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Jesus' intent was not to make a hero of the dishonest tax collector, but to make the rest of us see the sinfulness of looking down our noses at other people.
Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'
"And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:9-14 NKJV
A Humbling Experience
Two people, one highly respected and the other despised, went to the same house of worship to pray. The former stood up confidently and prayed about himself; the other sinner bowed to the ground in shame and cried out to God for mercy. A humble, hungry heart trumps self-righteousness every time. The Pharisee left unchanged; the tax man's life was transformed. This story is so simple anyone can understand it. Until we start asking some questions.
Why would a loser who had played all the wrong cards be justified in God's sight with just a 5-second prayer? What was wrong with this devout Pharisee for whom prayer was a daily ritual? Why the surprise ending? Winners aren't supposed to lose; losers aren't supposed to win.
Maybe we need to go back and read the story again. Note first to whom Jesus was speaking? They were people much like ourselves who loved their circle of family and friends. Being sufficient unto themselves and doing everything God required, they felt disgust for those who didn't measure up.
The Pharisees were a group within the Jewish faith that wore their religion literally on "their sleeves." They were good people who practiced their faith publicly. But we often think of them as being obsessive and legalistic to the point of neglecting the spirit of the commandments.
The image of a tax collector in the Gospels is that of a Jewish man who worked for the Roman occupiers collecting taxes from his fellow Jews. They were known to be dishonest and greedy, assessing more than required and keeping the surplus for themselves. In time, they became wealthy while the ordinary tax payer became poorer and poorer.
The two of them converged at the temple one day to pray. Everything the Pharisee thanked God for not being, the tax man was. The Pharisee tithed 10% of his income; the tax man might have made 10% of his legitimately. The Pharisee did a great bit more than the Law demanded; the tax man had ignored most of it. The Pharisee obviously had an impressive record, his faith touched both his stomach and his pocketbook. The tax man had nothing to boast about.
However, while the Pharisee was looking down on his fellowman, the tax collector was stretching upward toward God with this cry, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" Alone in a corner and in deep distress, this cheat and a crook beat his chest and acknowledged his sinfulness. He prayed for mercy. It was not--How lucky you are, O God, to have me! But--Do you see, O Lord, how messed up I am and how badly I need you.
This story reminds us of the beatitudes--poverty of spirit, meekness, mourning, hungering and thirsting to be made right in God's sight. Repentance is a lifelong task in which the hungry are filled while those who are full go away empty. The Pharisee had no sin to confess; he knew no need for forgiveness. Which, when you think about it, sounds like many of us today.
The tax man needed more than God's mercy. He needed mercy from his neighbors and those who passed by him on the streets. Which brings us back to the Pharisee's critical attitude. Despising others is a roadblock to prayer. It puts us in the position of judge and jury. Years after hearing this parable, the disciple John wrote in one of his letters that we cannot love God if we hate our brother! Jesus reminded us of this, too. We are to pray, saying, "Our Father . . . ." Where God's ways are honored, no one is excluded, because divine grace is only received by those who extend that grace to others.
We can't be looking up to God while at the same time looking down on our brothers and sisters. We learn humility from our failures and from those we are tempted to despise. If the Pharisee had an open heart and mind, he could have gained some wisdom from the tax collector. We also learn humility from the humiliation Jesus suffered on the cross. Looking up at Jesus as he endured a tortuous death, he looked no better than the two criminals who were crucified beside him. Yet even there his invitation went out to one of them to be with him in paradise. The righteousness of God is available to all, the despised and the respected alike, who have been humbled enough to receive it.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Time to brag! What is something about yourself you are proud of?
This parable is meant to have shock value. Suppose it began, the pope and a pimp went into St. Peter's to pray. Or if the characters were a distinguished theology professor and a drug dealer, your pastor and the neighbor who never goes to church, or a kindly grandmother and an angry delinquent teenager. And then you get to the last line and hear Jesus say that the latter one went home justified rather than the former! What would you think of his story? How would you feel about it? What questions does this parable raise in your mind?
Resumes give us an opportunity to list accomplishments and other outstanding aspects of our lives to show that we are better qualified than others for the job. Is it human nature to want to give an impressive account of ourselves? Why is God not swayed by such accomplishments? If you were doing a resume to get into heaven, what would you include?
Did God do right by the Pharisee and the tax collector? What is fair about God's forgiveness? Is there anyone you think is unworthy of God's grace?
The Pharisee didn't know what to confess when he prayed. Help him out. Make a list of all the sins you can think of which he could have confessed and asked forgiveness for. Pick two or three sins from the list which are also your sins. Examine the effect these have on the way you live your life. If able to pray the tax man's prayer regarding these sins, do so.
How does this text show the difference between the "saint" who was self-righteous and "sinner" who was God-righteous? Why did the one fail and the other succeed in his praying? What happens to righteousness when you put the word "self" before it? How does Jesus define what it means to be righteous in this parable?
What do your private prayers reveal about you? Is it true that God does not hear prayers if we treat others with contempt?
How have you learned humility? Who, or what, have been your teachers? Give an example of a time when you showed mercy to someone by not being critical of them.Pray: Lord, help me be generous in giving to others as I have received from You.