“Are You Better than Others?”on October 26, 2010
The Rev. Canon Dr. Brett Cane, October 24, 2010
22nd Sunday after Pentecost; 8:30 & 10:00 a.m., Holy Communion
“Are You Better than Others?”
Lord Jesus, though you were righteous, you spent time with those who were not; help us now, by your Holy Spirit, not to think of ourselves as better than others but to humbly acknowledge our sin and so to enter fully into the Kingdom of our Father in heaven. Amen.
In the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector we just heard read, with whom did you identify more – the Pharisee or the Tax Collector – or neither? I believe Jesus told this story for those of us, myself included, who would tend more to the Pharisee side of the spectrum. Oh, yes, there is a bonus message of hope for the Tax Collector types – but they are the people who already see reality clearly. They are able to see things from God’s perspective. The Pharisee in the story does not see reality clearly. He is only able to see things from his own perspective. As a result he thinks he is better than others. This is why Jesus told the story – to awaken the Pharisee types out of their misconceptions and into the truth.
So today, we are going to explore what God is saying to us through this parable under the title “Are You Better than Others?” We will look at the setting of the story and then three attitudes it addresses: our attitude towards ourselves; our attitude towards others; and our attitude towards God. We will close with Jesus’ challenge to us.
Setting of the Story
In my last sermon, when we looked at thankfulness and the ten healed of leprosy, I pointed out that these chapters in the middle of Luke are full of teaching and parables aimed at challenging both the Pharisees and disciples to see the nature of true faith. We saw that true faith is more than outward obedience to law – true faith moves beyond proud obedience to humble relationship. The setting of this parable in this context confirms that the message it contains is addressed primarily to the Pharisee-types represented in the story.
The Pharisees: But who were the Pharisees? “Pharisee” is from a Greek word (pharisaios) taken from a Hebrew/Aramaic word (“Perisha”) meaning “Separated one.” They were lay people who took God’s law very seriously. The Pharisees were one expression of Judaism around the time of Jesus and had arisen out of the struggles with their Greek overlords following the division of Alexander the Great’s empire. There had been a strong tendency among the Jews to accept Greek culture with its pagan religious customs and the Pharisees developed as a reaction and protest against this. They looked back at the Old Testament and saw that God's glory had departed from Israel because they had sinned and failed to keep the Law of Moses. They argued that if they kept the Law then God would fulfill his promises and the Messiah would arrive, throw out the pagan oppressors and establish his kingdom. So the Pharisees set out to make sure the Law was not broken by hedging it with man-made rules to keep the actual law intact. They were meticulous about saying their prayers in the right way at the right time. They followed the absolute letter of the law and went beyond it. Here in the story we read that the Pharisee “fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of all he got” (verse 12) – he even tithed his spices from the garden!
Their intentions were good but, unfortunately, many had drifted into legalism and had become self-righteous and hypocritical. So Jesus, while agreeing with their devotion to the law, challenged them severely about their misunderstanding God’s ultimate purposes:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24).
Theologically, they were the closest to Jesus in terms of beliefs such as the resurrection and the afterlife and the supernatural. In terms of today’s religious spectrum, they would be conservative, evangelical and biblical. But, as we saw last time, their faith had not moved from that of a servant to that of a son. They were so close to the kingdom but, like the “stay-at-home-son” in the parable of the Prodigal Son – they were standing “just outside the door.” This is one reason, I believe, why Jesus spent so much time in disputes with them – he wanted to move them that short but eternally-crucial distance to inside the door.
The Tax Collectors: So who were the Tax Collectors? Practically speaking, they were about as opposite to the Pharisees as you could get. As the Pharisees were the respectable and outwardly religious class, so the Tax Collectors were the vile and degraded. They were Jews who worked for the occupying Roman power to collect taxes from their fellow-countrymen. There were taxes and duties upon all imports and exports; on all that was bought and sold; bridge money, road money, harbour dues, town dues, etc. Tax Collectors had to bid to buy the right do this and were given the freedom (often backed by military force) to collect whatever they could above that which was required by the state. So, in most cases, these people were extortioners who took advantage of their fellow citizens – rich and poor alike. So when they came to John to be baptized his challenge to them was, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you” (Luke 3:13). When Zacchaeus, a Chief Tax Collector, was transformed through meeting Jesus, he promised that “If I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8). Tax Collectors were seen as Rome’s willing instruments of oppression and were regarded as traitors and apostates and considered defiled by their constant contact with the heathen. The rabbis declared that promises were not to be kept with murderers, thieves and Tax Collectors – thus they were treated similar to the worst kinds of sinners and prostitutes. “Tax Collector” became synonymous with “sinner” and “pagan.”
Jesus confirms this opinion of Tax Collectors when he uses them as an example of having a low standard of love and forgiveness, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that” (Matthew 5:46). He also uses the term negatively in giving directions about excommunicating a persistently unrepentant member of the church, “If they refuse to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). At the same time, Jesus was happy to have social fellowship with them and accept the title of “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (e.g. Luke 7:34). He selected a Tax Collector as one of his disciples (Matthew) and here in this parable, he uses a Tax Collector as a positive example of an attitude acceptable to God.
Let’s now turn to the parable and look at the different attitudes expressed. First, though, we note the similarities – both people in the story were worshippers – “Two men went up to the temple to pray” (verse 10). We are not dealing here with unbelievers, outsiders – these are two of God’s people presenting themselves before him – probably during public worship at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice when atonement for sins would be made through the offering up of a lamb. They are both standing to pray – the normal Jewish stance for prayer. They are both standing at some distance away from the other worshippers. These are the similarities. This is where they end. The differences reveal three opposite attitudes in crucial areas of life: towards ourselves, towards others, and towards God:
- Our attitude towards ourselves: The story opens with an introduction which clearly sets out where the Pharisee stands with respect to himself: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness…Jesus told this parable” (verse 9). This man has a very high opinion of himself and his goodness. He lives what he genuinely believes is a righteous life. He lists his attributes, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers…I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (verses 11-12). His goodness is based on comparison with others and he comes out on top! He doesn’t break the standards of what is wrong and goes beyond the standards for doing what is right. However, in his prayer, he does not offer God thanks for all his blessings or even offer up prayer for himself – which was the custom. So his prayer is not really a prayer at all but a commendation of himself – “I…, I…, I…!”
On the other hand, the Tax Collector does not even look up to heaven, but “Beats his breast and says, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (verse 13). He beats upon his breast with his clenched fists – a gesture of sorrow and anguish usually reserved only for women. He is in extreme sorrow and anguish for his sin. By beating his breast he is beating his heart – the centre of his being because this is where his sin lies deeply embedded. He knows the scripture “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). He has no illusions about himself, no goodness to plead – just his sinfulness to bring before God.
Here are some questions about our attitudes towards ourselves:
- Do I have a “sober estimate” of myself (Romans 12:3) – or do I think too highly or too lowly of myself?
- Do I base my estimate of myself on comparisons with others?
- Am I honest with God about my sin and genuinely feel its destructive power?
- 2. Our attitude towards others: The Pharisee’s attitude towards others is clearly seen – disdainful! “I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector” (verse 11). His so-called “goodness” has moved him away from others. The phrase “prayed about himself” or “to himself” (verse 11) is better translated “by himself” – in terms of location. He is standing away from other worshippers because he doesn’t want to be ritually contaminated by them. And, because he was praying aloud, as was the custom, he was probably “graciously” offering those around him within earshot a few words of judgement and instruction that they needed to hear. He sees himself as spiritually superior to others and this keeps him at a distance from God’s (“less fortunate”) people.
The Tax Collector is also “standing at a distance” (verse 13) not because he doesn’t want to be contaminated by others but because he might contaminate them! He feels cut off from God’s people because of his sin. In this respect he is mindful of the spiritual state of others and doesn’t want to have a negative effect upon them.
Here are some questions about our attitudes towards others:
- Do I look down on others that live an obviously immoral lifestyle?
- Do I keep away from people who are not up to “my standard” of godliness?
- Do I keep away from God’s people because I am ashamed of the sin in my own life?
- 3. Our attitude towards God: The Pharisee’s attitude to God is seen through his attitudes to himself and others. He sees God as a calculating God – he totes up rewards and punishments: he rewards those who live moral lives and do the right religious things and keep away from sinners – and he looks down on everyone else who can’t make the grade. The Pharisee is oblivious to what is going on in the temple worship around him at that very moment – he needs no sacrificial lamb as an offering for his sin because he has none. He has completely missed the meaning and thrust of the Law as a means of pushing us onto God’s mercy because we can not keep its provisions. His God is stern and calculating.
The Tax Collector also shows his attitude to God through his attitudes towards himself and others. He sees God as a God of grace – he freely forgives those who do not deserve to be forgiven. He knows he has nothing to offer but his sin and cries out for mercy. His cry, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” does not use the regular word for “mercy” and is better stated, “Make atonement for me, a sinner.” He is there in the temple at the time of sacrifice because he knows that unless atonement is made for his sin he can not be forgiven. God has made provision for sin and he needs it. His God is generous and forgiving.
Here are some questions about our attitudes towards God:
- Is my God a God of calculation or a God of grace?
- Even though I believe in a God of grace in theory, in practice do I worship a God of calculation by adding up my good and bad points as a gauge of my standing with him?
- Do I believe God will forgive my sin if I come to him in repentance?
Jesus told this story as a challenge to his listeners who were more like the Pharisees who thought they were better than others. The story begins with the Pharisee first and then the Tax Collector: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (verse 10). It ends with the Tax Collector first and then the Pharisee: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (verse 14). The first listeners expected the opposite – they were mistaken. A reversal has taken place through the story. The key to that reversal is in the last verse, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (verse 14). Justification – our being put right with God – does not rest on our goodness but on God’s grace. An open door to that grace is made through our coming to him in humility and repentance. That does not earn us forgiveness but enables us to receive it. God has provided atonement for our sin through the death of his Son on the cross. True righteousness comes through our receiving that free gift.
The challenge to us is that “religiously observant” people like most of us can often miss this – even if we say all the right words with our lips, we can miss it in our hearts. Until we get our attitudes towards ourselves, others and God on the right track, we will miss it. Even though, like the Pharisee, we involve ourselves in regular worship and praise and take communion – all is to no avail unless we come before God, like the Tax Collector, with a humble and penitent heart. The Pharisee was so close but so far. The Tax Collector was so far but went in. Will you stand outside God’s love thinking you are better than others or enter in?
 With thanks to material found on http://www.bible-history.com/pharisees/PHARISEESOverview.htm
 With thanks to N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992).
 With thanks to material found on http://www.bible-history.com/sketches/ancient/tax-collector.html
 Luke 15:1-2; Matthew 18:17; Matthew 5:46; Matthew 21:31; Mark 2:15-16.
 See Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. Combined Edition. (Grad Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), pgs. 147-148.
 Ibid., pg. 154.