Joel, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Based on Joel 2: 23-332 Ps 65 and Luke 18. 9-14
An interesting selection of scriptures for today. Our first reading from the prophet Joel, written about 350 years before Jesus’ birth, is an example of classical apocryphal or end of time literature, in this case, written as a poem. The job of a prophet was two-fold: firstly to warn the people of upcoming horrors of destruction, either by natural disaster or war. Secondly the prophets were to bring words of hope to the suffering people, that even in the midst of the suffering, God was with them, and really did care for them and would once again provide for them. The people of Israel had a different perception of their world than we have of our world today. They believed the disasters they suffered, whether man-made or natural, were brought down upon them by God who was punishing them for not following Gods’ ways. Now, if the people atoned for their sins, changed their ways, and lived by the laws of God, they would once again earn the favour of their Almighty God, who would reverse their fortunes to one of peace and abundance. Other tribes had other gods, which needed appeasement in different ways. Disasters and wars were considered as acts of God-or the gods. The tribe, the peoples with the most powerful god were the ones who were strongest, lived well, had lots of food, were physically strong and healthy and invincible to warring factions. So, they then could hold their heads high, their god was protecting them, their god was the strongest god, stronger than the gods of the other tribe. And so implicit in this thinking then, was that if you lived ‘right’, your people were blessed by your god. That’s why this reading from the prophet Joel is so very interesting. Joel tells them that God will repay them abundantly for the years of famine caused by a virtual army of 3 different types of locusts, provide ample rain for a full harvest. The people can hold their head high because their God will provide for them abundantly, and all will know and recognize the God of Israel as the Lord of all gods. Verse 27: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel and that I the Lord am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.” But, here’s an interesting twist to the expected blessing: The fruits of God’s spirit will be poured out on everyone-this blessing was an inclusive one. Yes, sons will prophecy, but even daughters will prophecy, yes, old men will dream dreams, and young men will see visions. But even on slaves–male AND female slaves will God’s spirit be poured out! All people will be blessed by God, all are deserving, not just the Israelites, or the rich and powerful, or the ‘righteous’. And when the end of times comes, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This was most definitely a new way of thinking, a new way of considering the blessings of God!
Our psalm for today, is another poetic rendering of God’s awesome-ness and inclusiveness. This is the God who forgives us, saves us, and provides for us, and is so worthy of our praise! This is the God who answers prayer, and is the God to whom all ‘flesh’, in other words, all people–everyone shall come. God calls all to join in worship and praise, to God’s house, God’s temple. This is the God of our salvation—the hope of all to the ends of the earth, the God who provides an abundant and beautiful creation, from which our all needs are met with and in joy.
Now, we jump ahead in time to our parable from the Gospel of Luke, with another unique to Luke story. Jesus provides his listeners with another twist in thinking about just what makes us righteous in God’s eyes in a story of 2 opposite characters, the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Pharisees were the keepers of the laws of Moses, they interpreted the laws. They were the rule makers, and decision makers for religious observance, what behavior was right or wrong, and so who was righteous or not. They were the Temple officials, and in charge of the Temple—defenders of the faith, you could say.
So, if you were diligent in doing all the right things according to their interpretation of the laws, well then, you could consider yourself a righteous person. Our Pharisee didn’t steal, was faithful to his wife, paid his taxes, looked after his family, he went to church each Sabbath, gave to charity—did all the right things, lived a clean life—an all around law abiding citizen. The kind of person you’d most likely want living next door!
Now, as is classic in Jesus parables, to help him make the point, he provides an exact opposite kind of person as the other character in the story. Tax collectors – everyone loved to hate them, and with good reason. Tax collectors were Jews, hired by the Roman government to collect Roman taxes from their own people. So right from the get-go, tax collectors were certainly not righteous in the eyes of the Mosaic law. Good Jews didn’t keep company with non-Jews and tax collectors by nature of their jobs had close working relationships with the Romans. And how they collected the taxes, it was as good as legalized extortion. The Roman officials didn’t really care how the taxes were collected, as long as the government was paid in full. So tax collectors were well known for grossly overcharging and pocketing the difference, or they’d hire others to collect taxes for them, and those guys would take a cut too, so you can imagine the cost of taxes would be totally out of control—worse than us paying taxes to 3 tiers of governments! No one likes paying taxes, but to pay taxes to a warring and oppressive government and have those taxes collected by one of your own people who was in cahoots with that regime! It would be very easy for a law abiding person to look at a tax collector and think, well, I may not be perfect, but “Thank God I’m not like that.”
And that’s just what the Pharisee does, standing off by himself at temple. Listen to his prayer: “I thank you God, that I am not greedy, dishonest or an adulterer … I thank you that I’m not like that tax collector over there. I give you one tenth of my income and I fast 2 days every week”. (vv 11-12 GNT) which, by the way, was not a prescribed requirement. An interesting prayer, isn’t it? God does get a nominal mention at the beginning, but it sounds rather like the Pharisee is patting God on the back for his own goodness, rather than thanking God for God’s goodness toward him. And then the Pharisee provides God with a litany of just how good he actually is! It’s a very one sided conversation. Can we really call this a prayer? Not really. It’s, well, a self-congratulatory missive to himself, keeping God in the loop about just how good he is. He is so convinced of his own goodness, he really doesn’t need anything from God, thank you very much. He’s doing just fine. And asking forgiveness doesn’t even enter his mind as even necessary, because in his book, he’s doing all the right things—and looking at that obvious sinner of a tax collector, just reinforces that in his own mind. We could say humility wasn’t his strong suit!
And what about our tax man? Here we have humility in the extreme! It seems he has come to the realization that his lifestyle is less than exemplary, shall we say. He won’t even raise his eyes towards heaven, he’s “beating his breast”— rather an old fashioned term to express extreme remorse. This fellow is so contrite, so ashamed; he won’t even come into the Temple. He knows he has no claim to righteousness, he feels he barely has the right to even speak to God. He knows he’s offended the laws of Israel1, and he also knows his only hope for salvation of his soul, is to throw himself at God’s mercy and ask forgiveness.
A story of extremes and unexpected outcomes. While the behavior of the Pharisee at first glance seemed right and good, and if right living was what you figure it takes to be a righteous person, well this guy was on the top of his game! He really didn’t need God, he could be righteous all on his own, just by doing all the right things. He was doing just fine and was a much better person than some of his neighbours! He is so full of self-righteousness, I don’t think there’s any room for God! And that was his real sin; he was, in effect, his own God.
Now the tax collector; he clearly knew he was a sinner, knew what he was doing was wrong, and threw himself on God’s mercy. He comes to the Temple confessing his sinful behavior and to beg God’s forgiveness in true and contrite humility. And, Jesus tells the listeners, the tax collector went home justified, which means he was at right with God. There’s the twist in this story. The hated tax collector is the one who was right with God? Not the law-abiding Pharisee? And who was Jesus telling this story too? – to people who were sure of their own goodness and looked with contempt on others. No wonder they killed him in the end.
‘It’s about ourselves as followers of Christ.”2 We look at the Pharisee and if we are honest, we’ll admit with a twinge of guilty reality that we too share his arrogance. We live in a culture that prizes independence, self reliance and success. And we do try hard to live good lives, to do good things, to live righteously, and to be sure, our society has its share of tax collector type people around! And yes, Jesus calls us to live righteous lives, but in this story we are cautioned—we are not the source of our righteousness, nor can we earn righteousness with God just because we’ve sure that we’re living the right way, doing all the right things. Like the Pharisee, we too have decided to be our own Gods.
We are justified, we are put right with God when we understand that righteousness does not and can not come from ourselves or on our own doing. Justification with God can only come when we go to God, admit that we can’t do it ourselves, give ourselves to God and let God lead our lives. That’s humility—a humility that has us, like the tax collector, beating our breasts in prayer, because we know we’ve messed up, and the only one who can truly make us right within ourselves, and with God is the Lord. Forgiveness cannot be earned by anything we do, but was given us by the sacrifice Jesus made of himself for us for our sins.
So what this story is really about is our relationship with God. God who wants us to be in relationship with us, who forgives us, and gives us everything we need and more, including Godself, in Jesus. Jesus, the Christ, who came to show us the way, and taught us how to live in true righteousness, and Holy Spirit, who nudges us, supports us, and fills us with the strength and knowledge of the presence of the threefold God . For it is through God, with and in Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit comes the power to truly make us right with God. Amen.
Rev. JoAnn Todd
Parish of Hanover – Durham
1 David Lose, commentary on Luke 18. 9-14 www.workingpreacher.org Accessed October 21.13 2
2 Laura S. Sugg; ‘Pastoral Perspective’ for Proper 25 in Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 4.