Jesus' intent was not to make a hero of the dishonest tax collector,
but to make the rest of us see the sinfulness of looking down our noses
at other people.


 

Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that
they were righteous, and despised others: "Two men went up to
the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank
You that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers,
or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of
all that I possess.'

"And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as
raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God be
merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his
house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts
himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be
exalted."
                                                             Luke 18:9-14 NKJV


                                A Humbling Experience

Two people, one highly respected and the other despised, went to the
same house of worship to pray. The former stood up confidently and
prayed about himself; the other sinner bowed to the ground in shame
and cried out to God for mercy. A humble, hungry heart trumps self-
righteousness every time. The Pharisee left unchanged; the tax man's
life was transformed. This story is so simple anyone can understand it.
Until we start asking some questions.

Why would a loser who had played all the wrong cards be justified in
God's sight with just a 5-second prayer? What was wrong with this
devout Pharisee for whom prayer was a daily ritual? Why the surprise
ending? Winners aren't supposed to lose; losers aren't supposed to win.

Maybe we need to go back and read the story again. Note first to whom
Jesus was speaking? They were people much like ourselves who loved
their circle of family and friends. Being sufficient unto themselves and
doing everything God required, they felt disgust for those who didn't
measure up.

The Pharisees were a group within the Jewish faith that wore their
religion literally on "their sleeves." They were good people who practiced
their faith publicly. But we often think of them as being obsessive and
legalistic to the point of neglecting the spirit of the commandments.

The image of a tax collector in the Gospels is that of a Jewish man who
worked for the Roman occupiers collecting taxes from his fellow Jews.
They were known to be dishonest and greedy, assessing more than
required and keeping the surplus for themselves. In time, they became
wealthy while the ordinary tax payer became poorer and poorer.

The two of them converged at the temple one day to pray. Everything
the Pharisee thanked God for not being, the tax man was. The Pharisee
tithed 10% of his income; the tax man might have made 10% of his
legitimately. The Pharisee did a great bit more than the Law demanded;
the tax man had ignored most of it. The Pharisee obviously had an
impressive record, his faith touched both his stomach and his pocketbook.
The tax man had nothing to boast about.

However, while the Pharisee was looking down on his fellowman, the tax
collector was stretching upward toward God with this cry, "God, be
merciful to me a sinner!" Alone in a corner and in deep distress, this
cheat and a crook beat his chest and acknowledged his sinfulness. He
prayed for mercy. It was not--How lucky you are, O God, to have me!
But--Do you see, O Lord, how messed up I am and how badly I need you.

This story reminds us of the beatitudes--poverty of spirit, meekness,
mourning, hungering and thirsting to be made right in God's sight.
Repentance is a lifelong task in which the hungry are filled while those
who are full go away empty. The Pharisee had no sin to confess; he
knew no need for forgiveness. Which, when you think about it, sounds
like many of us today.

The tax man needed more than God's mercy. He needed mercy from
his neighbors and those who passed by him on the streets. Which
brings us back to the Pharisee's critical attitude. Despising others is a
roadblock to prayer. It puts us in the position of judge and jury. Years
after hearing this parable, the disciple John wrote in one of his letters
that we cannot love God if we hate our brother! Jesus reminded us of
this, too. We are to pray, saying, "Our Father . . . ." Where God's ways
are honored, no one is excluded, because divine grace is only received
by those who extend that grace to others.

We can't be looking up to God while at the same time looking down on
our brothers and sisters. We learn humility from our failures and from
those we are tempted to despise. If the Pharisee had an open heart and
mind, he could have gained some wisdom from the tax collector. We also
learn humility from the humiliation Jesus suffered on the cross. Looking
up at Jesus as he endured a tortuous death, he looked no better than the
two criminals who were crucified beside him. Yet even there his invitation
went out to one of them to be with him in paradise. The righteousness of
God is available to all, the despised and the respected alike, who have
been humbled enough to receive it.

 

Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further
study or reflection.

 

Icebreaker: Time to brag! What is something about yourself you are proud of?

 

This parable is meant to have shock value. Suppose it began, the pope
and a pimp went into St. Peter's to pray. Or if the characters were a
distinguished theology professor and a drug dealer, your pastor and the
neighbor who never goes to church, or a kindly grandmother and an angry
delinquent teenager. And then you get to the last line and hear Jesus say
that the latter one went home justified rather than the former!
            What would you think of his story?   How would you feel about it?
            What questions does this parable raise in your mind?

 

Resumes give us an opportunity to list accomplishments and other outstanding
aspects of our lives to show that we are better qualified than others for the job.
            Is it human nature to want to give an impressive account of ourselves?
            Why is God not swayed by such accomplishments?
            If you were doing a resume to get into heaven, what would you include?

 

Did God do right by the Pharisee and the tax collector?
            What is fair about God's forgiveness?
            Is there anyone you think is unworthy of God's grace?

 

The Pharisee didn't know what to confess when he prayed. Help him out.
Make a list of all the sins you can think of which he could have confessed
and asked forgiveness for.
            Pick two or three sins from the list which are also your sins.
            Examine the effect these have on the way you live your life.
            If able to pray the tax man's prayer regarding these sins, do so.

 

How does this text show the difference between the "saint" who was
self-righteous and "sinner" who was God-righteous?
            Why did the one fail and the other succeed in his praying?
            What happens to righteousness when you put the word "self" before it?
            How does Jesus define what it means to be righteous in this parable?

 

What do your private prayers reveal about you?
            Is it true that God does not hear prayers if we treat others with contempt?

 

How have you learned humility?   Who, or what, have been your teachers?
            Give an example of a time when you showed mercy to someone
                        by not being critical of them.
Pray: Lord, help me be generous in giving to others as I have received from You.

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