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Mercy, Forgiveness, Grace
Sermon on Luke 18:9-14
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The last time we heard these words, Jesus was talking to dinner guests who were trying to grab the best seats for themselves. His advice to them was to sit in the crummy seats by the kitchen, where they might get graciously invited to move up closer to the host.
Today’s story seems to be yet another illustration of Luke’s characteristic theme of “the great reversal.” The pompous, self-satisfied Pharisee gets his comeuppance, while the miserable, self-effacing tax collector gets made right with God, or “justified.” This story easily leads us to the conclusion that we should be more like the tax collector and less like the Pharisee. It encourages us to leave church today saying, “I thank you, God, that I am not like that Pharisee.”
But that would be drawing the wrong conclusion. Jesus doesn’t end the story of the tax collector by saying “Go and do likewise.” He just says that the man went home justified, and leaves us to puzzle out why.
Let’s take a closer look at the two characters submitted for our inspection.
We’ve been conditioned by Luke to cast any Pharisee in the role of a villain, but this Pharisee is, in fact, a pretty exemplary guy. Pharisees were known for their diligence in prayer and knowledge of Scripture, their modest lifestyle, and their good works, and this man is no exception. He is honest and faithful, conscious of his duties to God and society. He is not a hypocrite – there is no evidence that his religion is just a display meant to impress others. He gives ten percent of his income to his religious institution. We need people like this Pharisee in the church! They are the ones who get things done and set an example for the rest of the faithful. So there are some very positive things we can say about this Pharisee.
Now for the tax collector. The tax collector has a lot in common with the Crooked Manager we met a few weeks ago. It’s hard for us to understand how reprehensible a tax collector was in those days. He made his living by gouging the poor. How it worked was that the Roman government expected a flat rate from the taxable portion of the population. It was the tax collector’s job to ferret out people in out-of-the-way places and make them pay up. The way he profited was by extracting an amount from them that was over and above what the Romans were expecting. Naturally, the wealthier people knew how to avoid the tax collector’s devices, so he had to concentrate on the poor. Tax collectors usually lived quite well, as racketeers generally do. He would have had the first-century equivalent of a big, flashy car, a fur-lined coat, and fancy women.
So now you see the problem with drawing a “go and do likewise” conclusion from this parable. If we look at the example of the good, upright Pharisee who goes home “unjustified,” we may think the parable is saying we shouldn’t bother to try to live upright and faithful lives – but nowhere does the Bible suggest such a thing. And if we look at the example of the tax collector staring down at his feet in the back pew, we start thinking that all God really wants is for us to feel very guilty and bad. That’s not right, either.
In Camus’s The Fall, the protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is obsessed with questions of guilt and innocence. There is something of both the Pharisee and the tax collector in Monsieur Clamence. He was once a prominent trial lawyer in Paris, known for taking noble cases and doing other good works. He was greatly respected and had a high opinion of himself. In private, though, he was a libertine, who lived with a callous disregard for other people. One fateful evening, walking along the banks of the Seine, he heard a cry. A woman had fallen into the river, and he kept on walking. After that he had to come to terms with his own moral failure. He began to spend all his time hanging out in a seedy bar in Amsterdam, confessing his sins to anyone who would listen, but doing so in such a way that they would end up confessing theirs. The more he accuses himself, he reasons, the more he has a right to sit in judgment of others. For Clamence, all of human life consists of people putting each other on trial. Life is an experience of unending judgment.
Clamence can’t see any way out of his guilt except to drag other people down with him – that makes him feel “justified.” Clamence expects no mercy – not seeing it in his fellow human beings, he can’t imagine where else it would come from. The best he can do is convince himself that he is no worse than anyone else.
In the parable, the Pharisee’s great failure, his tragic misunderstanding, was in setting himself apart from other people. “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people…” Just as Clamence needed to know that other people were even worse than he was, the Pharisee needed to know that other people were not as good as he was. Neither of them could admit their need of a mercy beyond themselves, or believe in the availability of it. The tax collector, on the other hand, wretched and justly despised as he was, at least knew that there was hope for him, and he knew where to look for it.
The parable gets at the most basic, tragic human failing: the tendency we have of separating ourselves from others. And yet we were never meant to live in self-righteous isolation from our neighbors. At a very deep level we know that. It makes us unhappy to feel divided and separated from others. A lot of what is so depressing about political campaigns is this willful separation, this encouragement to regard everyone who is different from us, or thinks differently from us, as a threat to our freedom and happiness. People like the Pharisee “regarded others with contempt”; as a society, we seem to be more and more enmeshed in the rhetoric and politics of contempt.
The writer Meghan O’Gieblyn, who grew up as an evangelical and left the church in her twenties, still has a place in her heart for what church can be. “Part of what made church such a powerful experience for me as a child and young adult was that it was the one place where my own faults and failings were recognized and accepted, where people referred to themselves affectionately as ‘sinners,’ where it was taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you was morally fallible, a fact that did not prevent you from taking her hand in prayer or regarding her as a sister in Christ...it’s precisely this acknowledgment of collective guilt” – or “shared fallibility” – “that makes it possible for a community to observe the core virtues of the faith: mercy, forgiveness, grace.”
Today’s parable is a parable of grace. Receiving grace means that we can show it toward others. If we can’t do that – if we are constantly sitting in contempt of our neighbors, whether they know it or not -- then we haven’t understood grace.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is not a story with a moral, in the sense that it does not tell us how we should behave. It’s more about attitudes. That’s because it is not a story about us, but a story about God, whose nature it is to be merciful and whose mercy is expansive enough for everyone: self-important Pharisees, debased tax collectors, cynical lawyers, even contemptuous politicians, and all the rest of us.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
October 27, 2019
 Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Hell,” Interior States (New York: Anchor Books, 2018), 46-47.