Text: Luke 18:9-14
An interesting thought experiment is to consider what it would be like to meet someone unexpected in heaven. Take, for example, a scene from Dante’s Purgatorio, the second volume of his Divine Comedy. In Dante’s 14th Century epic poem, the Roman Poet, Virgil, guides Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In the poem, Virgil (who represents the virtue of reason), resides in Limbo, the entryway to Hell, along with Homer, Socrates, and the other great philosophers and poets of antiquity who lived before Christ. It’s not quite a punishment, but it’s not a reward either. Reason alone cannot attain Heaven; faith in Christ is necessary. Well, about 2/3 through their journey Dante and Virgil meet Statius, another pagan poet and devotee of Virgil who lived just after the time of Christ. Virgil is surprised to see Statius on the road to heaven rather than in Limbo with his fellows. Statius tells them that he secretly came to faith and was baptized when he saw the Christians’ courage under Imperial Persecution. Of course, we have no historical evidence that Statius was indeed a secret convert to Christianity. But Dante is making an interesting point about the unexpected mercy of God.
We see the same kind of thing in today’s Gospel reading, the well-known parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Open your bibles to Luke 18:9. You can also find this passage in your Prayer Book on page 205.
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
To really understand the impact of the story, we need to understand these two stock characters.
In 1st Century Palestine, the Romans were occupying the Holy Land. The current royal dynasty, the Herods, were of questionable Jewish ancestry (definitely not of the Davidic line), and were culturally Roman pagans, vassals of Rome. The tax collectors (or publicans as the King James Version calls them) were Jewish people who were working for and with Rome. The Romans allowed them to charge whatever they wanted in taxes so long as the proper amount was given to Rome. As you can imagine, this led to almost universal corruption and cheating at the expense of the publicans’ fellow Jews. Imagine a Frenchman who was working with the Nazis during the Occupation in the early 1940’s and you’d get a picture of the character of the typical tax collector in the story. He would have been rightly hated by his countrymen and considered to be among the worst of sinners.
The Pharisee, by contrast, would have been seen as a good, upright, pious person by Jesus’ audience. He’s the guy who is at church every time the doors are open, volunteering to help on the committees, tithing and fasting beyond what the Old Testament Law required. Externally, he’s a model Jew, a paragon and good example for his countrymen. Internally, however, there’s something wrong. Verse 11:
“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘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.’”
Whenever we pray “I think you that I am not like other men,” there’s a problem. Even though it’s dressed up in a veneer of thanking God, it really shows that the Pharisee was actually trusting in himself and looking down on other folks, just like St. Luke says at the beginning of the parable. This is the essence of the sin of pride, traditionally seen as one of the seven deadly sins, the one of which the devil himself is most guilty. English Reformer John Boys writes:
There are four kinds of proud people:
1) Arrogant people, who attribute every good thing in themselves to themselves, and not to God.
2) Presumptuous people, who acknowledge that God is the giver of their grace, but because of their own merit.
3) Those who boast of their own eminence, which indeed they do not have.
4) Those who despise others and portray themselves as singular and unique in what they have.
This was the problem of the Pharisee, and indeed is often a problem for religious folks like us. It’s all-too-easy to look at ourselves rather than God. It’s all-too-easy to see ourselves better than the “sinners out there.” St. Augustine says this is like going to a doctor for the purpose of gloating over the sick people in the waiting room. He writes:
The Pharisee was not rejoicing so much in his own clean bill of health as in comparing it with the diseases of others. He came to the doctor. It would have been more worthwhile to inform him by confession of the things that were wrong with himself instead of keeping his wounds secret and having the nerve to crow over the scars of others.
In fact, St. Cyril of Alexandria says that this is evidence of spiritual sickness in the Pharisee (and, by extension us when we’re in a pharisaical mind). He writes:
No one who is in good health ridicules one who is sick for being laid up and bedridden. He is rather afraid, for perhaps he may become the victim of similar sufferings. A person in battle, because another has fallen, does not praise himself for having escaped from misfortune. The weakness of others is not a suitable subject for praise for those who are in health.
The tax collector, however, realizes he’s in trouble. Verse 13:
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
As liturgical Christians, we’re familiar with the Kyrie Eleison prayer, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” In fact, this is something we pray almost every week at Holy Communion in the classical Anglican tradition. But the word for “mercy” in used by the tax collector is slightly different; instead of the usual ἔλεος, he uses ἱλάσθητί, which carries the idea of propitiation or atonement along with mercy. The tax collector realizes his sins need to be dealt with. He needs someone to atone for him. This realization, this repentance is why he was justified, and the Pharisee was not. “Justified” is legal language meaning to be shown or declared righteous. The Lord covered and paid for the tax collector’s sins and he was therefore declared righteous. The Pharisee, by contrast, failed to realize his need for propitiation, failed to repent, and thus remained in his unrealized unrighteousness.
Though this was a parable, we do have actual tax collectors in the Gospels who similarly repented and followed Jesus. In the very chapter that follows today’s Gospel reading we have the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, who demonstrates his repentance by paying back those he cheated fourfold. At the end of that passage, Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10). And then we have St. Matthew, one of the Four Evangelists, who was himself a tax collector before Jesus called him. In Matthew 9, he leaves his custom booth behind to follow Jesus, and even brings “many tax collectors and sinners” to Jesus. God’s indeed shows his mercy to the worst of sinners.
But what about the Pharisee? Is there mercy for him? After all, in our days “pharisee” has become synonymous with the legalistic hypocrite. Does Jesus offer the pharisee mercy and atonement? For the answer to that, we can look to our Epistle. St. Paul was himself a Pharisee. In Philippians 3:4-8, he writes:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
In our Epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 15:9-10, St. Paul says, “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”
If God can save Zacchaeus, Matthew, and Paul, he can save you and me, whether we’re traitors and cheats like the tax collectors, or puffed-up pharisees like Paul. God’s grace is indeed not in vain. I don’t know about you, but I look forward to seeing many tax collectors and sinners, and even pharisees when by Christ’s grace and blood I am before his throne.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.