I need and want your prayers as I venture to speak in the name of God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
If memory serves, it was an Anglican priest named John Wesley who said that every ser-mon should be preached as if someone’s life depended on it. Now as we witness the balkaniza-tion of public civility and substantive thought in the scorched-earth tactics of today’s politicians, his counsel challenges me. I’m deeply saddened and downright offended by the scandalously vicious and untrustworthy rhetoric of our current political campaigns – and I have been provoked to reflect on several things that I tend to take for granted. Among them, as I prayed over today’s propers, has been the pronouncement in our 1776 Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”. That phrase is later amplified by the claim that US citizens hold certain inalien-able natural rights that are innate in all human beings – and that among them are life, liberty, and the pur-suit of happiness. Thomas Jefferson and others received this doctrine from John Locke and other 18th c. Enlightenment philosophers who held that people have unalienable natural rights that the Declaration says have been given to all human beings by their Creator and which governments are created to protect. So nowadays we cherish God-given real-life equality as one of our noblest ideals, all the while knowing that this is still mostly an ideal and that this noble commitment has been historically true in only the generic sense. ‘Men’ literally meant ‘men’ – and Jefferson and others who framed the Declaration have been roundly criticized for not recog-nizing the unalienable rights of women and slaves and native Americans and other minorities.
Most of us acknowledge that this is still a work in progress. It’s an essential part of the American dream, but we’re not yet equal in who we are or in what we can become. We are not equal in height, or intelligence, or athletic ability, or life expectancy, or any number of capacities or endowments. And if ethnicity doesn’t limit us, gender does – and if gender doesn’t limit us, economic status does – and if economic status doesn’t limit us, education does – and if education doesn’t limit us somatic well-being does – and if none of these factor into our inequality, some-thing else can fill that void. Despite lip-service by politicians and others, in real-life situations all of us are not equal in life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.
Still there are some places where we are supposed to be equal – where matters like ethni-city, gender, economics, education, and health are not supposed to make a difference. One of those is the voting booth – another is our public schools – and another is in our courts of law where none of the things that otherwise differentiate us are supposed to be relevant. Equality is a noble ideal and we need to continue the challenges to make it real – but we know that even ex-amples like these are as imperfect as they are difficult to guarantee. So I think it important to clean up the rhetoric and get straight about where we are equal and where we are not – because confusing these places has caused and continues to cause terrible messes. In fact, that is exactly what’s going on in this parable about a pharisee and a tax collector in which the pharisee forgot the quintessential place where we are supposed to be radically equal – and that is before God. He said “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or, for that matter, like this tax collector” – and his philosophical theology, in brief, was that ‘some people believe they are more equal than others’.
Most of Luke’s parables require eschatological interpretation and Jesus’ message about death and the final judgment – but this parable about a pharisee’s pride and a publican’s humility is much like the stories about Dives and Lazarus and the good Samaritan in that it inculcates moral and religious virtues that are timeless, and have no direct relation to the end of time. This story makes its point simply and gives its example directly. It’s directed to folks like us who not only trust in ourselves that we righteous but take the further step of regarding our neighbors with contempt because we think them unrighteous. It’s simple point is that Jesus’ disciples are meant to pray not like the pharisee but like the publican – and that is this sermon in a nutshell.
The pharisee’s biggest fault was that he forgot the singular place where we are supposed to be equal – and that’s in the presence of God. I think the most compelling reason for this is that the religion of the pharisee in this parable is the natural religion of every human being. Here’s how that works. All of us understand rules and we believe that breaking rules deserves punish-ment. Simultaneously, we know full well that we are not perfect and that we sometimes break rules so we’re certain there are others who break rules and are actually worse than we are. We know for sure that we are more moral than they are. Doesn’t that sound precisely like the state to which our politics has degenerated? And keeping score is not all that difficult. In fact, looking at our scorecard we can acknowledge that while we do worse than some, we do much better than most. So virtually all religions, Christianity included, end up being popularly understood as say-ing that if we are just about as good as most folks – and generally better than the folks who are not like us – we’re OK in the sight of God. That means we can go about the vital parts of our lives confident that we are in harmony with God and all the people who really matter. But in that kind of religion, everyone is far from equal. What makes you good or bad – successful or unsuc-cessful – saved or damned – depends on how good a job you’ve done doing whatever it is you’re supposed to do. The better the job you’ve done, the better the person you are.
So the pharisee in this story is the epitome of a religion of good works. He has a lot to be proud of and brag about – and if anybody else belongs in the temple with him, they are welcome. It’s just you first, right after me. He’s not a hypocrite – he’s not a liar – and there’s no reason to think that he’s excessively self-centered or proud. He’s simply ‘telling it like it is’. He’s merely satisfying Sgt. Friday’s quest for ‘just the truth, M’am – just the truth’. And he’s telling the truth. He is a good man – he’s a just man – he is faithful to his vows – he’s conscientious about fulfilling his religious duties – he fasts – he tithes – he prays. He is faithful in performing his religious and moral duties. He is not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers – and especially a tax col-lector! He has lived a morally upright life – and Jesus’ hearers would say he was a righteous man. So who would not be pleased were their daughter to marry such a man! Who wouldn’t welcome this fellow into a parish family! Who wouldn’t want this person as a role model for their children! It’s obvious that we are not moral equals. This pharisee was a better person in ways that the publican was not. To fast and pray and give alms is better than self-indulgence and self-absorption – and all that has to count for something. He set all his merits before God, com-pared himself to the publican, and said with Little Jack Horner, ‘what a good boy am I’.
Moreover, since many devout Jews regarded paying any tax to a foreign power as treason against God, any Jew participating in and profiting from this system was considered a collabora-tor and a traitor. As tax collectors cried all the way to the bank, they were counted among the worst sinners – and they were banned from Jewish social and religious life. They were regarded as having abandoned the Law of Moses – they were unclean – they had traded their birthright and their heritage for a lucrative income so they were also rich. But they were so much hated that a pharisee could not marry into a family that contained a tax collector. And the constraints and criticisms went on and on. The moral and religious differences between the pharisee and the tax collector couldn’t be greater or clearer.
Jesus’ listeners understood all this as Luke’s Jesus says that both men went to the temple to pray. The pharisee gives thanks that he is not like other people – and especially not like this tax collector. He does not violate the commandments – he fasts – he tithes – in a word, he is spi-ritually superior to sinners like this tax collector. So his prayer – although offered in the form of thanksgiving – is actually a narcissistic tribute to himself. The tax collector, on the other hand, acknowledges his sinfulness and prays simply for God’s mercy. Pity the poor tax collector who had none of the pharisee’s virtues and virtually nothing to commend him. He could not lift up his eyes to heaven, but only pound his chest and cry “Kyrie eleison” – Lord have mercy. And Jesus says that the tax collector, not the pharisee, went home having been made right with God.
Now let’s look each other straight in the eye and tell the truth. Although we know that the tax collector was a bad person – certainly the ‘bad guy’ in this parable – isn’t there something touching and right about his asking for mercy? Don’t you think he did the right thing. And isn’t it the American way to root for the underdog? If we had to choose between these two, wouldn’t you rather cheer for the tax collector than the pharisee? Come o, ‘fess up’ – don’t you find your-self thinking – as I do every time I read this little story – “thank God that I’m not like that pharisee – thank God that I’m more like the tax collector – thank God for my humility”?
If you honestly answered ‘yes’ to any of those questions, you’ve probably begun to recog-nize how this little parable hits home. Once I say, “thank God I’m not like this pharisee” I be-come just like him. Thank God I’m not like those drug addicts – thank God that I’m not like those people on welfare – thank God I’m not like the parishioners who don’t come to mass and support the parish with their time and talent and money. Of course, the list could go on ad nau-seum. All of us know people we consider offensive or disagreeable. And while we might not be bold enough ‘thank God I’m not like those people,’ given the right impetus the thought will oc-cur on occasion. In this simple story, this arrogance and humility get juxtaposed.
- S. Lewis once put it this way: “No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is love, but because we are inherently and essentially loveable”. That’s what happened to the pharisee – and that happens to you and me. ‘Thank you, God, that I’m not like so-and-so’ is everyone’s sin – even people who aren’t religi-ous. How many times have I heard “thank God I’m not a hypocrite like those people who go to church – or I know that I’m not a very good person sometimes but at least I don’t pretend to be better than I am. There’s nothing two-faced about me. I try to do the right thing – I may not always succeed but God knows that my heart is in the right place”.
. Dwight L. Moody, the famous evangelist, once paraphrased Augustine when he said “God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves”. Or, as Jesus put it at the end of today’s gospel, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble them-selves will be exalted”. At the end of the day, the failures of the tax collector are just as repug-nant to God as the self-righteousness of the pharisee – and what this parable teaches is that it is not the tax collector but the remorseful and repentant tax collector whom Jesus commends.
I said early on that there are a few places – not many, but a few places – where people are supposed to be radically equal – and where matters like ethnicity, gender, economic, or educa-tional status are not supposed to make a difference. The ground at the foot of the cross is such a place – it’s absolutely level – and to stand there is to stand without difference – without advantage or disadvantage – without any prayer save this one: “Kyrie eleison – God be merciful to me, a sin-ner”. It’s the only prayer we are worthy to pray – not because of who we are, but because of who God is. Face-to-face with the Almighty God we know that we are in the presence of perfect holi-ness, perfect righteousness, perfect goodness, perfect justice, perfect beauty – and in the searing light of his presence our imperfections leave us gasping for mercy. That’s why “Kyrie eleison – God, be merciful to me, a sinner” is our perfect prayer. John Wesley was right – every sermon should be preached as if someone’s life depended on it – and this prayer saves us from ourselves.
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Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.