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Sermon for October 23, 2022: A Pharisee and a Publican walk into a temple (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

A publican or tax collector and a Pharisee walk into the Temple together. Doesn’t

this sound like a setup for a good joke? Indeed The brilliance of Jesus’ parables is

how they shock and surprise the hearers by subverting conventional wisdom and

expectations. One parable is about the Pharisee and the tax collector in today’s


Jesus directed this parable to people he knew who trusted that they were righteous

and regarded others with contempt. A pharisee and a tax collector went to the

Temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God that he was unlike other people:

thieves, rogues, adulterers, and sinners like the disgraceful tax collector. He praised

himself for fasting twice a week and giving his tithes. On the other hand, the tax

collector bowed his head, beat his breast, and prayed: “God, be merciful to me, a

sinner.” Jesus said the latter was made right with God between the Pharisee and the

tax collector. 

This parable is probably not surprising to us; having 1600 years or so, hearing

Jesus’ parables turns the world upside down. But to almost all Jesus’ listeners at

the time, it would’ve been shocking. The parable provides a vivid example of the dangers of religiosity. The Pharisee is, first of all, a religious person, a leader among his fellow Jews, and a spiritual guide for those who seek to follow God’s law faithfully. He is careful in his religious observance and generous with his money. No doubt he is, in the eyes of the world

and his own eyes, a good and righteous person. The problem here is not his

religious observance or his piety but his inability to see and name his dependence

on God.

The tax collector, on the other hand, was a man who knew his place and station in

life — he worked for the Romans. He took money from his fellow citizens and

gave it to the hated foreigners and did this for one reason: to make a profit. The

Romans had taken over his country, and as a tax collector, he could enjoy a

comfortable lifestyle, unlike most of his fellow citizens. When the tax collector

approached the Temple, he stood before God and said, “God be merciful to me, a

sinner.” He didn’t try to construct an alibi about his work; instead, he beat his

breast and offered a cry of humility rather than a prayer of proper length and style.

He pled with God to cleanse a soul that was dark and sinful. God accepted the tax

collector’s prayer because of his honest confession of who and what he was. So

when Jesus approves of the tax collector, one can imagine the shock that went

through his hearers. It would be as if he’d singled out someone who has ruined

people with a Ponzi scheme and now enters our church and professes repentance in

the company of those defrauded. If polled, we’d probably vote to approve of a self-

righteous but upright person over a swindler and a crook.

While Both the Pharisee and the tax collector prayed proper prayers, a prayer of

thanksgiving by the Pharisee and a prayer of repentance by the tax collector, the

problem with the Pharisee’s prayer was I. The Pharisee’s prayer of thanksgiving

was almost narcissistic in that he congratulated himself before instead of God. As

Fr. Richard Rohr puts it, “Religion is one of the safest places to hide from God.”

It can be easy to hide our broken selves under the many beautiful things we do.

It is possible to do all the right things, like being active in the community and the

church, praying, doing justice, defending peace and the integrity of creation,

helping the poor, the immigrants, and the youth, and advocating for the rights of

those most in danger of losing them. Our good works sometimes serve as a

smokescreen to make us look good and busy and feel great about ourselves!

God approves of the wretched tax collector over the Righteous Man because the

tax collector admits his faults. We show our penitence not just by making our

confession together but by our willingness to forgive and love those in need.

By looking at the tax collector’s prayer as a model of prayer, we are drawn to

consider God’s great mercy. The sins of the tax collector were undoubtedly actual

and severe. Tax collectors commonly stole from those they taxed and pocketed the

money for themselves; they collaborated with the oppressors of their people; they

accepted bribes as a matter of routine. Repentant tax collectors engage in

restitution in other stories, but not here. This parable is interested only in his trust

in God’s mercy. If a tax collector can find mercy before God, who is excluded?

Those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others

with contempt” have set themselves up in God’s place as judge of who is in and

who is out. Jesus intends his words for both the Pharisees and the disciples. It is

worth remembering that after the transfiguration, Jesus chastised James and John

for arguing about which one of them was the greatest; Jesus told them, as he put a

little child at his side, that the least among all of them was the greatest;

We come before God today not secure in our righteousness, but as the old prayer

puts it, “in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather

up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is

always to have mercy.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, in his book, “The Steps of Humility,” said: Pursue truth

of God, and you come to contemplation; Pursue truth of neighbor, and you come to

compassion; Pursue truth of self, and you come to humility. If we do likewise, our

prayers become more real.

Without God’s love, our love isn’t up to that task. With God’s love, we can love

even those who repel us. Amen.

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