In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Listen to this interesting sentence I found about parables. “Parables are like fishing lures: they are full of attractive features—feathers, bright colors—and they end with a sharp little barb!” [Marjorie Proctor-Smith, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4, p. 213]
Today’s gospel is one of Jesus’ parables. It’s concise. It tells a little story that we can understand easily. It lures us into complacency when we think about how different we are from that Pharisee. But then if we spend more time with the parable it starts to eat at us. We may see ourselves in a new, uncomfortable light. We might see that we have much more in common with the Pharisee than we do with the tax collector. That’s the sharp little barb.
It’ll help me to flesh this out if we all understand the two types of people we have in this parable. Pharisees often get a bad rap in the Christian church and in the wider culture, but in those days the Pharisees were Jews who were highly educated in the Law of Moses. They weren’t so much associated with temple worship as they were with the ways the Law is lived out at home—where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. They knew and tried to follow all the rules. They were authorities and they were highly esteemed in Jewish society.
And now tax collectors. We know that in those days tax collectors took in the taxes due the occupiers of Palestine—the Roman Empire. And it was a profitable thing to be a tax collector, for as long as the Empire got its due, the tax collectors were free to slap on a nice surcharge as their payment. Many of them were rolling in money, and none too popular among their peers.
So as usually happens in Jesus’ parables, by the end of the story it’s the one who’s usually thought of as wicked or unworthy who is the hero. The one who is usually respected and esteemed is the one whose prayer ends up rejected by God.
The key to understanding the upside down reversal here is right in the very first line. Do you see it? Yes! It’s the fact that the parable is told to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
Consider the Pharisee. He stands by himself. Why? Perhaps because he was too good to mix with the rest of the people? Maybe. We don’t know for sure. But his prayer. Oh dear: “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.”
The Pharisee is telling God how good he is. Not how good God is. But how good the Pharisee is. He’s the self-made man of goodness, according to himself. Do you see that he isn’t acknowledging that his blessings come from God, and that his offerings and devotional practices are for God? They are for himself, the Pharisee. They help him feel holier-than-thou. They speak to his ego that’s always hungry for praise. He probably can never feel filled up.
The tax collector, however, is aware of how much he needs God’s help. He knows he’s sinning. He admits it and bows in his prayer of petition, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And he’s the one who goes home // right with God—it’s that characteristic flourish at the end of a parable where fortunes are reversed. The sharp little barb.
So for a minute, think about this Pharisee a bit. Do you know anyone like him? How about this modern prayer—I wonder if anyone can relate to it. Here it is, “O Lord, I thank thee that I am not like other people: my next-door-neighbor who is enjoying a round of golf right now instead of attending church; my friend in the other political party who does not understand your will for our nation; or even that scruffy-looking taxi driver sitting two pews over. I am here every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening; I pledge faithfully; I serve on three important church committees.” [Laura S. Sugg, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4, p. 212] Now, I got that from a book of reflections on the gospel, but really, doesn’t it sound like it could be prayed by any one of us—especially ourselves?
One of the problems with the Pharisee is that he believes humans fall into a kind of hierarchy of acceptability. It’s as if he thinks we’re all arranged on a ladder to heaven, and he’s on one of the highest rungs. But it’s not until we really understand that we’re all down in the mud together—and that each one of us is as flawed as the other (just differently flawed)—that we can begin to see ourselves as creatures totally dependent on the mercy of God.
And as we consider our national plight of an election season that’s so full of rancor, it’s an important first step toward healing to remember that until we really see ourselves, as WE really are, flawed and totally relying on God’s grace, we can’t begin to accept and maybe even have compassion for the other. As one commentator wrote, “It’s hard to transform what you aren’t willing to name.” [Willie Dwayne Francois III, “Living by the Word for October 23, 2016,” Christian Century, October 12, 2016, p. 20]
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Now, we know that it’s just 2 Sundays till the time we make our pledges for 2017, and then celebrate together with a nice big brunch in the parish hall. So it’s kind of funny to me that in our parable today, tithing—which is giving 10% of your income to the temple, or to the church—gets a very bad name. That’s deliciously ironic. But of course it’s only because the Pharisee uses his tithing as one more way to bolster up his ego before God and everyone else, too.
Truth be told, thank God for those who tithe—who give that 10%. Because they are doing so much heavy lifting for the parish. Just don’t use it as something to brag about.
I draw our attention as well to the first sentence in our reading from the Wisdom of Sirach—otherwise known as Ecclesiasticus. Sirach writes, “Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford. For the Lord is the one who repays, and he will repay you sevenfold.” Sevenfold.
So THANK YOU for giving generously. Thanks to so very many of our parishioners who increase their pledges each year to grow closer and closer to the tithe. Thank God for all who give. We could not be a vibrant faith community without everyone’s contributions. That is a fact.
Giving is one private practice with no sharp little barbs attached. Only rewards.