It is hard to find something as universally loathed as paying taxes. We just don’t like doing it. We know we have to pay them, but we would prefer not to do so. At its root, celebrations of the Harvest have their roots in taxation. They were a way to thank God for the good things of creation, but also to thank the tribe of Levi which had no ancestral land, as their inheritance was the Lord their God.
That’s all well and good, we should be grateful to God, and we should demonstrate it openly. Saying, ‘thank you’ to God is important, just like saying, ‘please’, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’. We communicate with God because we have a relationship with Him. We recognise that everything comes from Him as gift, and so we hope that our service is pleasing to the Lord, we don’t earn our justification through our works, but we are grateful.
This morning’s Gospel presents us with two very different figures: a Pharisee, a member of a religious élite and a tax-collector, one of the most loathed people in the Roman World. He was a traitor who had sold out, he had bought the right to collect taxes on behalf of the occupying power, the Romans. He would recoup the cost by charging a premium, on top of the taxes. He extorted his costs from people who had no choice but to pay him, and that’s how life was. No one likes to pay taxes, but when you know that the tax-collector is charging you more than you should be paying, you despise him even more. It isn’t fair, but the rights to collect taxes were auctioned off to the highest bidder, who was expected to recoup their costs.
The Pharisee is a member of the religious élite, a student of the law, the power behind the synagogues, someone who keeps the Letter of the Law. Jesus himself was much more like a Pharisee than a tax collector. Jesus was educated and articulate about the scriptures. He, too, added his own oral interpretation to the laws that were written. The apostle Paul was a Pharisee. Are we Pharisees? What does Jesus want us to see of ourselves in this parable? If we return to the text, we’ll see that Luke tells us that Jesus directed this parable at ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others’. I’m ok. I’m a fine upstanding member of the community. I’m not like this or that person who has done something wrong. Each an every one of us does this. We want to find someone to look down on, to say I’m better than them. Well, here’s a home truth, WE ARE NOT! Because in God’s eyes, we are all sinners, we all fall short, and it doesn’t matter by how much.
So, this story, though it may at first seem straight-forward, quickly raises many questions. The text obviously 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? Why, exactly, is the one right and the other wrong? 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 only shows that he was standing by himself, praying, and that the tax collector was standing far off, praying as well. 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. But he is wrong in two important ways: First, he is wrong because he acts as if without his list of good deeds he is not good enough to receive God’s grace. And secondly, he is wrong because he acts as if he is so great as to by his own actions make himself worthy of God’s grace. This Pharisee seems to get the picture wrong from both angles. And I think we might be able relate to this. We often feel like we don’t really deserve or aren’t truly worthy of God’s love, as though we need to earn it. On the other hand, our actions, and our attitudes about our actions sometimes suggest that we become too full of pride about how good we are, or at least about how much better we’re doing than some others of whom we know! We begin to act as though we just have to do enough good things and we’ll 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’s the tax collector, standing far off, beating his breast, who’s got it right. He cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This is enough — not too little: this tax collector admits his sin and his need for God. And not too much: this man doesn’t make any claims about himself, try to puff himself up, try to act as though he could possibly manage without God.
Can we do the same? We forget 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.’ But we also forget that none of us are excluded from God’s grace, unworthy though we are. And that means for the Pharisee and the tax collector, that our good deeds, and our ever-present sinful behaviour — neither of these privilege us or exclude us — or privilege or exclude our neighbours — from God’s grace. God asks us to live faithfully — not as a test to see if we deserve grace, but as a path of discipleship that will give us deeper satisfaction in our relationship with God.
The Eucharist, Christ’s gift of Himself to us, is not a reward which we earn, bur neither is it to be treated lightly, ignored, or downplayed. It is the most precious thing which we have. Far more precious than the silver or gold that we use to contain it. Because it is Jesus Christ, who gives Himself to us, so that He can transform us, so that we can grow together in love, 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 can we give God? Our love and our thanks. Have mercy upon us sinners, and 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.