It is hard to find something as universally loathed as having to pay taxes. We  would all prefer to pay less tax. However, we have just seen the result of promises to cut taxes, which were welcomed by many, but proved disastrous for the economy. To put it simply, we just don’t like paying taxes, but we know that we have to, even if we would prefer not to do so.

This morning’s Gospel presents us with two very different figures The first is a Pharisee, a member of a religious élite. The second is a tax-collector, one of the most despised people in the Roman World. The latter was seen as a traitor who had sold out, by purchasing the right to collect taxes on behalf of the occupying power, the Romans. At the time of Jesus, the rights to collect taxes were auctioned off to the highest bidder. To make money and recoup his costs, the Tax Collector charged a premium, on top of the taxes. In doing so, he extorted his costs from people who had no choice but to pay him. As I have said, no one likes to pay taxes, but when people know that the tax-collector is charging everyone more than they should be paying, they despise him even more. 

The Pharisee, on the other hand, is a member of the religious élite, a student of the law, and the power behind the synagogues. Jesus himself was much more like a Pharisee than a tax collector, being educated and articulate about the scriptures. He, too, added his own oral interpretation to the written laws. The apostle Paul was also a Pharisee. Are we Pharisees? What does Jesus want us to understand about ourselves by this parable? If we return to the text, we see that Luke tells us that Jesus directed His words at:

‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt’.(Lk 18:9)

What does this mindset look like in practice? It says, ‘I am a fine upstanding member of the community, and I am not like this or that person who has done something wrong’. Each and every one of us thinks in this way to some extent. It seems to be part of human nature to want to find someone to look down on, to say we are better than them. However, we know in our hearts that we are not. We are all sinners, we all fall short, we all have areas in which we need to improve. 

So, this story, though it may at first seem straight-forward, quickly raises many questions. The text indicates that the behaviour of the tax collector is preferred over the behaviour of the Pharisee. That much is clear. But the question is: why? Is this a story about prayer and how we should pray? Is the Pharisee wrong in thanking God for what he considers the blessings in his life? Is he wrong to be glad that he is not a thief or an adulterer? Often when we characterize this story, we think of the Pharisee as standing in the centre of the room, trying to draw attention to himself, praying loudly. Based on those assumptions, we criticize the Pharisee for his showiness, his pride, his big ego. But the text states that he was standing by himself, praying, and that the tax collector was standing praying far from him. What is it that is misguided in the Pharisee? What is it that the tax collector has struck on? 

Nothing that the Pharisee says or does is in itself wrong. But where he goes off-course is in thinking that his list of righteous acts will earn him God’s favour. He is mistaken in two important ways. Firstly, because he acts as if he is not good enough to receive God’s grace without his list of good deeds. And secondly, because he acts as if he is so great as to make himself worthy of God’s grace by his own actions. This Pharisee seems to get the picture wrong from both angles. And I think we might relate to this. As Christians, we often feel as though we don’t really deserve, or are not truly worthy of God’s love — as if this is something we need to earn. On the other hand, our actions, and our attitudes to our actions, sometimes suggest that we have become too full of pride about how good we are, or at least about how much better we are doing than some other people. We can begin to act as though we just have to do enough good things and then we will be fine — as if we have a quota of righteous acts to fulfil before God will be forced to let us in on the grace deal.

In truth, it is the tax collector, standing far off, beating his breast, who has the right perspective. He cries, 

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Lk 18:13)

These words may not seem much, but they are enough. The tax collector freely admits his sin and his need for God. This man doesn’t make any claims about himself, or try to puff himself up. He does not try to act as though he could possibly manage without God. 

Can we do the same? We know that none of us are worthy of God’s grace — as the letter to the Romans tells us:

‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ (Rom 3:23)

But we forget that none of us are excluded from God’s grace, unworthy though we are. And that means that both our good deeds, and our wrongdoings neither privilege nor exclude us — nor privilege or exclude our neighbours — from God’s grace. God asks us to live faithfully. This is not a test to see if we deserve grace, but is the path of discipleship that will give us deeper satisfaction in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. The key to the Gospel is humility: recognising our complete reliance upon God’s grace to heal us and restore us. We cannot save ourselves. 

The Eucharist, Christ’s gift of Himself to us, is not a reward which we can earn, but neither is it to be treated lightly, ignored, or downplayed. It is the most precious thing which we have. Far more precious than any silver or gold that we might use to contain it. This is because it is Jesus Christ, who gives Himself to us, so that He can transform us, more and more into His image and likeness. Christ comes to preach the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repent, to turn away from their sins. He heals the sick, the blind, the lame. He raises the dead to life. This is God’s love for us. What then can we give God? We can give Him our love and our thanks. We can ask Him to have mercy upon us sinners, and to help us to live faithfully so that we might sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right, and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Pharisee and the Publican [Brooklyn Museum]

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