What would it have been like in first century Palestine to have a Pharisee as a next door neighbor? Now I am sure your initial response is negative. After all “Pharisee” has basically become a pejorative term. Jesus’ statements about the Pharisees and his interaction with them have shaped our understanding. We see them as being legalistic, self-righteous, self-serving and arrogant. They were utterly opposed to Jesus and sought to kill him.
But if you were a Jew in first century Palestine, it is quite likely that you would have had a rather different view. You probably would have looked up to him. Most likely, you would have respected him. After all, for the most part, a Pharisee was a person just like you. While there were Pharisees who had special training like the apostle Paul before his conversion, for the most part Pharisees were a “lay group.” They were ordinary Jews who had made a very serious commitment to live faithfully according to Yahweh’s Torah.
In some ways, this life took on demands that went beyond the Torah. The Pharisees took requirements of the Torah that were meant for priests, and applied them to themselves. The ritual washings you hear about in the Gospels are an example of this. The Pharisees created a whole body of oral law that interpreted how to live the Torah, and then they rigorously sought to live according to those rules. Of course the irony was that in many cases the strict following of their rules actually made the Torah easier to keep.
While you probably would have respected the Pharisee, he would not have felt the same about you. If you weren’t a Pharisee – if you weren’t taking on the “tradition of the elders” as they called their oral law – then you weren’t serious about being part of God’s people. You weren’t up to the level of the Pharisee, and so you were beneath him.
We see this in our Gospel lesson this morning. Luke begins by telling us that Jesus “also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” By the time we have reached this point in the Gospel, it is already clear that our Lord addresses this parable to the Pharisees. And sure enough, one of the characters in the parable is a Pharisee.
Luke tells us that they were doing two things. First, they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous. It’s not that the Pharisees thought they were justifying themselves solely by their own works. The covenant and the Torah were all based in God’s grace, and Judaism never forgot this.
However, first century Judaism had a very positive view of a person’s spiritual abilities. And while God’s grace may have been the basis for the system, the emphasis fell on a person’s righteous living. St. Paul, who had been a Pharisee, described the situation when he told the Romans, “For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.”
The second thing we learn is that they treated others with contempt. If you have chosen to go over and above, it becomes easy to look down on those who do not. They are beneath you. In the later literature of rabbinic Judaism this can be seen very clearly, and not surprisingly Luke tells us that this was present in the first century as well.
Jesus said, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Our Lord immediately establishes complete opposites. On the one hand you have the Pharisee who is all that is pious in Judaism. And other hand you have a tax collector. Perhaps if we were telling the parable today, we would make him an ambulance chasing lawyer. This was a profession that was looked down upon and was assumed to be shady. Beyond that, in first century Palestine it also carried the connotation of collaboration with the Roman occupiers.
Both men went up to the temple to pray. We have heard this parable so many times that we probably overlook the initial surprise we encounter here. Jesus is going to tell us about a praying tax collector. He may be a tax collector, but he is going to the temple to pray – he is putting faith in the God of Israel into action.
We learn that the Pharisee stood by himself – a position that called attention to him. He said, “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.” The Pharisee began by thanking God that he was so great. He thanked God that he wasn’t a sinner like other people … especially the tax collector who was there at the temple. Instead he was really serious about living as a person who was just before God.
The Pharisee claimed this about himself. However, in the Gospel Jesus had already said, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. Luke has already told us that the Pharisees were lovers of money and that our Lord had said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
As fallen people, the desire to justify ourselves is always inside of us. We want to explain away our failings and make excuses for them, so that we won’t be responsible. We want to compare ourselves to others in ways so that we come out better than they do. And since we are “better” in education, or athletics, or career, or wealth, we get to look down on others. We wouldn’t say it in polite company, but in our heart, we get to despise them.
Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector, stood far off. Insofar as he could, he hid himself in that public space. He didn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but instead he carried out the repentant action of beating his breast, as he said one simple thing: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Here was repentance and confession of sin. The tax collector wasn’t just going through the motions. He admitted his sin. He regretted it. He confessed it before God.
This must be our attitude as well. We don’t come before God with anything we can offer. There is no bargain to be made. There is no way to justify our actions or ourselves. Instead, we are sinners who in thought, word and deed sin against the holy God by rejecting his will; by acting like we are god. We can do nothing else except admit we are sinners and ask for God’s mercy.
Then Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “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.” It was the repentant tax collector who went home just in God’s eyes. He had humbled himself before God by confessing his sin. And now God had exalted him by sending him home justified – forgiven.
Like the tax collector in the parable, we come before God and confess our sin. We say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Yet we do so at God’s invitation. More than that, we do so at God’s urging. For you see, God has already humbled himself for you. The Son of God became man, without ceasing to be God. He submitted himself to a baptism of repentance as he stepped into your shoes and took your place. He went to the cross to bear your sin and to receive your judgment. And then, having been faithful to the Father’s will, he was exalted as he rose on the third day, ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God.
Because of Jesus Christ we confess our sins and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We do so in the knowledge that God has already shown us mercy. He did it in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now through faith in the risen Lord we know that are justified. Baptized into his death, we live as those who are in Christ through the work of the Spirit. We have been clothed with Christ’s righteousness in baptism and so we are indeed just in God’s eyes. As the apostle Paul said, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
What comfort it is to know that when we stumble in sin, our God is merciful because of Jesus Christ and forgives! Yet if we stop there we have not really taken the Gospel to heart. It is our Lord Jesus who taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Or as the apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
To live as a forgiven Christian is to live as a forgiving Christian. The forgiveness that we have received in Christ does not stop with us. In fact, Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer that it cannot stop with us. Instead, Christ’s Spirit moves us to forgive others; to share the forgiveness that we have received.
The Spirit makes this possible through the Means of Grace by which he gives us forgiveness and strengthens faith. We come before God like the tax collector as we say, “God be merciful a sinner.” He forgives us on account of Christ. He sends us home justified. Freed from our sin, we then freely forgive others because of Jesus.