BIBLE READING:† Luke 18: 9-14†† The Pharisee and the tax collector
Today is Reformation Sunday. Today we remember the cornerstone of Reformation theology Ė Grace not Works. And so we approach the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. But be warned: this passage is a trap, a trap set for the preacher and hearer alike.
The moral of this story is clear - donít think too highly of yourself like this hypocritical Pharisee; rather, be like the distasteful tax collector. Or, to make it simpler, this parable can be explained in two words: ďbe humble.Ē
But there's a problem: whenever a parable seems this clear and this simple, it makes me wonder Ė what's the catch? †Because a careful reader of Lukeís story about Jesus will realise that Luke is the master of reversals. From Maryís song at the beginning of the Gospel to the surprising words Jesus utters both to crowd and thief at the cross, things never stay as they are for long in this story. So letís take a closer look at these two characters.
First, the Pharisee: To be honest, he only speaks the truth: he is righteous. He leads a life blameless according to the law. He fasts and gives alms and indeed bears no resemblance to the unsavory characters with which he compares himself. What, then, is his problem? It narrows down to one thing: while he is right about the kind of life lives, he is confused about the source of that life. For while he prays to God, his prayer finally is about himself, and because he misses the source of his blessing, he despises those people God loves. For this reason, he leaves the Temple as righteous according to the law as when he entered, but he is not justified; that is, he is not called righteous by God Ė not that it would ever occur to him to ask.
Second, the tax collector: Once again, Jesus messes with our expectations. For there is no note of repentance in the tax collectorís speech, no pledge to leave his employment or give back to those he has cheated, no promises of a new and better life. Nothing, except the simple acknowledgement that he is utterly and entirely dependent on Godís mercy. The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: his life is Godís - his past, present, and future entirely dependent on Godís grace and mercy.
Which is, of course, what the Reformation was all about. Luther realised first and foremost that if anything about his salvation rested on his ability, character, or faith - whether the good works and indulgences of the sixteenth-century or the earnest plea to ďmake a decision for JesusĒ in the twenty-first - he was lost. He could claim nothing other than Godís good favour.
Which is where the first part of the trap of this parable rests. Because the minute you decide to take this parable to heart and ďbe humbleĒ like the Tax Collector, itís pretty hard not to also be grateful youíre not like that Pharisee. And then the trap has sprung. Itís not about you, you see. Not your humility or lack of pride or even about your being a child of the Reformation or one justified by faith. Itís not about you; itís about God.
But thereís another trap in the parable as well. And thatís to hear in the tax collectorís confession an example that we also ought to live our lives fully and entirely aware of our status as a sinner. But the minute you do that, youíve also shifted attention away from Godís activity to your status. And the trap is sprung one more time. Once again, itís not about you - not about you being a sinner or a wretch or one who does not deserve or merit Godís grace or however you might want to formulate it. Itís just not about you; itís about God.
This parable - and indeed the whole Reformation - was and is an attempt to shift our attention from ourselves - our piety or our passions, our faith or our failure, our glory or our shame - to God, the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, welcoming the outcast, and healing all who are in need.
Acknowledgement: Prof David Lose