A Prayer of Gratitude that Saved a Soul
A sermon based on Luke 18:9-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 27, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A nervous taxpayer was unhappily conversing with a tax collector while she reviewed his records. The IRS auditor saw the man’s frown, looked over her reading glasses and said “Sir, we feel it is a great privilege to be allowed to live and work in the USA. As a citizen you have an obligation to pay taxes, and you might consider paying them with a smile.” The man replied, “Thank goodness, I thought you expected me to consider paying them with a check.”
Our modern taxes and tax collectors do make some folks nervous, even secretive, for lot of reasons I suppose, most of them have to do with owing money or disclosing secrets or even shenanigans meant to avoid taxes. But we need to work on setting aside our modern notions of taxes and tax collectors to understand New Testament references to them, like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable that Brian just read so nicely. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were not government workers trying to do their job and make sure everyone paid the amount they owed. Back in Jesus’ day tax collectors were more like mafia henchmen sent to collect protection money under threat of violence and disaster. A Feasting on the Word commentary on our lesson describes them like this:
Ancient Palestinian tax collectors . . . are not like contemporary [IRS] agents paid to enforce the law. They are franchises of a corrupt and byzantine system that gouges the poor and enriches the wealthy. The tax collector, by definition a wealthy man, pays the empire a set amount for the privilege of gathering whatever he can squeeze from his neighbors. Although he is personally responsible for the money owed by his district, he is free to collect that money any way he wants, and anything he collects above what he owes is his profits . . .
The commentary goes on to note that:
Tax collectors . . . often farm[ed] out their own responsibilities to others creating a perfect pyramid scheme of graft. It is no wonder they are roundly despised. 1
So a second century tax collector in Palestine was more than someone to be nervous about going through tax records and handing out tax bills. A tax collector was a person everyone hearing the story when Jesus told it would fear and loath.
And we need to also adjust our thinking about Pharisees too. Sadly, and quite wrongly, we tend to think of them as self righteous opponents of Jesus. But that is not accurate. In Jesus’ day Pharisees were rightly respected and looked up to. This may surprise us even more, they also tended to have a progressive theology related to theologies many of us embrace. Listen to the commentary’s notes on Pharisees:
Pharisees held to a liberal interpretation of Scripture, and the aim of Pharisaic law was to make observance of the Torah available to all. 2 . . .
Pharisees are the first to promote the “priesthood of all believers” . . . [and were] particularly contemptuous of tax collectors who consort with Romans, handle their money and extort from the populace. 3 .
The early Jesus Followers were Jewish and it is highly likely they and Jesus held such people (the Pharisees) in high regard as careful prayerful community leaders and people to respect. We tend to think that Pharisees are whom the parable is being addressed, but actually as we heard Jesus addressed the parable to
“some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Jesus does not claim the Pharisee in his story is such a person. In fact we can hear Jesus set the story up so a holy man, a righteous respected Pharisee, is paired off with an unholy man, an unscrupulous loathed tax collector.
Parables tend to have shocking endings, and we can find Jesus building up toward a shock in this story. But it may not be what we have been led to think. Parables call us to roll the story around in our heads a bit and draw our own conclusions.
I decided to see if I could find something other than the usual route commentators take on this Lectionary reading. Typically it is understood to be about a Pharisee who is contemptuous, and Jesus’s leads us to have contempt for the contemptuous. That does not seem on the mark to me, so I thought I roll the story around in my head and do a good bit of prayer, research and thinking about the story. What I found was Jesus has two men at the opposite ends of the spectrum of righteous conduct appear in a very Holy place, the Temple. He has both men take up the pious and intimate position, standing and praying and then Jesus lets us in on the conversations they have with God. He discloses their prayers – which in the time of the Temple were typically uttered aloud with hands lifted to heaven. The Pharisee goes first and offers what fairly can be called a prayer of gratitude to God. He does not petition God for anything in this particular prayer, he just offers thanks:
“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.”
We usually listen to this parable and tend to come away thinking ill of this prayer and the man who prayed it. But listen to what happens when we set tradition aside and tease out new to us meaning. First of all, in the words of this story and in the context of both Jesus and Luke we can understand that a Pharisee has come to worship and is communing with God . . . as he should. We also learn from the Pharisee’s prayer that he is a lawful person. He has avoided being a thief, rogue, adulterer and a tax collector. More than that, he is also lawful in that he otherwise does right by the law, by Torah. He follows its practices, including prayer, fasting, tithing and a pilgrimage to the Temple. And far from being self centered he is thankful to God that he has stayed off the low road and is on the high road, and he responds as he should with gratitude and offerings to God. Looking at this fellow in Jesus’ very short description with a fresh lens we can see him as right in moral conduct, right in being thankful, to God and right in responding to all he is grateful for with religious spiritual practices of going to worship, prayer, fasting and offering.
Again, most Christian commentators do not have this view of the parable. Christian tradition tends to find the Pharisee’s prayer self centered and contemptuous of thieves, rogues, adulterers, and the nearby tax collector. This view leads to the Pharisee being seen as committing the sin of the listeners that Jesus is speaking to, those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” In other words, many Christian commentators understand this parable as about how sinful it is to look down in contempt at others.
That IS a sin, but there’s something about finding it as the focal point that’s troubling. Because it leads us to look down contemptuously on those who are looking down contemptuously. It ironically perpetrates the sin it is supposed to focus on, making it confusing and hypocritical rendering– and at odds with Jesus’ teachings.
While many modern Christian commentators take that slipperily slope and see the sin of contempt as the focus, Jesus and Luke’s community were not modern Christians, they were Jewish. They did not have centuries of Christian doctrines regarding sin and guilt and anti-Jewish sentiment to both taint the meaning of the parable and view the Pharisee poorly. So I turned to a source which explains New Testament understandings from a Jewish perspective, The Jewish Annotated New Testament. And sure enough that text propounds an intriguing meaning very unlikely heard in many sermons covering this Lectionary text today. That Commentary suggests that:
might we see the Pharisee as helping the tax collector. Just as the sin of one person impacts the community . . . so the merits of the righteous can benefit the community. . . Perhaps the Jews who first heard this parable understood the Pharisee’s merit positively to have impacted the tax collector. This would be the parable’s shock: not only that the agent of Rome is justified but that the Pharisee’s own good works helped in the justification. 4
In other words, the parable can be heard to mean the ripple effects of goodness can move others toward goodness.
“Justification” in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament is shorthand for (as my theological dictionary puts it): “being acquitted, vindicated, declared righteous or innocent . . .” That dictionary goes on to note that “The contrary of justified is condemned.” 5 Notably none of the two men in Jesus story are condemned, and only one prays for justification. The Pharisee does not petition God for justification in the Temple, he offers a prayer of gratitude for his life not going down the tubes. And in that prayer – said aloud– we know he has not only followed God’s teachings, but has supported the Temple with the very generous practice of offering a tenth of his income to sustain the faith community. The Pharisee can be understood as already being justified by following God’s commands, in Judaism the reward for following a command is following the command. The evidence found in the Pharisee’s prayer states a very model of righteous command-compliance living.
And like prayers said aloud in this worship space it is not a stretch that the tax collector heard the Pharisee’s prayer and was moved by it. Which could explain why it is ONLY after the Pharisee says thanks to God that the tax collector is moved to behave righteously. It is following the Pharisee’s prayer that the tax collector could not
even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
The tax collector takes a very humble stance before God, he does not lift up his face and arms to God but, shows signs of remorse, and repentance, and then petitions God to be merciful, confesses he is a sinner. As a result Jesus said
“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.”
There was only one man who asked to be “justified” up in the temple. There was from all we can tell only one man among the two, who needed to . . . the tax collector. His simple short prayer was answered and he was justified.
We can hear and understand that Jesus told this parable in such away that the tax collector’s prayer itself, was motivated by the prayerful and humble thankfulness of a righteous man, the Pharisee. He, the Pharisee, was not like those Jesus told the parable too, those
who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
The Pharisee did what the righteous should do, he took his righteousness before God in a humble prayer of gratitude for it and he acted righteously. The shock of the parable is that such a holy life and a prayer of thanks for it can unknowingly and profoundly influence even an unholy eavesdropping tax collector to repent and be justified. And, of course, self righteousness and contempt for others, cannot have such an effect. Jesus did not teach us to be contemptuous of even the contemptuous. He did teach us to model righteousness and be thankful to God.
May we be like that version of the Pharisee, perhaps our prayers of gratitude and righteous actions might also save a soul. Let it be so. AMEN
1. E. Elizabeth Johnson, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol 4, p215-216
2 Ibid., at Marjorie Proctor Smith p 213
3 Ibid., at Elizabeth Johnson, p 215,
4 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p. 138.
5 Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms, p 314.
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