Proper 25, Year C, Luke 18:9-14
Two men go out one day seeking God. Each acts in accordance to who they are. One is a Pharisee. He is the model citizen with whom no one can complain about. He does everything he should. He follows all the rules including fasting and giving 10% of his income to the church. The second man is a Tax Collector. We often want to equate Tax Collectors in the Bible with IRS workers, but we can’t. They are absolutely different. In the Bible, a Tax Collector or a Publican is a person who had the direct responsibility for collecting regular taxes. The collection of taxes was farmed out by the government to private contractors who paid a stipulated price in advance for the right to collect the taxes in a certain region. He essentially paid all the taxes up front. Then the Tax Collector went out and over the year he recoups his cost and tried to make a profit on the transactions.
The people of Jesus’s time felt themselves to be oppressed under Roman military occupation. So the Jewish people that collected taxes were viewed as traitors who sold themselves to the foreign oppressors and acted against their own people. Many consider Tax Collectors to be synonymous with robbers. Since a Tax Collector equals a robber so also does Tax Collector equal sinner.
The paradox that is set up in this parable is that the man who is faithful and good is described to be the bad example. While the despicable, cheating, traitor of a Tax Collector is held up as the good example. It’s no wonder that Jesus upsets so many people with his stories. He is speaking against the common thought of the culture. When he pairs the Jews with the loathsome Samaritans or respectable people with prostitutes he is not winning any friends.
We know why Jesus chooses this scenario today because we can see who he is speaking with. We read that Jesus is speaking to “some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” The people listing to him tell this story, are people who are struggling with humility. They are people who think that they are better than many of the other people they see in town.
The Pharisee prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this Tax Collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He is praying “look at what a good person am I.” The Tax Collector on the other hand didn’t make any promises about repentance or changing his life. He acknowledges that he is totally dependent on Gods mercy. His life is dependent on God’s grace and mercy. His prayer that recognizes his deficits, his problems, his sinfulness, is an act of humility. This doesn’t make the Tax Collector a better person. It points out the relationship he has with God. He knows he has work to do to improve himself and his relationship to the people around him. This self-awareness gives him something that the other man doesn’t have.
When we are overly confident in who we are or of our own righteousness we view others as lesser people. We look at them with pity or distain but rarely do we try to get to know them. We often talk about them even though we truly know nothing about them. When we actually sit down and talk to another person who we see as different from us, then we may find that they are more similar to us than we think. We may gain understand as to why their life is different from ours. We may see them in a new an unexpected way.
One time my family and I moved to a new neighborhood in Colorado. One of our neighbors were Hispanic. When we moved in we saw them next door occasionally. They didn’t seem friendly; actually they seemed kind of scary. They had a big dog that fiercely barked at you. The man was kind of big, burly, and not well kept. The wife was short, heavy and seemed rather haggard. They had grown kids who would come and go all the time. They were obviously poor, but they didn’t seem to work. The man often worked on broken down vehicle in the drive way. The woman seemed to always be home. And did I mention that the adult kids were always coming and going. Why weren’t they working? I’m sure some of you know the type I’m talking about.
One day I was speaking with one of my patients at the hospital, obviously before I was a priest. She recognized me and said, “Oh you live on Pine Street right next to Beth and Roger Rodriguez.” I said, “I know the Walters in the white house, are you speaking of the people in the Gray house?” She said “Yes! They are the best people in the world.” She went on talking about how she used to live in the house we were in and that she still has many friends in the neighbors. After a while she told me how Beth makes the best homemade tortillas and that I should ask if she would make us some.
A week or so later I saw Beth in the back yard trying to pull the huge beast of a dog off the fence from barking at me. Lucifer was his name. As the dog got quiet and I asked, “Are you Beth?” After acknowledging that she was, I went on to say that I heard she made the best tortillas in the world. The warmest smile came across her face. She lit up so much that she truly looked like a completely different person. We talked for a while and I invited her to teach us how to make tortillas, which she was happy to do. This was the started a great friendship in which we learned about each other’s lives. Beth did work. She worked as the deli manager at a local Walmart but her hours were just above part time. Her husband Roger worked at the local slaughter house as a meat cutter for 15 years. Over those years he received repetitive motions injuries in his hands, wrists, and arms. He had numerous surgeries to correct the problems but at this point there was nothing more they could do. He had limited movement and some days he was in terrible pain. He used to take pain killers but couldn’t do that anymore. When I met him, Roger had been on disability for about five years. Before he was on disability he tried to find other work, even the slaughter house said they didn’t want to let him go, but they thought he was too much of a liability and no other companies would hire him because of his medical history. When it comes to the children, one daughter was working three part time jobs and leaving her child with the grandparents, Beth and Roger, or with friends, so she was always coming and going. The son worked seasonal work, driving trucks when the sugar beets came in. He had trouble finding other work because of some legal trouble he been in when he was in high school. After getting to know them I learned what good people they are and of the struggles they continually were going through. They were trying to be what we think of as model citizens, they did not want to be living the life they were, but they just couldn’t get ahead.
The point of this true story and the parable that Jesus tells us is that the “some people” that Jesus is talking to is actually us, you and me. When we have encounters with God in prayer, or through others, we are changed. When the Pharisee entered the temple in prayer he didn’t find anyone but his glorious self; he didn’t change. He was exactly the same when he entered the temple as when he left. In comparison the Tax Collector did change. He realized or acknowledged his sinfulness and he realized how important God is in his life. It is through this self-awareness that a door has been opened, even if just a crack, for the Tax Collector to improve his relationship with God and his neighbors.
If we are to take this passage to heart we need to be aware of and strive to be humble like the Tax Collector. For if we don’t, we are likely to become the Pharisee. When we are overly proud of our accomplishments or we despise the people around us; then it becomes too easy for us to thank God that we are not like the deplorable we see. When we see ourselves as better than others then it becomes hard to see our common humanity with all of our neighbors. For humility is our life’s work; and the only way we can love our neighbors as our selves.