The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

October 29, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan

      LHUMC 10-29-2017 Sermon

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(Short Stories by Jesus Sermon Series)

“The Pharisee and the Tax Collector”

October 29, 2017

Rev. Melanie Homan

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(sing) Let our prayers rise up, like incense before you, the lifting up of our hands as an offering to you. O God, we call to you.  Come to us now, Oh hear our voice when we cry to you.  Let our prayers rise up, like incense before you, the lifting up of our hands as an offering to you.

These words and this song from the Holden Evening Prayer service, invite us into prayer. They come from Psalm 141 – Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening offering.

I went through a phase in college where I loved incense.  I would burn incense all the time.  I didn’t like the smell at all, really.  What I loved was the way the smoke billowed up, eventually filling the whole space with its effect.  I’ve moved on to a new phase – essential oils.  A few drops of essential oil, along with some water in a diffuser, and I realize that the reason I like it is the same.  I love the billowing steam that rises up from the diffuser and emanates through the room.  I love it!

Whether it is incense or oils, they remind me of this psalm and song. Let our prayers rise up, like incense before God, as an offering.  We offer our prayers up and out from the pit of our stomachs and they are released to God.  Our burden is lighter when we release our worries, fears, and desires to God in prayer.

As I read the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, it got me wondering: What if our prayers could be seen, the way we can see billowing incense and steam from a diffuser?  What if there were little cartoon bubbles that popped up over our heads with words and everyone could see the prayers of our hearts?

What would we see? I imagine there would likely be various iterations of “God, have mercy on me.” “Help.”  “Thank you.”  “Forgive me, God, I really messed up this time.”  But, that’s probably not the only prayers we’d see floating above our heads.  If we’re honest with ourselves, some of our prayers have at least a tinge of judgment in them.

I spent an afternoon this past week at a seminar to learn more about the Enneagram. It’s one of those things where you take a survey, answer lots of questions, and your answers help determine what number you are.  Your number reflects one of nine different personality types.  I did not like my identified number.  I made the mistake of reading a description of my number, which came with a printed list of famous people.  I learned that I’m an 8 with a 7 wing, and it just so happens that the president and I share the same number and wing.  I actually stood up in my chair at the seminar and shouted out, “NOOOOOO!”.  “God, I am nothing like him!!!”  “This is dumb!”  My word bubbles were not nice.

And then, I look out some Sundays and I see Mike Walker in his Packers Jersey, and I just HAVE to give him a hard time about it, because I think to myself, “How can anyone be a Packer’s fan?!?  Thank God I’m not a Packer’s fan!”

And then there are all those other drivers out on the road who just don’t know what they are doing. I’ve never had an accident. I know how to drive.  But some people.  For MEA weekend, I took the kids down along Highway 169 to Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store – you know, the big yellow building on the side of the highway that is always insanely busy but lots of fun?  Well, it’s a great place to go, but the problem is, in order to get in and get out, you have to cross over a really busy highway.  The traffic makes it difficult to cross and it caused a backup.  We ended up getting stuck behind a long line of cars that were slow.  And careful. Overly careful! They had plenty of time to cross the highway, but it was like they couldn’t go if they even saw the glimmer of a car a mile off.  I was ranting and raving and said out loud, “God, get these people moving.  They are all a bunch of slow pokes.  Get going!!!!”  At this, Dylan chimed in and said, “Yeah!  Get going all you old people!”  It was then I caught myself and thought – whoops!  “Dylan, honey, don’t assume that just because someone is slow they are old.”

What’s so wrong with being slow? What’s so bad about being really careful before crossing a busy highway?  What’s so wrong with being a Packer’s fan?  What’s so horrible about being an 8 with a 7 wing on the Enneagram?

Nothing! There’s nothing wrong with any of it.  These are just examples to show how we, on a pretty regular basis, can find ourselves casting judgments on other people.  Judgments almost always separate us out as better than others.

The introduction of our parable in Luke starts with these words:

“Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.”

In the parable, it’s the Pharisee, the devout religious person, who sets himself apart from others. The Pharisee offers a prayer to God that isn’t really a prayer for anything.  Instead, it’s a self-congratulatory prayer.  “Thank God I’m so amazing!  Thank God I am not like that sinner over there.  Thank God I give ten percent of everything I have.  I serve and I’m faithful and I’m following all the rules that good people follow.”  While the Pharisees’ thoughts might not be very good, his actions seem okay.  He’s being generous.  Faithful.  Trying to do his best.  But, we see the arrogance that he can’t see in himself.  We don’t stop there, though, and this is where the parable smacks us on the side of the head.  The next thing we can find ourselves thinking is this – “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee.”  Wait….  Whoops!  The minute we say that, we ARE.  We ARE the Pharisee the minute we thank God we AREN’T.  It’s at this point we’ve just cast judgment and set ourselves apart from others.

We aren’t the Pharisee, though, right? We’re the Tax Collector.  We see our need for mercy, we ask for forgiveness, and we go away from church feeling justified.  Our prayer bubbles have all the right words in them.  “Have mercy on me.”  “Forgive me.”  The Tax Collector gets the words right, but we are left wondering what comes next.  Does he return home, go to bed, and wake up the next day to continue his work of collecting money on behalf of the empire?  Does he continue taking his “fair share” at the expense and suffering of others?  Does he keep his job and each day go for another round of begging for mercy and forgiveness?  We like the tax collector, because he says the right words, but what about his subsequent actions?  Do the right words count if right actions don’t follow?  The dilemma we have with the tax collector is one of cheap grace.

In our Wednesday evening study group, as we were discussing this parable, questions were raised related to how this would be portrayed today. “Who would be the Pharisee and Tax Collector today?”  “Who are their modern day equivalents?”

We had a difficult time coming up with ideas for that. Paul Duke attempts to do what we were unable to do in an article called “Praying With a Sideward Glance”. It appeared in The Christian Century in October, 1995.

(“Praying With a Sideward Glance”, by Paul D. Duke.  It appeared in The Christian Century in October, 1995: (available at

THE PARABLE about the Pharisee and the tax collector neglects to mention that the Pharisee was singing “Amazing Grace” on his way to church that day. Or, that as he said his prayer, there were tears in his eyes. He feels this stuff. He is awash with religious emotion, truly moved to gratitude for the life God has blessed him to live. Ask him on his way out what he thinks of the tax collector, and he will tell you, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He will even think that he means it.

The parable also neglects to point out that the tax collector, when he has wiped his eyes, blown his nose and gone home, will not be quitting his shady job. He can’t see any options; it’s a nasty business, but he’s stuck in it. Tomorrow he’ll again take money from his neighbors, hand some of it over to the empire and put some aside for himself.

To see the tax collector as honorable and the Pharisee as a creep makes the story false, curdles it to a dishonest (and easily anti-Semitic) morality tale and sends us straight into the trap of saying, “God, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee!” (Would it not be) better to see him as he is–a thoroughly decent, generous, committed man–and to see the Tax Collector as a compromised, certified stinker[i]?

And we are righteous people like that Pharisee, are we not? It’s people like him that keep churches like ours open.

In fact, the parable becomes more challenging if we acknowledge the Pharisee as righteous and the tax collector as dishonest. Because here is the truth at the heart of the story: both the Pharisee and the tax collector are forgiven, just the same. God’s love and mercy are deep and wide enough to send both of these characters home forgiven and beloved.[ii]

Oh, doesn’t it drive us crazy when people get what we think they don’t deserve?

Our parable tells us that it is just that way with God. God’s grace is good news for everyone. Levine says, “We see that divine grace cannot be limited, for to limit this grace would be to limit the divine.”[iii]  With that affirmation in mind, in this parable Jesus puts a warning sign out with flashers on it, beware the judgments you make of others.

October 31st is the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church, protesting the sale of indulgences.  An indulgence was a payment to the Church that got you off the hook for certain types of sins.[iv]  Luther’s protest was an act of conscientious objection, and I imagine he had no idea that we would be celebrating it 500 years later.

Attempts at limiting divine grace is in part, what the Reformation was about. “Luther realized first and foremost that if anything about his salvation rested on his ability, character, or faith – like the good works and indulgences of the sixteenth-century — he was lost. He could claim nothing other than God’s good favor (grace).”[v]

Thank God that divine grace cannot be limited.

The Pharisee and the tax collector’s forgiveness were communal – we have no way of knowing the details of what was going on in their hearts and lives, just like we have no idea what is going on in the hearts and lives of the people around us. While it might be interesting (or scary) to see the words in prayer bubbles above people’s heads – we can’t.  We don’t know what’s going on for other people. New Testament theologian Charles Cousar writes, “Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others.”

So let us be generous towards one another in our prayers. “We can always afford to be generous.”[vi] (Levine, 211).  “There are other systems of justice in which our contributions and failings are assessed.”  May we be generous towards others as God is infinitely generous with us.

(sing) Let our prayers rise up, like incense before you, the lifting up of our hands as an offering to you. O God, we call to you.  Come to us now, Oh hear our voice when we cry to you.  Let our prayers rise up, like incense before you, the lifting up of our hands as an offering to you.

[i] “Praying With a Sideward Glance”, by Paul D. Duke.  The Christian Century in October, 1995:

[ii] Brown, Leigh.  Clergy conversation and sermon prep.

[iii] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, page 210.


[v] Lose, David.

[vi] Levine, page 211.