Pharisee? Tax Collector? Don’t Pick Your Poison.

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We might not utter the pride-filled prayers of the Pharisee, but we think them. Or, if we are honest with ourselves, we do. How many of us have looked around in smug satisfaction at a nearby empty pew and thought, I’m in church, but so-in-so isn’t.  Karl Barth describes this parable, labeling pride as the biggest sin for the Pharisee. Pride is basically idolatrous. When we are prideful, we confuse the Creator and creation; we confuse the Giver and gift.
Jesus addressed people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Most of the parables in Luke serve a moral purpose. They frequently end with the command: Go and do likewise. This parable is no exception. It says something significant about God. It says God wants honesty.
My parents used to say, “Pride cometh before a fall.” I remember once when they said it after a baseball game. I had been up to bat four times and had two base hits, a walk, and a double. I had an RBI and two stolen bases. At second base, no one had hit anything past me. It was a great game! First, they celebrated with me. We went out for ice cream. They were incredibly supportive parents! Then, as I started talking about how all of the other players should be more like me, and if everyone had is much game as I had, we would be an unstoppable team! They said, “Pride cometh before a fall.”
Sure enough, the next game my glove inexplicably felt like it had a hole in it when I missed a routine grounder. I struck out and the walk back to the dugout took forever. A dose of humble pie helps bring one’s head back into the game.
For our spiritual lives, we must constantly remember our need for God’s forgiveness. One of the wonderful volunteers at the CBF 25-for-25 mission day yesterday said, “Tomorrow, I will be the Pharisee.” And, I see her point. After working hard for Jesus, it is easy to feel like we are on top of our spiritual game. It is easy to feel so close to God that we could not possibly fall. Then, pride cometh before the fall.
Genuine faith means coming to God as we are, recognizing that each one of us need God’s forgiveness every single day. Karl Barth is right: pride stands between us and God. It becomes an idol. Our pride is equivalent to self-reliance, and our pride keeps us from truly saying, in humility, I am a fallen, sinful person; I need God’s grace every, single day. Why can’t we say that? Why can’t we be honest? Instead, we show up to worship with our game faces on.
When someone says, “How are you?”, we smile, and say, “Fine,” not because we are fine, but because that’s what one says. Instead of honesty, we want stability, normalcy, and reassurance. We cannot even be honest with each other, so how can we expect to be honest with God? Our pride forms a barrier between us and God.
Jesus calls people to genuine interaction with one another. The Pharisee makes us feel guilty over the idea that we act like him, and the tax collector inspires us to be more open and honest. The call from God does not go out to those who are good. Those who are good have no need of forgiveness. Those who are already whole have no need for God. The Pharisee has everything he needs. Now, he simply has to show up at church and make sure that everyone else knows how good is and how good he has it.
Pharisees were religious people. They wanted everyone to know how religious they were. They want people to recognize them for how religious they are. They don’t spend time with non-religious people; they don’t hang out in secular places. We would not find them where the people who really need God’s grace congregate. They keep up the religious rules, and they want to make sure everyone sees them doing it. When they fast, they make sure to look glum, so someone will ask, “How’s it going?” “Oh, I’m so tired. I’ve been fasting all day.”
To put it in modern terms, they reply, “Oh, I’m so tired; I’ve been volunteering at the church all day.” Do you see how convicting Luke is?
Pharisees are suspicious of things they do not understand, and they do not understand how the rest of the world lives because they separate themselves from it. When they meet someone who is different or spends their time in different activities than they, they assume the worst. And, you know what happens when you assume? You are wrong. Pharisees usually do not have any good reason to assume the worst or mistrust people. Pharisees are easily offended, spiritually blind, hypocritical, hard hearted, miss out on true worship, say things but do not do them, and seek honor for themselves. Thank goodness we are not like them!
Maybe that is the point. Instead of worrying about who we are not like, we should focus on God.
What about the tax collector? Tax collectors were not nice accountants or IRS employees. They were Jewish, but worked for Rome. Rome was a foreign occupier so to work for Rome meant being complicit with the enemy. In addition, tax collectors were allowed to collect more taxes than they sent to Rome, and they could keep the extra. This made them despised people. When Jesus mentions ‘tax collector’, his listeners would know that he is talking about a bad guy.
Today, instead of a tax collector, Jesus might have mentioned a drug addict, homeless person, prostitute, motorcycle gang member–someone who is despised by society–someone who, when God is doling out forgiveness, would really need it.
What about us? We can be ourselves. We can seek to reflect Christ and his love for all people, whether they are Pharisees, tax collectors, you, or me. This means being comfortable in our own skin. When we call out to God, we must call out in our own voice, with our own prayers, with the concerns we have, and the honest thoughts we need to share with God.
We must set aside our prideful-ness and practice an open, honest, genuine faith—the kind that transforms us and the world.

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