Luke 18:9-14                         10/23/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

Our Gospel Passage for this morning is one of my favorites. It’s such a simple story, but it’s got so many levels to it. AND, I know these people, this Pharisee who is so puffed up with himself, and this tax collector who is a “breast beating” sinner. I know them both, well.
Let’s start with the Pharisee. Just to refresh your memory, the Pharisees were a sect of Jews who had control of the temple during Jesus’ day. They originated in Babylon while the Jews were in exile. There was no temple in Babylon, and no temple priests. So some very well educated lay men got together and became the religious leaders, in exile. During the 70 years of exile, they became very powerful in the lives of the people. And when the exile ended and the Jews returned to their homeland, the Pharisees weren’t about to give up their power and just step aside. Instead, they became very militant, and very demanding of the people. They became kind of like the “religious right” that we have experienced in our culture. They felt that strict interpretation of the law and zealous adherence to the law was the way to salvation. They saw themselves as the fulfillment of the prophets. They knew they were right and everyone else was wrong, or so they thought. They saw their mission as calling the people of Israel back to the true faith in God.
Incidentally, soon after Jesus’ life, the Pharisees just sort of faded away. The people just got tired of them and stopped paying attention to them, and they disappeared.
Well, how about the tax collector? Why were the tax collectors so despised? Very simple. The Jewish law, which the Pharisees were knocking themselves out trying to uphold, forbid taxation of the people. And in Jesus’ day, the tax collectors were collecting taxes for Rome – for Caesar. Caesar was smart enough not to send Romans to collect taxes in Israel. It never would have worked. Caesar used native Jews to collect his taxes. And these Jewish tax collectors were hated both by the Jews and the temple. The people hated them   because they took their money and sent it to Rome. The temple hated them because they were traitors to Jewish law, and competed with the temple for the peoples’ money. To be a tax collector in Jesus’ day, was about as “low” as you could get.
Well, in our story this morning, a Pharisee and a tax collector both go to the temple to pray, at the same time. THAT, in itself, sets the stage. Now, don’t forget  that in those days, they prayed out loud, and not softly. The louder you hollered in Temple, the better God could hear you.
So, the Pharisee goes first: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
It was obviously meant to be heard by the tax collector. Then he goes on to tell God how good he has been. He fasts twice a week and gives 10% of his income to the temple. He knows that he has it right and he’s making sure God and the tax collector know it, too. But the tax collector doesn’t respond. He just asks God’s mercy for being a sinner. And then Jesus ends his parable with the little message, “for all who exult themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Well, what does this say to us, today? There are times when “the Pharisee” comes out in all of us. There are times when we’re so sure we’re right, so sure we have the answer, so sure we REALLY understand something, so sure we KNOW what God intends, or thinks, so sure that we’re just a notch above everyone else. And these are the times when we really need to be careful. I find that when I’m so sure that I’m right, I’m almost always wrong, and I usually end up miserable with myself, and everything and everyone around me.
Now, I have to be honest. I’ve known a few of those pious tax collectors, too. And I’m not so impressed with them, either. There can be a subtle smugness that goes with them, that is equally annoying. In their devout humility and piety, they sometimes seem to say that they are a little “closer to God” than the rest of us. And that turns me off, too.
I don’t think most of us do that much sinning. I know it depends on how we define sin, but I think most of us, you and I, work pretty hard at leading fairly good lives. We do the best we can at not hurting each other. We do the best we can at being responsible to ourselves, to our neighbors, and to our God.
And life isn’t always easy. It gets complicated, and sometimes we get confused, and sometimes we don’t know what’s best, and sometimes we don’t do everything just right, and sometimes situations change and “muddle up” even our best intentions.
That’s just life. That’s when we have to find that middle ground between the Pharisee and the tax collector. That’s when we have to find a balance in our lives. That’s when we have to say, “I did the best I could with what I’ve got. I tried hard. It was not perfect. But I tried. Hopefully, I’ll learn from it.”
And I really believe that’s what’s important. I really think God put us on this earth to try, not necessarily to succeed. In fact, I think if we try, we HAVE succeeded. There’s something very “holy” about just trying and not always making it. There’s something very “holy” about being a simple “Creature of God” that tries hard, doesn’t always win, but continues to grow as a “decent creature of God.” If I can live my life as a “decent creature of God”, I’ll feel like I HAVE succeeded. It HAS been worth it. I did the best I could.

Posted October 25, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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