What Makes Us Right?

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18:9-14

 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…”

 For nearly three months now we have been on the road with Jesus, walking with him through the Gospel of Luke as he makes his way to Jerusalem, the city where he will suffer and die.  But along the way he has been teaching his disciples everything they will need to know when he is no longer with them and as his modern-day disciples we’ve been listening in, learning as we go.  Recently Jesus has started telling parables: the parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin; the parable of the Dishonest Manager; the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus; the parable of the Persistent Widow.  He seems to believe that the lessons contained in these short, memorable stories will be an essential part of his disciples’ formation, and possibly ours as well, but those lessons aren’t always easy to discern.

One of my favorite New Testament scholars refers to the parables as riddles, and that’s not a bad way to think about them.  Riddles are verbal puzzles.  You have to think about them, you have to figure them out.  For example: “What has many keys but doesn’t open a single door?”  A piano.  “What is more useful once it is broken?”  An egg.  “What is small and brown, has a head and a tail, but no legs?”  A penny.[i]  You see?  Some of the parables are like that, like riddles that have to be figured out (the one about the Dishonest Manager comes to mind; I’m still trying to solve that one).  But others are more like jokes in the way they upset our expectations.  For example: I’ve enjoyed some of the “Dad Jokes” I’ve seen on TikTok, where two men sit on a dock and try to make each other laugh.  One says, “I went to the bookstore yesterday and saw a book that said, ‘How to solve 50 percent of your problems.’  So I bought two.”  His friend says: “If 666 is all evil, then 25.8069758 is the root of all evil.”  He says: “I ate a kid’s meal at McDonald’s today.  His mom got really angry.”[ii]

Jokes like that set you up to expect one thing, and then they deliver a “punch line” you just didn’t expect.  Some of the parables work like that.  This one, for example, from Luke 18, the one about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  In fact it may be the best example of a parable that sets you up to expect one outcome and then delivers another.  Because when Jesus said, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one of them a Pharisee and the other a tax collector,” everyone in his original audience would have expected him to say that the Pharisee went home justified. The Pharisees were the best people anyone knew in those days: they were the solid, hard-working, church-going citizens of First Century Israel.  As the Pharisee in this parable says: “I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”  I wish I had a church full of people just like that!  Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the worst people anyone knew, because they had betrayed their fellow Israelites and gone to work for the Roman government.  Not only did they not love their neighbors, they taxed their neighbors, and always seemed to find a way to hit them up for a little extra.  If their neighbors wouldn’t pay they would send someone around to beat the money out of them.  They didn’t have many friends, but when you’re filthy rich, who cares?

So, when Jesus told this parable for the first time, when he said, “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray,” the people who were listening must have nudged each other and said, “This is going to be a good one!”  The very idea of a tax collector going up to the temple was laughable, and the thought that he was going there to pray was funnier still.  “What’s he going to pray for?” they must have wondered.  “A tax increase?”  So, what Jesus said about the Pharisee wouldn’t have surprised them at all.  Of course he was a good person.  Of course he tithed and fasted.  But what Jesus said about the tax collector would have shocked them to the soles of their sandals.  He called himself a sinner?  He asked God to have mercy?  What kind of tax collector is that?

Well, it’s exactly the kind of tax collector we’ve come to expect, because we’ve heard this joke a hundred times.  It doesn’t shock us anymore; it doesn’t upset our expectations.  When Jesus says, “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray” we know exactly who is going to come home justified, which means that this parable doesn’t work for us anymore, if it ever did.  We have come to think of Pharisees in the way Luke describes them at the beginning of this parable: as those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  We don’t expect them to come home from the temple justified; we expect them to come home condemned.  So, I’m wondering if there is any way we can adapt this parable so it works for us.  I’m wondering if we can learn to have some sympathy for this poor Pharisee.  And the best way I’ve found is to think of my dear mother, because while she was one of the very best people I have ever known, she sometimes regarded others with contempt.  I’ve spent years trying to figure out why.

I think it comes down to this: that she grew up in a home where she wasn’t completely sure of her father’s love.  She used to tell a story about having a nightmare when she was sixteen and coming to her parents’ room where her mother invited her to get in bed with them.  A little odd for a sixteen-year-old girl, but as she snuggled in between them she felt loved and accepted in a way she rarely did otherwise.  And when she woke up in the morning she felt “healed” of an eating disorder that had bothered her for years.  She said, “I used to sneak into the pantry and gobble down anything I could find, but after that night I didn’t feel the need anymore.”  She felt loved; accepted.

But later on in life she wasn’t always sure of God’s love, and I think it stemmed from those early experiences of insecurity.  So, she tried to be the very best person she could be.  She tried to be deserving of God’s love.  She would prop her Bible up on the kitchen windowsill while she was washing the dishes and turn the pages with wet, soapy fingers.  You could always spot her Bible in our house because those wrinkled pages made it twice as thick.  And she would pray without ceasing—well, she had to; she was the mother of six boys; there was always something to pray about.  She would visit with the poor people who came to our house looking for my dad, and she would help him deliver food boxes to them at Christmas.  She started a clothes closet where she charged ten cents per item and kept most of the county in decent clothes.  She was a good woman, a good person, as I said, one of the best I have ever known.  But she did have this tendency to look around and compare herself with others, and when she did she would often judge them unfavorably.

Why?  Because she wanted to be sure that her heavenly father would judge her favorably.  So, she would look around at what this neighbor or that one was doing and say, “Humph!  That doesn’t seem very Christian.”  She would put others down in order to lift herself up.  “I might not be perfect,” she would say, “but at least I’m not like so-and-so.”  I always cringed when she did that, partly because I was so often on the receiving end of her judgment, but also because it seems like the very thing Jesus condemns in this parable, which he told to some who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  Now I see that it may have come out of an old insecurity, that my mother may have wondered if her Heavenly Father loved her in the same way she used to wonder if her earthly father loved her, and she wanted to be sure she was accepted by being the very best person she knew how to be, and by looking around to make sure she was at least a little better than others.

If I read this parable with my mother in mind, and with some understanding of her old insecurities, I find that I can begin to have some sympathy for this Pharisee.  Maybe he just wasn’t sure that the Heavenly Father loved him.  Maybe he wanted to prove to him that he was worthy.  So he fasted twice a week.  He tithed.  And when he looked around he could see that he was better than a lot of people, better than thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector.

Let’s talk about him for a minute.

If he was anything like the rest of the tax collectors in Israel at that time then he was a superlative sinner: one who had sold his soul to the evil Roman Empire, and defrauded his righteous Jewish neighbors over and over again: he deserved the worst punishment he could get.  But this tax collector seems to know that.  He isn’t trying to justify himself, that is, he isn’t trying to “make himself right.”  He knows he is wrong, and that he has done wrong, and if he is ever going to get right someone else is going to have to do it for him.  Which is an important thing to understand.  One of our problems as Americans is that we are so independent.  We seem to think we should be able to do everything for ourselves.  And yet there are some things we can’t, and getting right with God is one of them.

In my house these days there is a place where we change our grandchildren’s diapers.  It’s a foam pad covered in soft cotton fabric that sits on top of the dryer.  It’s got a little safety belt on it so the children won’t roll off.  But that’s where Christy and I put them when they need to be changed and here’s the wonderful thing about them: they know they can’t do it for themselves.  They can’t change their own diapers, although I wouldn’t put it past Leo to try.  If he does, at two years old, I’m pretty sure he will make a mess of it.  But his three-month-old sister, Vivi, would never attempt it.  She doesn’t even seem to know when she needs a diaper change.  Christy and I do; we can tell right away.  And so we put her on that changing pad, strap her in, and go to work, and she just looks up at us and grins.

I don’t mean to be indelicate.  I apologize for talking about such things during a Sunday morning worship service.  But maybe you can see how it relates to the question of dealing with our sin.  We might be independent; we might think we can do everything for ourselves; but we can’t do that for ourselves.  We will mess it up every time.  This tax collector seems to know that.  He seems to understand that he needs some help.  So, he goes to the helping place.  He goes “up to the temple to pray.”  And when he gets there he goes to the darkest corner he can find.  He doesn’t want to be seen.  He doesn’t even look up to heaven, but instead stands there, beating his breast and saying, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Good for him. Because God is the one who can have mercy on sinners, and who does.  He not only does it, he loves to do it.  So you don’t have to put it off until the last possible moment, you don’t have to spend your life trying, and failing, to save yourself.  You can say, when you wake up in the morning, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  And you can say, when you go to bed at night, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  It’s no harder than a two-year-old knowing that he needs a diaper change and it may be the reason Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”[iii]  You’ve got to realize that you can’t do this on your own.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” Jesus says.  One of them was an insecure Pharisee who wasn’t sure that God loved him, so he did everything he could to earn God’s love, but there were still plenty of times when he wasn’t sure it was enough.  The other was a tax collector who knew exactly how sinful he was, who knew he didn’t have a chance of saving himself, that if it was ever going to happen God was going to have to do it.  “I tell you this man, rather than the other one, went home justified,” Jesus says.

This man went home changed.

It’s not much of a joke, not in our way of thinking, but it does upset our expectations.  Who gets saved?  The one who knows he’s a sinner.  The one who isn’t afraid to ask.  Who doesn’t?  The one who may be the best person you know.  The one who thinks of himself as righteous.  It’s not much of a joke, and it’s not much of a riddle, but it ends with something that sounds like the answer to a riddle: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, “and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I think my mother figured that out in the end.  In the last years of her life she would often say, “I’m not good enough to get to heaven, not on my own; I’m just going to hang on to Jesus’ coattails.”  “Yes,” I thought.  “That’s it!  None of us is good enough to get to heaven, but Jesus is, and if we hang on to his coattails we will surely get there.”

When my mother died her hands were just like this (fists clenched).  I believe she was holding on tight to the Love that would not let her go.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] From a website called “Classic Riddles” (https://www.riddles.com/classic-riddles).

[ii] From @loganlisle on TikTok. #dadjokes and #doktok.

[iii] Matthew 18:3.