The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, A Cautionary Tale on Wrong-headed Thanksgiving

25 Nov


Photo by Prawny on Morgue File.

We all know (here in the States) this week is the week we celebrate Thanksgiving. On Thursday, only two days away now, people all over America will be sitting down to eat a feast of Turkey, dressing and all the trimmings. Some will think back to the first one, seeing Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting around a table together eating maze and enjoying a merry old time together.

While there are many things for which to be thankful, there are some things that should not be on the list. I am reminded of the story Jesus told of the Pharisee and the publican (i.e. tax collector), both of whom went to the temple one bright day to pray.

The Pharisee, dressed in his religious garb and his God-pleasing best, stood and prayed in a loud, reverent, holier-than-thou sort of way. As he prayed, the tax collector was in ear-shot, having his own, more private commune with God.

That both men went to the temple to pray was a good thing. This is what they were expected to do. It is what each of them should have done. So far, so good.

The Pharisee was in his element, sort to speak. He was the religious one. He was viewed as righteous and godly. This was his turf. It was in his wheel-house. He knew the prayers. He knew the words and how to phrase them. He knew the Scriptures and which to quote at what time and why. He was learned, trained and all too eager to show off his religious skills.

The tax collector, well, not much could be said on his account. Almost everyone in first-century Palestine would have been in agreement that there were not many things (if any!) more despicable and hated than a tax collector. He was viewed as a traitor against his own people. An employee of Rome who willing robbed his own people and pocketed the excess for his own greed and gain. He was despised. He was hated.

Who does he think he is going to the Temple to prayDoes he really think God is going to listen to his prayers? Does he really think God is going to listen and have regard for the prayers of a man so sinful, vile and wicked?

He, by any stretch, is not in his element. His turf is the taxing table. His ground is collecting and handling money for Caesar. He is a swindler. A thief. A con and a cur. He is lower than low. He is a walking, talking pile of . . . well, let’s go with refuse (i.e dung)!

So much for that. End of the story . . . right?

I mean, undoubtedly, Jesus told a story about the righteous, God-fearing, God-honoring Pharisee and the wicked, vile, piece of garbage (to put it nicely!) tax collector to show just how deplorable a man the tax collector was. The Pharisee surely was held up as a model for all to follow. A picture of devotion and commitment to God and his law. A man who exceeded and received passing marks for pleasing and warming God’s heart.

While the dirty old tax collector is the epitome of sin and wrongdoing. Surely, Jesus’ story went something like this:

There once was a Pharisee and a tax collector (you know, those rotten no-good-for-nothings!) and both men went to the Temple on the Sabbath. And the Pharisee, whose heart was clean and righteous before God, prayed and thanked God for his goodness, mercy and grace. His prayer was so eloquent and beautiful that the angels in heaven shed an ocean of tears. Now, the tax collector, who stood near the Pharisee scoffed at such piety and religious duty. He had come to the temple, not to pray or give offerings, but rather to dun some poor soul of his money. The very money that was to be given that day in offerings to the service of the Lord’s house, was snatched by the greedy tax collector and given instead to Caesar and his cronies. Woe to him who is like the tax collector, but blessed is the man whose heart is pure as the Pharisee. He who has ears, let him hear!

That sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Or if not that, then it has the makings for a great opening to a joke with a fantastic punchline . . . something like, One day a Pharisee and tax collector walked into the temple . . . !

But no, neither of these is true. Instead Jesus, being Jesus, reversed the roles. He reversed the expectations. He deliberately turned the perceptions on their ear to make a clear and unforgettable point.

Here is the actual parable Jesus told:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk. 18.10-14, ESV)

The looks Jesus got upon telling this story I’m sure were quite amusing to see. Bewilderment? Anger? Confusion? Contempt? Dumbfounded?

Yep, probably all those and more.

Now, Luke, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does give us a lead-in to the parable. That is, Luke alerts the reader up front to the reasoning behind this story. Here is Luke’s narratorial lead-in:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,and treated others with contempt: (Lk. 18.9, ESV)

So then, Jesus uses the Pharisee to epitomize the attitudes of those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who treated others with contempt!

This would have been shocking to Jesus’ original audience. Befuddled, perhaps would be a good word to use! It might be akin to someone today saying, The Reverend and the meth-head went to church one Sunday . . . . Or maybe, The Pastor and the escort went to the Sunday morning worship service . . . . The shock value is part of the parable, if we miss that, we miss a good deal of its impact.

So, this Thanksgiving season, as you thank God for his grace and blessings, be sure to thank him with humility and contrition. Do not let your thanksgiving be defined by haughtiness, arrogance and pride. Esteem others better than yourself.

In other words, be like the tax collector and not the Pharisee.

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Posted by on November 25, 2014 in Discipleship and Confession, Luke, Thanksgiving


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