The opening words of this morning’s reading from St. Luke are worrisome. I don’t think it takes very much imagination or creative thinking to recognize that the first words of our text might have something to say to Christians today and especially to many Christians in this country. In last week’s reading, Luke told us from the beginning what the parable meant. He said, “And [Jesus] told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). In this morning’s reading, Luke doesn’t tell us what the parable means, but rather to whom Jesus speaks the parable. He says, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
The parable that Jesus tells is straight forward. In last week’s parable, there was a judge and a widow, and the parable involved the widow repeatedly bringing her case before the judge and demanding justice. In the parable this morning, there is also a courtroom, but it’s not the local court that is in mind. The court in this morning’s parable is the cosmic courtroom or the divine courtroom where God himself sits as judge and Lord. Two people appear before the judge, but they don’t quite know what’s happening. They’ve only gone to the Temple to pray, just as we have come to the church today to pray, sing, worship, and take communion together.
The first man is a Pharisee; the second is a tax collector. The Pharisee stands in the Temple and prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” The tax collector, on the other hand, stands far off, won’t even lift his eyes to heaven but instead beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” For us as contemporary readers of this story who have all heard it before, we know how the story goes from here. In our readings, because we are almost two thousand years removed from the original context, the Pharisees are part of the villains of the Gospels, so it’s not surprising to us that it’s the tax collector who goes home justified and not the Pharisee.
But we need to pause a moment and recognize how shocking this would have been to anyone in the first century. It’s the word justified that tells us that the context for this story is a divine courtroom. The Jewish people were waiting for their justification, for the day in which the God of heaven and earth would intervene in human affairs and say to the world, “This, my people, were in the right.” The Jews claimed that their God was the true God, that their understanding of the world was the truth, and that their way of life was the proper way to live. No matter what was happening in the world, no matter which nation ruled, and no matter which emperor sat on the throne, the Jews made their claim and believed that the day would come when God would justify them and prove that they were in the right all along so long as they lived the way God had commanded them to live.
And if anyone in the first century lived the way God had commanded them to live, at least in the eyes of the people, it was the Pharisees. And if anyone in the first century lived contrary to the way that God had commanded people to live, at least in the eyes of the populace, it was the tax collectors. So, when Jesus says that it was the tax collector who went home justified and not the Pharisee, he is dropping a grenade in the middle of their worldview. Imagine if I told you this same story, but instead of the Pharisee and the tax collector, I said it was the prostitute and not the priest who went home justified. Imagine if I said it was the drug addict and not the bishop who went home justified.
And it’s common in the mind of most Christians to rip on the Pharisees, because, as I said, they’re the bag guys in the Gospels, but they’re the ones who are trying to be obedient to the way of God set out for his people. They’re so concerned about being righteous, about not violating the law, that they put a hedge around it to make sure they never even came close to touching it. In modern terms, the Pharisees are the people who show up to church every Sunday, pray several times a day, read their Bible throughout the day, tithe regularly to their church, teach others about God, and generally, seem to have it all together. They were the people who dressed the right way, said the right things, and looked the right way, and yet it is not the Pharisee who goes home justified but the despicable, hated tax collector. And if that doesn’t worry you, then you aren’t paying attention to the parable.
However much success we have in this life, however good and right we think we might be, however righteous we may feel, however much good we may do, none of that matters when we stand before the judge of heaven and earth. When we stand before the judge of heaven and earth, only a few things are true, and only a few things matter. First, we are all sinners. We are all fundamentally broken deep down. For some of us our brokenness is more visible; for others it is more hidden and less noticeable.
Nonetheless, we are all broken, every one of us, and that leads us to the second truth. We are all in desperate need of God’s mercy. No one is here today because they’ve earned it or because they deserved it, and a church that doesn’t remind you of that fact regularly isn’t doing its job. Yes, we are called to be saints, but we are always sinners, and so when we come to church, when we come to God in prayer, when we come before the heavenly court, our plea is simple. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s it.
And we know that God, whose character is always to have mercy, can and will be merciful for one reason and one reason alone: the cross of Jesus Christ. That is the only thing that we will ever boast in as a church. That is what sets our agenda and our mission. That is why we gather, that is why we pray, that is why we sing, that is why we preach, and that is why we come forward for communion trusting not in our righteousness but the finished work of Jesus Christ.
So, I know that what sells in Christianity today is to make you feel better about yourselves, but that is not the Gospel. The Gospel starts with the recognition that we are all always sinners and in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And you might be saying to yourself right now, “You know, Father, I’m not like those Pharisees at all.” I think most people would say that. I doubt that many people readily self-identify with the Pharisees, but remember that part of being self-righteous is being blind to one’s own self-righteousness. Probably none of us this morning feel as though we are here today trusting in our own righteousness, but let me ask the question a different way. Look at the opening verse of our reading again. “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusting in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” When you think about those that we would call sinful, do you say, “I’m a sinner just like them, and I am just as in need of God’s mercy as they are,” or do you think something else? Answering that question honestly will go a long way towards recognizing whether we are the Pharisee or the tax collector in this parable, and only one of the two goes home justified.