People often assume that the purpose of religion is to make people good. You may remember the Good Friday hymn There is a green hill far away with its line He died to make us good. And sometimes it is said of the dead, Even though he did not attend church, he was a good man. As if he had done rather well to be good without the aid of religion.
But, if you regard making people good as the purpose of religion, then you’re in for a shock when you think about Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector.
Perhaps we’ve become over-familiar with this parable. I didn’t hear a sharp intake of breath or any shocked comments when it was read this morning, so we clearly weren’t as shocked by it as Jesus’s hearers would have been.
This story makes even more sense the more that you know more about the background. We’re told that two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, a member of a strict religious group. He would observe the Jewish law down to the last detail. He would be a pillar of the community.
There he is, the Pharisee, up in the chancel. He’s an impressive guy. You only had to fast on the Day of Atonement. This guy fasts twice a week. Deuteronomy instructs tithing grain, wine, oil, and the ﬁrstborn from the ﬂocks. This guy tithes on everything. He stands up and prays aloud in the Temple, just as is expected of such a professional religious man. His prayer is reasonable: he is not an extortionist, an adulterer or a tax-collector. He doesn’t screw over his neighbours. Here is a virtuous, religious man. He has a sound religious pedigree. When we read of the Pharisee, we’re intended to picture the nun working on a tough estate. Respected, regarded, really religious type.
The second man who went to the temple to pray was at the other end of the social scale. He was a tax-collector for the Roman authorities. The Romans had an ingenious tax system: privatised and effective. An individual would contract with the authorities to collect an agreed amount of tax from a particular list of people. The system was that he wasn’t paid. His payment would be the amount he managed to extract, by persuasion or intimidation, from the people on his list over and above what he had undertaken to pass on to the Roman authorities. It was a system with built-in dishonesty and corruption, and it placed tax-collectors outside respectable society.
How would Jesus’ hearers have regarded a tax-collector? There he is by the door. With the weight of Rome behind him, he can bump up our taxes in order to cream off a percentage for his back pocket. The reason you don’t have enough money for medicine for your daughter is because he robbed you. You couldn’t pay the temple tax last year (which incidentally made you unholy) because he ripped you off. Your family is barely subsisting because of our friend the tax-collector. That low-life scumbag is hand in glove with the Romans. Treacherous dog. Don’t go near him; he’s ritual ﬁlth. He enters the houses of unclean people, touches unclean objects and unclean money. Pond life. A no-good, low-down, double-dealing, rotten, fork-tongued, con artist. We have to get this, if we are to get the parable. When we read of the Tax-collector, we’re intended to picture the loan shark swimming through the waters of the same tough estate as the nun.
For the purposes of this parable, it would have been intuitive to those hearing it that the Pharisee was a good person and the tax-collector was a bad person.
The Pharisee, then, on arriving at the temple, went and stood up front and prayed – to himself, I think, not really to God. Every sentence in his prayer begins with the word I. He’s preening himself on his achievements. But when you look more deeply you realise that his wasn’t an outstandingly good life. His virtues are all negative – he’s not greedy, not dishonest, not an adulterer. Goodness is more than negatives. Yes, he did fulfil his religious duties. He fasted more often than was necessary. He paid tithes on everything, not just on what the law said he had to. Of course, he was good, but his problem was that he knew he was good, and better than others, and that gave him a sense of superiority: I thank you, God, that I am not like other men, and certainly not like this tax-collector, he said, defining himself by comparing himself favourably with others. His prayer, I feel, was not really directed to God, but was just a warm reassuring assessment of himself. Virtue, puffed up and polished, is lethal. A small dose can inoculate us against God; that way death lies. Jesse Jackson said, ‘Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.’ Beware of looking down on the Pharisee. Jesus said, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.’ Remember that old black and white sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett: ‘I look down on him because I am upper class . . .’ What is this need to rank ourselves against others, if not pride? At root, the Pharisee expresses pride that closes his eyes to the humanity of others and his ears to God.
And the tax-collector: he was a desperate man, and because of his profession a social outcast. He was probably longing to break out of it, but without being able to, because public repentance would involve returning the money dishonestly obtained, which he had already spent. As far as he could see, there was no escape. There was nothing in his life he could be proud of, nothing he could do. Facing the reality of the situation, all that he can do is to cast himself on God’s mercy. And so he stands at the back, at a distance, hangs his head, and prays the only prayer that he can: God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am.
Jesus points out that that prayer was a genuine prayer, not just a monologue of self-congratulation. That was what was acceptable to God. The tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified before God. The Pharisee was ostensibly good, and the tax-collector bad. It’s clear that goodness is not enough.
Where does this leave us? Most of us in church, rightly, think we’re good. But so did the Pharisee, and yet he missed the mark. How can we avoid getting it wrong, if goodness alone is not enough?
The first mistake the Pharisee made is to not to recognise that he was human, like everyone else.
The second mistake was to distance himself from people different from himself, in this case the tax-collector. He defined himself, gave himself an identity, by dissociating himself from others. He had no sense that he was of worth in himself. And that was what cut him off from God, whose love and concern is all-inclusive – although it must be said that it did not cut God off from him.
The third mistake was failing to recognise that, in common with the rest of humanity, and in common with the tax-collector, he was a sinner. The tax-collector could put up no defence – he appeared just as he was before God, without pretence. God have mercy on me, sinner that I am.
We all know that, good and bad alike, our goodness is marred and imperfect, tainted with self-interest. None of us can claim to be anywhere near perfect. And once we face that we can experience an immense liberation, because we don’t have to try to appear perfect anymore, either to ourselves or to God.
Even though we might find it difficult to accept ourselves, even though others may not accept us, God accepts us and we are forgiven and set free. We’re no longer hemmed in by the need to maintain an image of ourselves, as the Pharisee was, but are right with God, as the tax-collector was, and, like the tax-collector, we can know that go sets us free.
The tax-collector’s world was that dreary cycle of knowing he’d messed up, but stuck in a cycle of messing it up even more. This parable reminds us that God is grace, love beyond what we deserve, offered to all who know their need of God, whether they are pushing through an ethical business deal, or lap dancing; selling their body or preaching on a parable. ‘There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.