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.” – Luke 18:9-14
Someone once said: “There are only two kinds of people in this world – there are those who wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, Lord,” and then there are those who wake up in the morning and say, “Good Lord, it’s morning.”” (To be quite honest: I have to say that I am definitely the latter kind of person.)
“There are only two kinds of people in this world…”
We hear this saying fairly often.
According to author Alan Cohen, these two kinds of people are: “those who make excuses and those who get results.”
Marlo Thomas looks at this duality a little differently. She explains that the two kinds of people in this world are “the givers and the takers. The takers may eat better,” she explains. “But the givers sleep better.”
And of course, Woody Allen gives his two-cents, saying: “There are two types of people in this world: the good and the bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy the waking hours much more.”
On the surface, the parable in Luke this morning seems to affirm this view that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who are like the Pharisee and those who are like the tax collector.
At the beginning of our passage, we see Jesus telling this parable to a group of people “who trust in themselves that they are righteous and who regard others with contempt.” In the parable, the Pharisee and the tax collector both go to the temple to pray. When the Pharisee sees the tax collector, he thanks God that he is not like other people: he is not like the thieves, the liars, the adulterers, or even that tax collector who is praying in the temple over there. He goes on bragging about how he does not just fast during High Holy Days, but he fasts twice a week and he gives away way more money than what is required of him – a tenth of all his income. The tax collector – on the other hand – can’t even look up to heaven. Completely repentant, he beats his breast and cries out to God: “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”
What happens in this parable is what many of us might expect would happen. We are so accustomed to hearing that the Pharisees are self-righteous and judgmental of others. We even sometimes refer to other Christians as “pharisaical” when they are being legalistic or hypocritical. And when we think of the tax collectors, we usually just think about how Jesus welcomed them – even though they were considered to be extreme outsiders by the faith community. And so it is not a surprise to us that Jesus finishes his parable by explaining that it is the tax collector who goes to his home justified rather than the Pharisee…
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus concludes, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The message we are supposed to take away from this parable seems to be quite obvious. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are humble like the tax collector, and those who are prideful, hypocritical, and judgmental like the Pharisee. In other words, Woody Allen is right:
There are two kinds of people in this world: the good and the bad. Tax collector = good. Pharisee = bad. Don’t be like the Pharisee. Be like the tax collector. End of sermon. Amen. You can all go home now.
And this is a fairly easy sermon to hear and to accept.
Because, let’s just face it: it’s pretty easy to point out those self-righteous, prideful, and judgmental “Pharisees” we see around us, especially in times like these. While we might not have come right out and said this directly to God, haven’t there been times when we have at least looked around and thought to ourselves how thankful we are that we are not like those other people over there?
Those legalistic church-goers or those un-committed Christians. Those particular Lutherans or those evangelicals? Those Republicans or those Democrats?
And as we have thought these things, haven’t we also patted ourselves on our backs… I am welcoming, I don’t judge others. I am involved in church or in my community. I give my money to charity or do acts of service. I speak out when I hear homophobic, racist, or sexist comments or I march with community members when I see injustice.
In other words, as columnist Dave Barry says: “There are two kinds of people in this world, and I am one of them.”
But let’s wait just a minute… aren’t we doing the very same thing that the Pharisees are doing in Jesus’ parable in the first place…?
“God, I thank you that I am not like those other people, especially that Pharisee over there…”
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
No, this parable is not quite as straightforward or as easy to hear as we might have hoped.
And the thing is, there is a lot more to the stories of the Pharisee and the tax collector than what we may have first assumed.
You see, too often we give the Pharisees a bad rap. While they were not perfect and definitely made some mistakes (even pretty big ones at times), for the most part, the Pharisees tried to do the best they could. The Pharisees were actually progressives of their day. They maintained a liberal interpretation of Scripture and recognized that the Law could be adapted, based on the “changing conditions of life.” They cared about their faith, and they took it seriously. And they also actually cared deeply about their faith community – everyone in their faith community. Much like Martin Luther, they believed that everyone in the faith community – not just the priestly elites – should have access to the Torah and should be able to observe it. And so they advocated for and established a free, universal Jewish education system that was accessible for all – even the average everyday person. Sure, there were some Pharisees whose intentions and actions were not so great or even downright wrong. But this is the case when we look at every group of people. For the most part, though, the Pharisees meant well and were doing the best they could.
On the other hand, while the tax collectors were considered outsiders and were excluded from the Jewish community, we have to understand that the Jewish people had very understandable reasons for their distain toward them. You see, many of the tax collectors were Jews who were collaborating with the despised Roman Empire. The Jewish community viewed these tax collectors as traitors, who chose to help the oppressive government rather than fight it. Additionally, the tax collectors’ salaries were very high, which was quite a low blow to the Jewish community, who knew that the tax collectors were gaining their wealth off the backs of fellow Jews. To make matters even worse, it was fairly common knowledge that many of the tax collectors cheated the people they collected from – including those who were most vulnerable in society. They often took more money than they needed to take and kept the extra money for themselves. And yet, Jesus welcomed tax collectors, dined with them, forgave them, and offered them new life. And here in Jesus’ parable, we see a completely repentant tax collector going home justified.
So let’s just say, there is a little more to the story than we might have originally assumed.
And as we start to wonder where we might fit into this parable, maybe we need to reshape the way we think about this parable. Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not: which of the two people might we be? But rather, maybe the question we should be asking is: when do we see ourselves as the Pharisee and when do we see ourselves as the tax collector (with all the complexities that make up their stories)?
Because maybe it is author Tom Robbins who has it right about the two kinds of people who are in this world: that there are “those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and [there are] those who are smart enough to know better.”
Because maybe, just maybe, there are not just two kinds of people in this world. Maybe there are multiple kinds of people who have complex stories and multiple parts to their identities.
Or maybe there is just one type of person in this world: human. Maybe – as humans – we are not either one type of person or another. Maybe we are both/and. Both Pharisee and tax collector. Both created good and in God’s image, and yet fallen at the same time. Maybe we are – as Martin Luther explained it – “simultaneously [both] sinner and saint.”
And maybe, while this is all true: each one of us – no matter how great a sinner and no matter how big our mistakes – is a beloved child of God, with the ability to be redeemed and transformed, by the grace of God.
I think this is something we must keep in mind at all times… and especially in times such as these.
During this incredibly contentious presidential campaign, I’ve seen a lot of nastiness… more than I have ever seen during a campaign before. There has been a lot of hate being thrown around.
And while there are definitely places where the hate is much stronger than in other places, the hate is not just coming from one side. It’s coming from all sides. And it’s affecting and hurting a lot people.
I was saddened the other day to read a Facebook post by an acquaintance who said he has decided to stop posting anything about politics for the rest of the election season because one facebook debate got so heated and so hateful that he lost a close friend of over 30 years because of it.
While as Christians – and as humans – we are absolutely called to speak out against any and all forms of hate, we are also called to do so with love. Yes, this may be a strong and firm love at times, but it is always love. And one way to love our neighbors with whom we so strongly disagree is to try to never lose site of their humanity.
To never forget that they – like us – are both/and.
To remember that they – too – are always – no matter what – beloved children of God.
We have been granted this incredible gift of grace. And so – too – have they. May we never forget this. For, as Maya Angelou wrote in her poem called Human Family: “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”