A Pharisee and a Tax Collector walk into a Temple…
It does sound a bit like the beginning of a joke, and maybe Jesus meant it to. There’s something wonderfully over the top about his description of these two men. Jesus is definitely hamming it up in his description of the Pharisee’s pomposity and the Tax Collector’s humility. This is a tiny satire, just over a hundred words long, but with a world of meaning in it.
Who are these people? Jesus’ first audience would have known very well, but we might not.
The Pharisees, who often feature in the Gospels, were one of the main religious groups of Jesus’ time, one of many factions within Judaism fighting for their version of the true faith. Their name is thought to come from a root which means “to separate”, and that pretty much summed up their approach to faith. They wanted to be distinctive from the culture around them. They placed a high priority on observing the laws of Moses in every detail, at home, in business, in daily life. separating out right from wrong behaviour, good from bad, holy from unholy. But that often meant separating people into good and bad too – those who kept the law and those who didn’t, those who were ritually pure and those who weren’t. They often get a really bad press in the Gospels, but many of them were , no doubt, good and genuine people, who took their faith seriously. They saw the law as a joy, not a burden, a gift from God to help them live well. They delighted in it, debated it, argued about it zealously.
But zeal can easily slide into legalistic puritanism, excluding and vilifying those who can’t meet its demands. In the Gospels the Pharisees are often baffled and offended by what they saw as Jesus’ laxity in welcoming all comers and accepting people as they were. “This can’t be right,” they thought! “It makes a mockery of God, who is, above all, the Holy One.”
The Pharisee Jesus describes in his little story is, on the face of it, a good man. If we take him at his word - and I think we are meant to - he isn’t a thief, a rogue or an adulterer – and we can hardly argue that it would be better if he was. Thieves, rogues and adulterers cause no end of heartbreak. I can understand why he wants to point out that he isn’t a tax collector too, because they were despised for very good reason. They collected taxes on behalf of the Romans, to fund their occupation. They were seen as collaborators, traitors, people who lined their pockets at the expense of their own people, making them pay for their own oppression. No wonder they were hated. When the Pharisee in Jesus’ story says that he is not like one of these, most right-thinking people would have nodded in approval.
But however good he looks superficially, there are hints in the story that he isn’t going to turn out to be the hero. There’s that little phrase “standing by himself” for a start. Translators have struggled to be precise about what it means, but they all agree that it implies that he’s making sure that the crowd in the Temple notice him. He is taking a stand, or grandstanding, we might say, making sure that everyone can hear and see him.
But however loud his voice and prominent his position, there’s no real conversation with God happening. He might as well be talking to himself. It’s the tax-collector, Jesus says, who “went down to his home justified”, not this apparently pious Pharisee. That word “justified”, in this context, is far more than a legal judgement. It means to be “made right” not just declared to be right, to be sorted out, straightened out . The tax collector, for all his sins – and they probably were many – goes home having done the business with God that he needed to do, but the Pharisee, goes home exactly the same as he came in. Nothing has changed in his heart, so nothing will change in his life, because he doesn’t think there is anything to change. God can’t do anything with him, because he won’t admit that he needs help.
John Donne, the seventeenth century poet and priest, once preached a beautiful sermon on the shortest verse in the Bible - Jesus wept – in which he talked about the value and importance of tears. He quoted the famous vision of heaven in the book of Revelation, where it says that God will “wipe every tear from our eyes”. What a wonderful thing that would be to have God himself wipe away your tears. What a lovely, tender moment. Who would want to miss it? , but, says Donne “what shall God have to do with that eye that hath never wept”. https://www.biblestudytools.com/classics/the-works-of-john-donne-vol-1/sermon-xiii.html.
If we refuse to cry, how can we be comforted? If we don’t acknowledge our need, how can God meet it? If we don’t accept that we need to change, how can God change us?
Prayer can seem complicated, but basically it is just us as we are meeting God as God is. But if it is going to be that genuine encounter it has to start with the realisation that the one we are meeting is the Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, the Almighty, the Lord of Hosts, and that we who are praying are finite, fragile little creatures who spend most of our lives falling over, getting it wrong and generally not having a clue what is going on. That’s the reality. That’s the fact. But this Pharisee doesn’t seem to have cottoned on to that. It sounds as if he thinks he’s doing God a great favour by talking to him, what with all his virtues. God can’t get a word in edgeways. What is there for him to do in this perfect man’s perfect life? He’s been made redundant before he starts!
But the tax collector, knows that he needs God. He knows that he can’t do it – this whole messy business of living – on his own, and he’s not pretending that he can. He comes to God because he has to.
The Psalm we heard this morning, Psalm 84, is thought to be a song that was sung by Jewish pilgrims on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem for one of the big festivals there. Zion is another name for Jerusalem. As they slogged along the path in the scorching heat, they sang to remind themselves of why they were making this journey. They were going to the place which was, for them, their true home. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My souls longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord.” Even the birds were welcome to make their nests there!
It wasn’t the physical beauty of the place which drew them, though. It was the fact that this was the place where they expected to meet with God. It was his dwelling place. These were his courts, his altars, and although there is no Temple there now – it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and eventually replaced by a mosque, Jewish people still go to its last remnant, the Western Wall, to pray, and they do it for the same reason. It’s the symbol of their relationship with God, the reminder of his presence, which is with them wherever they are.
The first Christians believed that they met with God in the person of Jesus. He was their new Temple, raised up in three days, not in stone, but in his body, raised from death. (John 2.19). Early Christian writers talked about the Church, us, being a living Temple, a place where people could meet God through his Holy Spirit in us. (Ephesians 2.21, 1 Cor 6.19) And Jesus told us that we could also meet with God when we fed the hungry, loved the outcast. He is there in the least of our brothers and sisters. (Matt 25.40)
The true Zion, the true Temple is wherever we meet with God, honestly, without pretending, like that Tax Collector, whether it is in an ancient sacred site, an ordinary parish church, at home, at work, out shopping, on the weary commute on the train, in a conversation with a friend, or even a confrontation with an enemy conducted with integrity. It’s wherever we are when something real happens between us and God, the thing that needs to happen, when we do the business that needs to be done, when we truly hear that word of comfort or challenge, or welcome, or guidance that we need to hear, when we take it in, when we let it change us.
Sometimes that moment will come to us out of the blue, when we least expect it, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave it to chance. “Happy are those in whose hearts are the highways to Zion”, says the Psalm. “Happy are you” in other words, “if you have, deep within you, well-trodden paths, familiar routes that lead you into God’s presence”. Highways aren’t made by accident. They take work, and time. There’s likely to be mess and disruption too. Our pathways to God are no different. Sometimes God has to dig around in us, blast away the obstacles, move tons of spiritual earth. We have our part to play too. We need to let him get to work in us. We need to open our ears and our hearts to his voice, put ourselves in places where we might hear him. That might be through time spent in prayer and silence, in worship with others, in Bible study. It might be through serving others, fighting injustice, asking for forgiveness, admitting our weakness, wrestling with our doubts, lamenting our sorrows. These are the ways in which those highways are established that take us into God’s presence.
A Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a temple… and so, if we want to, do we. But will we go home, like the Pharisee, the same people we were when we came in, or will we go home justified, changed, even just a little, like the tax collector? It will depend on whether we are willing to do the business we need to do with God, telling it like it is, hearing it like is. Only then can he wipe away the tears we’ve been hiding from him and start to set us right.