Would you say you’re more like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, or like the tax collector? Be honest, because I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands, which one would you rather be like? Me, I’m more like the Pharisee. I am thankful that I’m not a thief or a rogue or an adulterer, and I’m thankful that I can be proud of the job that I have. I don’t fast twice a week, but I do give a tenth of my income to charity. I’m thankful that I have values and morals and ethics that make me a valuable member of society, and I’m glad that I come to church on Sunday morning. I have no desire to be like any of the people I see out there who are lost and struggling with their lives, who don’t know how to live, and who are trapped by the consequences of their own foolish decisions. I feel bad for them, and I’m glad I’m not one of them. I turn to my faith when I’m in trouble, rather than to any of the millions of others options out there.
And so I understand why the Pharisee is glad not to be like the tax collector sharing the Temple space wit him. The tax collector was employed by Rome. He would have been Jewish, which means he would have been a traitor to his own people, knocking on doors and seizing people’s property in order to give Rome, the foreign, pagan occupier, what it demanded. His job was not sanctioned by Torah, which advocated forgiveness of debts.
So why, then, does Jesus say that it is the tax collector, the one raised in his religion but turned his back on it and on his people, who is justified rather than the Pharisee? To be clear, Jesus is not bashing Pharisees here. He is not calling into doubt the authenticity of the Pharisee’s claims. The Pharisee really was a good man, and the tenth of his income that he gave to the Temple was undoubtedly used in helpful ways. There is no question that he truly was an upstanding member of society. But Jesus is implying that all that is besides the point. Why?
When we learn the grammar of a language, we’re taught to pay attention to what the subject of the sentence is, and what the object is. The subject is the person or thing doing something and the object is the person or thing that something is being done to. Take the sentence: the disciples ate the fish. The disciples are the subject - they are the ones doing something. The fish is the object - it is the thing that something is being done to.
If we look at the grammar of what the Pharisee and what the tax collector said, they give us the key to this story. The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of my income.” The tax payer says, “God, be merciful to me!” When the Pharisee speaks, the subject of the sentence is himself. He is the one doing things. “I fast. I give.” God is pretty incidental to all of it. But when the tax payer speaks, the subject of the sentence is God. “God have mercy.” God is the one doing things. The tax payer is, in fact, the object. The one having something done to him; having mercy done to him.
The point Jesus is making is that when we come before God, whether it was in the Temple, or in church, or in daily prayer, we are to make God the subject of our speech. We may very well be good Christians, regular church-goers, give to charity, kind to friends and enemies. But that is not the point. The point is that God has made us good Christians, God has made us regular church-goers, God has given us charitable hearts and a kind nature. As Paul says, “this is not our own doing, so that none may boast.”
So we dare not look down on those who don’t aren’t Christian, who don’t go to church, who don’t give to charity. It’s true that God has not done the same thing for those people but God is doing something else. And if we criticize them, we are criticizing God. When we look down on people who spend Sunday mornings at home, and say, “Oh, people these days don’t go to church, it’s so appalling, no wonder our world is so awful,” we are criticizing God. As Lutherans, we believe that God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts to give us faith. In the case of those people who don’t go to church, God has clearly given them a different path to follow in life. God has not called them in the same way God has called us. We are here because God called us here, not because we, in and of ourselves, are good people. We are as wretched and sinful as the tax collector, even if we don’t recognize it. But God, in great mercy, calls us to church every Sunday, gives us the hearts to be charitable, and kind. God, for reasons we will never know, has not done that for others. And who are we to judge the actions of God? (We can argue with them, like I said last week, but we cannot judge them.) When we judge the actions of others, we are judging God.
The point is not that Jesus is contrasting the behaviour of the Pharisee with the behaviour of the tax collector. He is not condemning the Pharisee for saying that he fasts and gives. Nor is he lifting up the tax collector for being so humble and self-abasing. If the tax collector had gone to Temple and said, “Oh God, I am so awful, I am so sinful, I am horrible, I will do better,” Jesus would have condemned that too. Because then the tax collector would have been making himself the subject of his prayers. The point is that Jesus is contrasting those prayers in which we make ourselves the actors and those in which we make God the actor.
Once the Holy Spirit moves within us to help us see this, while our actions may resemble those of the Pharisee, our speech ultimately ends up like that of the tax-collector. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Because who among us doesn’t judge the behaviour of others? I confess that I judge others - not by whether or not they go to church, but by whether they are kind, or whether they give to charity. And in that, I am a sinner. We are all sinners.
But we thank God that God is merciful. If God judged us half as harshly as we judge ourselves and we judge others, we would be in serious trouble. But God is merciful. God shows us mercy when we judge, and God puts mercy into our hearts. And in that mercy, God makes us righteous. At the end of the parable, Jesus says, “I tell you, this [tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other.” The tax collector was justified because he turned to God to justify him. The Pharisee was not, because he turned to himself. No matter how wretched and sinful our lives, when we turn to God to be the subject of our lives, when we ask God to make us righteous, God does. There is no having to wrestle with God over this one. When we pray that God would make us good and righteous and charitable and kind, God does. We all have those moments when we catch ourselves thinking or saying something that isn’t particularly kind, and, if we are honest with ourselves, we think, “Oh, I wish I were nicer.” But even that wish is one that makes us the subject. But if we find ourselves in these situations and we pray, “Oh, God please make me nicer,” or kinder, or more generous, or braver, or more understanding, God will do it. God will act in our lives. God will respond to these prayers. And in doing so, God will justify us, as well. And so we thank God, for God’s great mercy, for God’s past working our lives, and for the work that we know God will continue to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.