"Come As You Are"

Scripture:  Luke 18:9-14


In the process of writing this morning’s sermon, I went through a number of different sermon outlines as I tried to decide on what I wanted to say about this parable.  I kept thinking that I was on the right track with my interpretation.  Then as I read over what I’d come up with, I realized that, although I tried to come at it from a few different angles, what I ended up saying was, in essence, "Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocritical, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble."

Part of my temptation to take this sermon in that direction is that my knowledge of Jesus’ teachings has unfairly skewed my perceptions of the Pharisees.  I know my Bible well enough to know that, generally, when Jesus brings up the Pharisees, he’s going to be condemning them.  However, this image that has been built into our brains about the Pharisees is not historically accurate.  The reason Jesus referred to them so often is because they were the quintessential good guys.  Jesus doesn’t bring them up all the time because they are so terrible, but rather, so that he can say, “Even the Pharisees, who go to such lengths to follow the Law and live righteous lives – even they get it wrong sometimes.”

Meet The Characters

So, go ahead and forget the prejudice that Jesus’ frequently stinging remarks about the Pharisees have formed in your mind.  Give this particular Pharisee all the credit you can – there is no reason to assume that anything he states in his prayer is untrue.  He takes nothing he hasn’t earned and he deals honestly with everyone he knows.  He’s faithful to his wife, patient with his children, and loyal to his friends.  It is true – he is not at all like this tax collector...

The tax collector, on the other hand, is the guy that we know from all of our Bible knowledge is the good guy, right?  Wrong.  Jesus mentions tax collectors so often because they are the quintessential bad guys.  It is difficult to describe in modern terms the extent of the “loathing and disgust with which the average Jewish citizen regarded tax collectors.”[1]  The feelings some people hold toward the IRS today can’t even hold a candle to the loathing felt toward tax collectors in First Century Palestine.  The closest we might get would be to compare them to a drug dealer or a pimp, but even that is imperfect because most of us have never felt directly personally wronged by a drug dealer or a pimp.  One commentator writes:

A tax collector is the worst kind of crook: a legal one, a big operator, a mafia-style enforcer working for the Roman government on a nifty franchise that lets him collect – from his fellow Jews, mind you, from the people whom the Romans might have trouble [tracking down], but whose whereabouts he knows and whose language he speaks – all the money he can bleed out of them, provided only [that] he pays the authorities an agreed flat fee.  He has been living for years on the cream that he has skimmed off of [his neighbors’] milk money.[2]

Needless to say, you can be sure that when Jesus shared this parable with the original audience, they were inclined to side with the Pharisee.  And, honestly, before hearing Jesus’ closing lines in this passage, they never would have even entertained the thought of siding with the tax collector.

What About Us?

And when you hear the details of who these people are, aren’t you also at least a little bit inclined to side with the Pharisee over the tax collector?  I know, I know.  It hurts to think that we might actually side with – or, perhaps, we may even identify ourselves with – the Pharisee.

We recoil at the thought of being associated in any way with the Pharisee in this story, and perhaps in some ways, that’s a good thing.  At the same time, many of us aspire to have the disciplined spiritual life that is modeled by this Pharisee.  And if we’re honest, how many of us congratulate ourselves now and again on our moral achievements?  I know that I tend to feel good about myself when I reach out to comfort a friend or offer food to a homeless person. 

We differ from the Pharisee in that we don’t tend to do so in the temple, as the Pharisee did.  We don’t often share those types of things during the Joys and Concerns.  Instead, we think about those things while we read the newspaper, watch the evening news, or skim through our Facebook feeds.  Why can’t the rest of the world be like me, we think to ourselves.  If it were, there wouldn’t be so many problems.  “I thank you, God, that I pay my taxes.  I pick up after my dog.  I (usually) obey the speed limits.  I don’t burden society with drug use.  I’m a contributor to society, not a problem.  Why can’t other people be more like me?”

This tendency impacts us not just at a personal level, but also at a corporate level.  For example, I recently came across a movement that I hadn’t heard of called the “NALT Christians Project.”  NALT – or the acronym N.A.L.T. – stands for “Not All Like That.”  The purpose of the NALT Project, found on their website, is “to give LGBT-affirming Christians a means of sharing their belief that there is nothing anti-biblical or sinful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.”[3]  While I agree with and support the project, I can’t help but wonder if the best way to share their message is by trying to tear down the beliefs of others – no matter how wrong they may believe the others to be.  Why can’t we just be ourselves and emphasize what we are, rather than emphasize what we are not?

Every time we create divisions between us versus them, those whose who are in versus those who are out, or any two groups that are divided, we cause damage to the Body of Christ and break the ties that move us toward real justice.  Our intentions may start out good and noble, but we end up falling into the same trap as that Pharisee – exalting ourselves by putting others down.  We fall into a trap of trying to judge ourselves, our self worth, our spiritual “success,” and even our standing before God – by naming the individuals and groups who we believe we should be compared against.  And when we do, we are reciting the Pharisee’s prayer, even though we may say it over the newspaper or in a conversation with a friend, rather than openly in the temple.

Hope for the Pharisees?

I think that the biggest problem with doing this is that we become so concerned with how we stack up against other people that we forget about the things that are most important – namely, the love of God and neighbor.

This is a running theme throughout Luke’s gospel, specifically around Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees.  Back in the 11th chapter, Jesus confronted the Pharisees over a similar issue – they were so focused on following the minute details or the Law that they neglected what was really important.  Verse 42 reads, “Woe to you Pharisees!  For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, but you neglect justice and the love of God.”  In other words, “You follow some aspects of the law so incredibly well, but you have completely overlooked the love of God and neighbor.”

The Pharisee in this parable suffered the same problem.  Those who trust in their own righteousness are likely to regard others with contempt…  And those who regard others with contempt cannot bring themselves to rely on God’s grace, as they are blind to their own need for grace.  Therefore, people who exalt themselves over others and boast of their virtue before God will discover that they have cut themselves off from both God and others.

What About The Tax Collector?

I’ve made it through this whole sermon without really even mentioning the tax collector, so I want to do that now.  In contrast to the Pharise, the tax collector stands at the temple far away from the inner courts, clearly aware of his unworthiness before God.  He beats his chest as a sign of remorse and grief.  His words are simple:  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  He recognizes that he has wronged people and caused harm.  He makes no excuses.  He accuses nobody of standing in his way.  He doesn’t search for somebody to throw under the proverbial bus to make himself look better or to justify his actions.  He simply comes before God as a sinner in need of mercy.

I long to hear the rest of this story, but Jesus had a habit of leaving his stories unfinished. Was the tax collector’s prayer the beginning of a changed life?  Did the tax collector take that same attitude into the rest of his life, asking for forgiveness and mercy from all of the people he had wronged?  Or did he continue to come before God at the temple, asking for and receiving God’s mercy as he continued to profit from the poverty of others?

There is no way of ever knowing…  But I can’t help but wonder if this story could have unfolded differently under different circumstances.  Can you imagine if the tax collector and the Pharisee had been willing to engage one another?  If they had managed, at least for a brief moment in the temple, to share what they knew about God?  How differently this may have unfolded if the Pharisee had reached out to the tax collector to encourage him to a greater outward faith, only to have the tax collector reach back and encourage the Pharisee to rely on the grace of God!

My prayer for each of us this week is that we will be willing to come before God and one another as we are.  No judging, no comparing, and no excuses.  Just love, and mercy, and grace.  Because, in the end, when we come as we are, even Pharisees come as sinners in need of mercy.

[1] Kathleen Kern, We Are The Pharisees (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), 58.

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, “The Pharisee and the Publican” in The Reformed Journal.  January 1988, page 11.

[3] The NALT Christians Project, “About,” accessed at http://notalllikethat.org/about/.