because another had it taken away. It is something we all share. So let us not exalt ourselves over others because we will be humbled. And let us not humble ourselves in hopes of being exalted. But rather maybe we can just sit together in peace under the canopy of God’s grace, trusting that there is plenty of room and that we all are there both for and because of one another. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Fred Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, p. 175.
 Amy Jill-Levine, Short Stories by Jesus. This is sermon was significantly influenced by her chapter on this parable.