Being a Blessing — Rev. Brent Gundlah
October, 23, 2022

Two men went up to the temple to pray, but only one of them went down to his home justified; this is how today’s parable from Luke’s Gospel begins and ends.

What happens in between seems straightforward enough.

One of them is a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were seen as pillars of the community; they were devoted followers of God and the law.

If he were around today, this Pharisee would be at church every Sunday morning; he’d always obey the speed limit and pay his taxes on time; he wouldn’t swear after he’d accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer while working in the garage — even if no one else was around to hear him. This Pharisee is a righteous fellow.

Yet the prayer that he recites there in the temple is a little cringe-worthy. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income,” is what he prays.

And he reads his Bible too. I say this because his prayer sounds a lot like the Seventeenth Psalm: “If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped,” is how that text reads. But the psalmist goes on to ask for God’s help and God’s mercy, and this Pharisee definitely doesn’t do that.

Let’s be honest — his prayer doesn’t really seem like much of a prayer, does it? He may be righteous but he sounds self-righteous; even though he thanks God for all the great things that he happens to be, the fact that he chooses to list all of his wonderful traits and behaviors shows a complete lack of humility; he’s far more focused on himself than he is on God.

But it’s hard to argue with what he says. We have no reason to doubt that he fasts twice a week and tithes ten percent of his income; we have no evidence  that he’s a thief, a rogue or an adulterer. He’s probably every bit as righteous as he claims to be. Oh, and he’s definitely no tax collector.

But that guy standing over there on the other side of the temple is, and he came  to pray too.

In Jesus’s time, tax collectors were an integral part of an corrupt system that was based entirely upon the premise of taking from the poor to give to the rich.

The tax collector paid Rome a fee for a license to take whatever he could manage to get out of his neighbors. He was personally liable for the money owed by his region to Rome, but in return he was allowed to go about collecting this money however he saw fit. Anything he collected above and beyond what he was on the hook to the Empire for was his to keep. You can see where such a setup would be open to abuse.

On top of all this, the exorbitant taxes the Israelites were being forced to pay were used to fund, among other things, the Roman Army that occupied Israel. In other words, the Jews were actually being compelled to subsidize their own oppression. And the face of this entire system, for them, was the tax collector who constantly showed up on their doorsteps demanding money. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t the most popular guy in town. If the Pharisee was the person that everyone looked up to, then the tax collector was the person that everyone looked down upon.

But this tax collector clearly has something on his heart and mind, so he goes to the temple to pray. Is he overcome with guilt for cheating his neighbors out of what little money they had? Does he feel bad about being a small cog in the machine of imperial oppression? We don’t ever learn what’s bothering him, but he seems troubled and ashamed; he seems to sense that no one there wants anything to do with him — maybe he’s even wondering whether God wants anything to do with him — which is probably why he’s standing far off by himself, unwilling or unable to look up to heaven. And as he pounds his chest, he utters a short prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Now, the tax collector’s prayer also sounds like one of the Psalms — the Fifty-first to be exact: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions,” is how that one goes.

These two men are Jews — they both go up to the temple to pray, and both seem to know their Psalms. Therein lie their similarities.

One of them is righteous — he does all that the law asks of him and declares himself to be just. One of them is anything but righteous and he humbly asks for God’s mercy. And only the latter is “justified.” And therein lies their difference.

Now, “justified” is one of those churchy words — much like “repent” and “sin” and “salvation” — that’s kind of developed a bad rep in progressive Christian circles, and I kind of get that.

But we need to recognize that we have a choice when it comes to such biblical words — we can either relinquish them, letting them be used in all sorts of ways for all sorts of reasons, or reclaim them for our place and time in the spirit that they were intended. I won’t speak for you but I’ll opt for the prize behind door number two.

So let’s put down all of our cultural baggage for a moment in order to make things easier: The word “justification,” as Jesus uses it here, means God seeking to be in relationship with us purely out of love. God reaches out to the tax collector not because of who he is, but because that’s who God is.

Look, it’s pretty obvious that God prefers humility over arrogance. Heck, Jesus pretty much says so in the final sentence of today’s passage when he declares that, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” But while the moral of the story might seem like a case of “be like this guy (the tax collector), not like that guy (the Pharisee),” Jesus’s parables are never that straightforward.

If we’re tempted to identify with the tax collector and to emulate his humility, we might as well just pray, “Dear God, thank you for not making me a pompous, self-righteous, arrogant, hypocrite like that Pharisee,” which makes us no better than the Pharisee.

Truth be told, we’re no better (and no worse) than either the Pharisee or the tax collector when it comes to earning or deserving God’s grace — because we can’t earn it and none of us deserve it, it’s given freely — that’s the whole point.

Contrary to the way our world works, God’s reign is not a meritocracy. And that’s hard for us to accept, because it takes the power out of our hands and places it squarely with God — which, I’ve got news for you, is where it’s always been.

Since the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel — where an expectant Mary sings to God about removing the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, about filling the hungry with good things and sending away the rich empty — the whole point of Jesus’ ministry is to invert our notions about the way things are and should be. And this happens in today’s story too.

The righteous Pharisee gets knocked down a peg and the hated tax collector is raised up, but that’s not all there is to it. Jesus isn’t saying there’s anything wrong with the Pharisee’s righteous behavior per se — in fact, he’d probably be all for it. What he’s challenging is the accepted understanding of righteousness.

To the Pharisee and his peers, their righteous conduct was the means by which they demonstrated their worthiness to God; the favor they received from God was the wages of their behavior — God’s grace was something that they believed could be earned.

But Jesus tells us that this isn’t how it actually works. God’s grace isn’t earned by us, it’s given to us. There’s nothing we could ever do to deserve it, and it’s only when we realize and appreciate the fact that we’re not in control that God’s grace can take hold within us.

Here’s the catch, though: While our behavior isn’t a precondition for being in relationship with God, it is guided by being in relationship with God.

We don’t know what becomes of the tax collector after all this, but it’s hard to imagine him returning to his old ways, continuing to fleece his neighbors for his benefit and Rome’s. That would just feel wrong in much the same way that the Pharisee’s arrogant, self-righteous prayer feels wrong. We expect better from the tax collector now. This is the kind of stuff that happens when the whole world gets turned upside down.

Receiving God’s grace — being justified by God, being drawn into relationship with God — changes us; it makes us want to do better; it makes us realize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves; it reminds us that we are responsible for ourselves and for others.

May we strive to live into that responsibility each and every day.