|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
October 23, 2022
There are a couple of internet laws that interest me. Not “laws” in the sense that they are statutes that govern how the internet works, as much as they are like “laws of nature,” like the Law of Gravity or the Law of the Conservation of Matter.
The first such law I ever encountered was called “Godwin’s Law,” which states that if any online discussion continues long enough, someone will almost certainly compare someone else to Hitler.
The second law I find interesting—and absolutely true—is Poe’s Law, which states that, without a clear indicator of the author’s intent, every parody of extreme views can be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied.
If I were privileged to add a law to the internet canon of laws, it would be that the more a person publicly identifies as a Christian, the less Christian are the beliefs such a person espouses online.
Invariably, when I read some racist or LGBTQ+ bashing post online, the person’s Twitter handle will be full of cross emojis, and their bio will contain the word Christian. There is a disconnect between the person’s public profession and what they actually do. There are those who think that by proclaiming themselves Christians that makes them Christian.
II. THE TEXT
The scripture passage we read tonight speaks to this very issue. In it, we hear Jesus tell a parable about two men praying in the temple. The first, a Pharisee, prays: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
The second man—a tax collector—would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus’ summary of this contrast was to declare that the second man—the tax collector—“went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This formula is typical of Jesus: the first shall be last and the last shall be first, kind of stuff. But why is it so central to Jesus’ message about these two men at prayer?
III. THE PHARISEE’S PRAYER
I think we need to look at each person’s prayer one after the other and so we’ll look first at the Pharisee’s prayer
A. Conscious of the Other (Not in a good way)
The thing that strikes me first about this prayer is that it’s a prayer that is conscious of other people, not in a good way, not in the kind of prayer where we remember those who have different experiences from our own, where we remember the poor or the marginalized or people in other countries or people in different cultures and communities. No, this isn’t that. This prayer is conscious of other people not as objects of mercy but as objects for comparison. That is, he is praying, aware of the other person who’s praying, and saying, “Thank you, God, that I’m not him.”
It’s a twisted version of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sentiment. It’s a sentiment that has its own problems, but here we see it is the substance of his prayer: I’m not that guy; no, I’m better—I’m not a thief or a rogue or an adulterer or a tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give charity at 10 percent. These are all requirements of the law, and he maintains that he’s a good person and certainly better than this guy.
B. Justifying himself (not God)
The second thing about his prayer is that he’s justifying himself. This is one of those words that don’t really make a whole lot of sense in English. The word that it’s trying to translate doesn’t really have a verb in English: to righteous himself. We don’t really have that word; we have righteousness as a noun, but justification as the verb. They’re the same word in Greek. So, the Pharisee is declaring himself righteous; his prayer is righteousing himself: I fast, I pray, I give charity, and I’m not a thief, a rogue, or a tax collector; I am righteous, and I give thanks to you, God that I am so righteous.
C. Focusing on outer acts of piety
The prayer also focuses on outer acts of piety: fasting and the giving of tithes. Now, fasting and giving of tithes are good things, but we don’t get the sense anywhere that this is done out of a deep-seated conviction or sense of mercy or compassion; it’s simply a public way of demonstrating his faithfulness.
D. Engaging in hypocrisy
It might not sound like I’m cutting this Pharisee a lot of slack. How am I to know his inner state? How am I to know what he’s thinking and feeling? The reason I feel a little comfortable making some of these judgments is because Jesus makes them repeatedly throughout the Gospel of Luke. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus consistently paints the Pharisees as a group that is more interested in its own authority and being perceived as having authority than in actually living out the law that they’re preaching. Jesus’s frequent critique of the Pharisees is they are hypocrites. Now, there’s a whole conversation to be had about whether that’s an accurate understanding of who the Pharisees were in Jesus’s time, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes, because in the context of this gospel, those characters have been identified as hypocrites.
1. Definition of Hypocrisy
So, lurking in our background understanding when we hear this story in the 18th chapter of Luke, is that this man is likely not serious or intentional; he’s engaging in Jesus’ least favorite sin: hypocrisy. Now we’re used to thinking of hypocrisy as saying one thing and doing the other or acting in ways that contradict our stated beliefs, and that’s certainly a part of it, but the Greek word hypocrite means a play actor. That is, Jesus is condemning people for playing at religion, for acting like they’re faithful but not actually doing the work of faithful living.
2. Previous condemnation of the Pharisees
And that’s at the heart of his previous condemnation of the Pharisees. In all of these things together, we see the Pharisee’s prayer conscious of other people by way of comparison with himself, as justifying himself, focusing on outer acts of piety, and ultimately not doing anything to dispel the charge of hypocrisy leveled against him and some of his companions.
IV. THE TAX COLLECTOR’S PRAYER
Now, we turn to the tax collector’s prayer. It’s interesting that this character should be a tax collector. It doesn’t really sound as bad to us. I mean, it’s not that people have fond feelings toward the IRS, but people don’t necessarily view IRS agents as morally bankrupt individuals.
The tax collectors in the Roman Empire, however, were viewed with suspicion for two reasons. One, they skimmed off the top. They would collect taxes, and they would take some for themselves. Whether we should blame them for this or not is a separate question; it is how in fact, they were paid. But the other part was that they were loyal to the Empire; they were collecting taxes not on behalf of Herod, not on behalf of some local Jewish ruler, they were collecting taxes on behalf of Rome. That meant they were traitors to the community; they were working for the outside occupying power.
Now. Tax collectors played a special role in early Christianity because it is clear from all the gospel accounts that Jesus spent time with them. Jesus spent time with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “sinners,” which does not mean, in a biblical sense, people who commit sins (that would be everyone), it means those people who commit egregious sins or are referred to elsewhere as “the wicked.” That’s who Jesus is hanging out with: tax collectors, prostitutes, and professionally wicked people.
And so, part of this parable is a defense of Jesus’s own movement, which included these tax collectors and other sinners. Jesus’s point is that there’s something that these folks know about God that the high and mighty don’t seem to understand. And so when we look at the tax collector’s prayer, we see it full of contrasts with the Pharisee’s prayer
A. Conscious of own failings
Unlike the Pharisee, who is conscious of the tax collector that he’s much better than, the tax collector is conscious only of his own failings. He’s conscious of the mercy that he needs from God. He’s not seeking to compare himself to others. He’s not saying, “I’m awful, but there’s some worse than me.” There’s a relatively famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—audio clip of a former coach of the local football team who came out after a 5 and 11 season and said, “Well, it’s not very good, but I guess there were some worse than us, so that’s something.” That’s not what the tax collector does here. He doesn’t seek to compare himself to others, and in all things, he’s being utterly authentic. He’s not putting on airs, he’s not claiming that he’s better than he is.
There are a lot of Christians out there who want you to know they are Christian, but not in the way of the old hymn, “they will know we are Christians by our love.” No, they want you to know it because they engage in public declarations of faith.
They engage in cheap stunts and easy identifications, publicly putting the cross on their social media profile, publicly writing “follower of Jesus” or “Christian” in their bios, and predominantly wearing jewelry or other things that serve only to remind people that they’re a Christian. But all the while, what are they doing but putting down those who are the in the most need of compassion, creating barriers between people, publicly ridiculing others, and lifting up their own merit, their own righteousness?
Meanwhile, there are those who understand the gospel better than most Christians. Those who might not even dare to claim the name, who nevertheless understand the purpose of humility, the need for grace, and a trust in God that does not depend on their own merit but on God’s love
Jesus is making it clear: he’d rather have as his followers those who trust in God and know their own imperfect nature than those who assume that their heightened piety places them in a privileged position with God.
We have enough Public Christians in the world. We need, and Jesus calls for, more followers of Christ.
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. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”