In Luke’s gospel Jesus and the Pharisees bump heads at every turn. The Pharisees are the foil, the gang that can’t shoot straight. They never seem to be able to do anything right. If there is an opportunity to take the wrong side of the fight, you can count on them to take it.
In Chapter 5, Jesus is teaching and healing. People from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem are all there, gathered around him. It’s a big crowd. And, some people who are carrying a paralyzed man on a mat show up. The crowd is so great that the only way they get to Jesus is to climb up on the roof of the house, cut a hole in the roof, and let the man down to where Jesus is sitting. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend. Your sins are forgiven” (5:20). No sooner are the words out of his mouth than the Pharisees and teachers of the law start thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The battle lines are drawn.
In the very next chapter, chapter 6, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees are furious and begin to ask what they are going to do with this fellow Jesus. In Chapter 12, Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites”–religious pretenders. They talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk.
In Chapter 16: 14, the Pharisees are called “lovers of money” who are “sneering at Jesus.” And now in Chapter 18, the Pharisee and the tax collector are in the Temple. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, “Thank God, I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers, tax collectors.” It is confirmation of everything that we know about the Pharisees–they give religion a bad name.
Now in reality, they are not bad people. We might be happy to have them as our neighbor. They are law-abiding, upstanding, respected members of the community. But in matters of religion, they are more concerned with putting up a good front than they are with having a good heart. They wear their religion on their sleeve. Show and tell religion. Religious pretenders. But before we write them off as completely, we ought to remember that they were the religious liberals of Jesus’s time. The Sadducees were what we would call the strict constructionists of the Constitution. Original intent is their motto. The Pharisees were the liberals. They admitted to the use of reason and the principle of interpretation of the law. Still, Jesus calls them hypocrites–pretenders, who stand in the Temple and look askance at the sinner standing over there, and thanking God that they are not like him, and for good reason.
The tax collector is no angel of goodness and mercy. He robs from the rich and the poor alike. He has a license to steal. Like Shylock in the Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, the tax collector calls money his daughter. Greed over-rules compassion. Money is the measure of value. But now he is standing here, in the Temple, making his confession and asking for mercy.
If you read commentaries on this parable, uniformly you will read that this parable is about prayer and how we should pray. The contrast is drawn between the self-righteous Pharisee and the contrite tax collector, who is justified before God because he humbles himself. I think this interpretation misses the point. The contrast between false pride and genuine humility is there and it is real, but the parable is also about the weightier matters of “justice, mercy, and faith” (Mt. 23:23), and commentaries often miss this point.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom we met this morning in our adult education class, tells us that the problem of our time is the spirit of our age, the denial of transcendence, the vapidity of values, the emptiness in the heart. “The central problem is that we do not know how to think, how to pray, how to cry, how to resist the deceptions of the pretenders.” Elsewhere he says that “the source of prayer is not emotion, but insight.”
We don’t know what happened, but something brought the tax collector to the Temple that day. He is in the Temple because he has been given fresh insight into the reality that his wealth is directly tied to the impoverishment of others. The deck is stacked against the poor, whom he exploits with impunity. But now he is asking God for mercy.
Yesterday in the Women for Kansas meeting that was held here we talked a little bit about Payday Loans. These loans can carry an interest rate of 700 percent. The average interest rate on a Payday Loan is 391 percent. What we learned yesterday is that some of the people who write the laws that allow Payday lenders to charge these rates are also directly benefiting from these laws. This is not true of all legislators. But we were told the other day some legislators benefit from this unregulated market. The loans put money in their purse. People are not poor, they are impoverished. They are made poor by laws like this. And now people in faith communities around Kansas are working in alliance with others to change this situation. We want to put a spotlight on what is happening.
We don’t know what happened to bring the tax collector to the Temple that day. Something happened to make him aware of his complicity in the poverty of others. So, he came to the Temple to pray.
Heschel teaches us, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must be a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” The tax collector came to pray that kind of prayer.
Prayer begins in the heart. But prayer is not an effort to impose our will on God, our prayers are not instructions to God. We cannot tell God how to be a better God. Prayer begins with a desire not to impose our will on God, but to impose God’s will on us. This is what the Lord’s Prayer is about. Every week we prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy kin-dom come, thy will be done on earth, that is, in us and through us,
Let me say one more thing. In the parable the Temple is a house divided. Certainly, that is true of the church in our time. It is not entirely clear to me if religion is a source of division in our society, or if social forces are creating divisions within the Christian community. Some of both, I suspect. Today we can see the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple, looking askance at each other, saying under our breath, “Thank God I am not like that.” We have to acknowledge that the Christian church is divided today, perhaps more clearly than at any time since the Civil War, when Northerners and Southerners split over slavery and both sides threw Bible quotes at each other. One hundred years before the first shot of that war was fired a Quaker, John Woolman, made house calls on Quakers who were slave owners. He did not scold them or argue with them, he just asked them a question: What does it do to your soul to own another human being? These were kitchen table talks. One hundred years before the Civil War began, there were no Quakers who owned slaves.
It is hard for us to imagine such a revolution of the heart today. Yet, as I read the parable, this is what it says. If this parable is really about prayer and social justice, our task is twofold. We have to be open to having new conversations–sometimes with people we agree with and sometimes with people we don’t agree with, but need to have some new conversations. And we need to keep ourselves grounded in prayer that matters. Prayers that are subversive. Prayer that overthrew oppression and exploitation and systems of injustice.
Prayer: Lord, we pray today for our nation. We are standing on the eve of an important election, poised to decide which way we will go. Our choices will give shape to our future and to the future of new generations to follow. We pray that we may each find ways to lend our voices and our votes to securing a more just and a more inclusive society, a society, a nation that lives up the vision that all people are created equal. Amen.