Sometimes it takes guts to go to church; it also takes guts to be the church

Two of the most painful places to be excluded are the family and the religious community. So many people live with a cloud of rejection that overshadows their personal lives. It may be the impact of an absentee parent or spouse, denial of a mental illness, rejection of a child’s sexual orientation, or so many other things. Judgment cuts to the core of who we are, especially when found in the places where we most expect welcome and unconditional love.

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector goes deep, truly striking at the marrow of our souls. It can speak to us both when we feel unworthy of God’s love and when we feel overly confident of our own goodness. It can speak to anyone who has been labeled, stereotyped, or dismissed. It can convict us when we label, stereotype, or dismiss. This text addresses what we do when we come to worship, why we are here, and what we think about the other people with whom we share this sacred space. I would wager a guess that preaching on this parable, and updating its characters to those that most hit home in any particular era, has lost many a daring preacher his job.

Who is Jesus trying to reach, by telling this parable? The writer of the Gospel ‘spills the beans’, so to speak, in suggesting that Jesus is responding to those harsh critics who condemn the social circles in which he travels. In other words, Jesus is addressing the good Synagogue folk who are accustomed to doing the right thing and socializing with their own kind. Their religion discourages them from making friends with those questionable outsiders, lest they be rendered unclean by such contact.

Illustrations, particularly drawn in caricature form, have a way of getting their point across. Obviously, not all Pharisees nor all tax collectors resemble the actors on this stage. The enduring power of this story comes as Jesus places both characters together in the one place his critics least expect–the Temple. Not only that, but both characters go to the Temple for the same reason–to pray.

I love this imagery, because the last thing religious people expect of someone they have been told to despise is for “those people” to be praying people, too. By definition, the despised are supposed to be unredeemable, headed straight for hell. All sorts of defamation is heaped on them in the name of God. “What would you do if a gay couple visited your church?” a parishioner asked someone from his home church during the censuring process of this congregation by the North Central Baptist Association for this church’s welcoming and affirming stance. “I’d kick ‘em out!” said the person without a second thought. Hardly the tactics or mindset of Jesus.

A friend of mine is serving a small ethnic church with an all-male leadership board. How in the world did that church ever call her as a pastor? Initially resistant even to the idea of calling a woman, they grew to know and love her as an interim. They saw her faith and her prayer life. They witnessed her calling in action, and it changed them.

The transforming possibility of the parable is the same transforming possibility the Apostle Peter faced when he met Cornelius, a Gentile, and learned that Cornelius was a praying man. Peter never entertained the possibility that a Gentile could be clean, could praying and love God the same way he did! The faith of Cornelius challenged Peter’s long-held religious prejudices. Peter, like many before and after him, could have walked away, refusing to rethink his attitudes after observing the testimony of this man. Instead, he opened himself up to a whole new realm of the Spirit’s work in the world.

Let’s return to our parable. It contrasts two primary characters–the Pharisee, a pillar of religious faith and respectability–and the tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman Empire. The Pharisee meticulously follows the Law of God. In fact, he even goes farther than the Law requires by fasting twice a week, not just at expected times and seasons, and tithing all that he has, not just that which is required. In contrast, the tax collector is not considered religious at all; he is seen as both traitor and cheat, both sinner and unclean.

One is welcome in the Temple; the other is not. One is self-congratulating; the other is self-effacing. Both stand alone—one to be seen, the other to remain anonymous. Both pray–one sizes up the outsider in the assembly; the other sizes up the state of his own soul before God. One gives thanks–that he is not like all those “sinners out there” or especially that tax collector in the corner; the other laments–throwing himself on the mercy of a Holy and Benevolent God.

“Have mercy on me, a sinner!” the tax collector cries. William Herzog, in his book, Parables as Subversive Speech, suggests that the tax collector is most likely a toll collector, a low level employee who collects interest, tolls, and various other fees that are neither part of the primary taxation system of the Roman Empire nor associated with the Temple tithes. The toll collectors don’t generally get rich; most of the excess they receive goes to their wealthy employer. Further, they can never repay all they have defrauded people, because they work with the general public on behalf of the rich. Still, they are despised, seen as collaborators and cheats. They participate in the larger system that oppresses the poor–a system that oppresses them as well.

How does the toll collector know that he needs God’s mercy? What has changed him? This question fascinates me. What do you think? [Congregational reflection].

I recently spoke with a student who has become deeply burdened by the sins that he participates in simply by being a citizen of the United States. Even if we seek to live more sustainably, we still belong to a society that disproportionately uses up the world’s resources. Even if we protest war, we are still part of a nation that bombs innocent civilians in distant lands, contaminating the earth with depleted uranium that will remain for generations to come. While we labor to speak out and work to change unjust systems, we also cry out like the toll collector, “Have mercy on us!”

The prayer for mercy is a prayer of awareness and conscience. The toll collector’s confession is not about self-hatred, the “Oh, what a worm am I!” approach to God. It is about humility, about grabbing hold of grace, because it takes grace to cover all our sins. To know we need mercy is to see our inner darkness and the darkness around us against the Brightness of the Light of God. In the burning of that light, we can find illumination, redemption, and release.

In biblical language, mercy is synonymous with love and compassion. By nature, mercy is non-linear. It flows in a circle, emanating from the compassion of God to compassion for the world God has created and back again.. In another setting, Jesus teaches his followers, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7). Mercy places itself in solidarity with the most vulnerable of the earth: the poor and the outcast, the orphan and the widow. Mercy sees beyond the neighbor’s sins to the person God cherishes–the very thing that the Pharisee seems unable to do because he tragically cannot see his own need for mercy.

Jesus finishes his illustration by shocking his critics once again. Which of these men leaves the Temple justified before God? In the long sweep of church history, justification has been quantified into a theological tenet, but in Jesus’ day, it was a legal term used in a court of law. Wouldn’t the meticulous Pharisee be justified? No—what??? It’s the repentant toll collector who can never repay all his debts! The humble are exalted and the proud brought low? In that case, the doors to the Kingdom of God are flung wide open!

This story is told again and again, because it is truly universal in its import. Wherever the church condemns the company its own disciples keep, this story should be told. Whenever the church becomes assured of its own goodness in contrast to “those evildoers out there,” this story should be told. Whenever the church forgets that God is more interested in one simple honest prayer than a thousand acts of self-congratulatory religion, this story should be told. Whenever the church forgets the saving power of grace and seeks to work its way into God’s good pleasure, this story should be told. Let us keep telling it. Amen.