In the parable, the Pharisee is confident, comfortable, … and when he notices the other guy praying, condescending. And the tax collector is described as beating his breast – an action normally reserved for women in that culture, especially those who are in mourning.
Psalm 65 and Luke 18:9-14
October 23, 2022
Dr. Todd R. Wright
Had you heard? Archeologists discovered a more detailed manuscript of this parable in a set of jars in the Kidron Valley … or maybe it was hidden in the false bottom of a desk appraised on Antiques Roadshow … or maybe it was found in the back of a closet, or under a child’s bed, or … in the depths of a preacher’s imagination. I’m a little fuzzy on the details.
Wherever it was found, the expanded version adds depth to our story. It’s a good thing, too, because parables don’t allow for nuanced character development. When a story is only a few lines long you rely on caricatures that everyone will recognize instantly: the irresponsible brother, the absentee landlord, the scheming accountant, the helpful stranger.
So here Jesus trots out cardboard cutouts of a Pharisee and a tax collector, two people who stand on opposite sides of the faith divide, and sets the scene in the Temple.
If this was a novel instead of a parable, we would have been given a lush description:
“The priests are up well before dawn. They rub the sleep from their eyes as they begin stoking the great fire at the altar. The musicians arrive in clumps, tune their strings and complain about the early hour. The ram's horn player warms his instrument under his cloak, then gently blows air through it. A priest's assistant pulls a lamb from its pen, binds its legs, and brings it to the altar. As dawn breaks, the ceremony begins. The musicians and singers take up the familiar tunes of the psalms. The priests march in procession. At the altar, one priest raises a knife to the lamb's throat, drains its blood into a basin, and throws the blood on the fire at the altar. The sacrifice of atonement is made. The sins of the people are covered. Now the priests light incense, and plumes of smoke indicate that it is the time for the prayers of the people to ride along on those scented clouds to God.
The ritual is repeated at three in the afternoon. Again, the priests offer the sacrifice of atonement in elaborate ritual. Again, the people go up to the temple to pray. They gather to pray their individual prayers out loud.” And we get to overhear two of them.
What do you hear in their prayers?
In the parable, the Pharisee is confident, comfortable, … and when he notices the other guy praying, condescending. And the tax collector is described as beating his breast – an action normally reserved for women in that culture, especially those who are in mourning. “The Pharisee expects God’s appreciative attention. The tax man begs for any scrap of mercy.”
That’s all we get. Well, except that God likes the latter prayer better, just as God liked Abel’s sacrifice better than Cain’s. And we are left to puzzle over God’s motives.
God is complicated, mysterious, nuanced … just like people are.
So we need more information about these two! We need that longer version I mentioned!
You know, the one that tells us that the Pharisee was singing “Amazing Grace” on his way to Temple that day; and that as he said his prayer, there were tears in his eyes. He is overflowing with gratitude for the life God has blessed him with. Ask him on his way out what he thinks of the tax collector, and he will tell you, “There but for the grace of God go I.” In short, he is more likeable guy than the two-dimensional one in the stripped-down parable.
And the expanded version tells us that the tax collector, when he has wiped his eyes, blown his nose, and gone home, will not be quitting his shady job. Collecting taxes for the occupying forces is a nasty business, but he can’t see any way out. He feels trapped by long-ago decisions; shackled by his greed, unable to escape how others have him pegged. So tomorrow he’ll again take money from his neighbors, hand some of it over to the Empire and put the rest in his pocket. To sum up, there is no indication that he’ll turn over a new leaf.
But let’s be honest: we don’t need this expanded version – personal experience tells us that people are often more complicated than they appear on the surface. We don’t need to be reminded that this parable is surprising and scandalous – God’s ways often leave us shaking our heads. We don’t need to be poked in the ribs … or do we?
Pharisees, as a general rule, were not legalists trying to earn God’s favor. One scholar explains, “They were part of a movement that emphasized obedience to the Law. And their attention to things like rituals for cleansing one’s body or one’s cookware was part of a larger effort to encounter God’s holiness in everyday life.”
They were the kind of people who keep religious organizations running. They pay the bills, teach the lesson, visit the sick, and feed the hungry. Any pastor would love a church full of people with their commitment – people who care enough to fast, people who tithe all their income, and who thank God that they can.
But the Pharisee in the parable has a terrible flaw. On the surface his prayer sounds like a traditional Jewish prayer of gratitude: “I give you thanks, O Lord my God . . . that you have not set my portion with those who sit in street corners,” and “Praised be the God who did not make me a heathen … [or] … an uneducated man.” But there is one word changed that gives him away. He says, “I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers or even … this tax collector,” as if he could never stumble, as if he was as holy as God Almighty, as if he needed no mercy.
And while the tax collector is a tool of Rome, a thief in a silk tie, an embarrassment to his mother … he is also a Jew who grew up hearing Psalm 51 in which David himself begs, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;” admits, “my sin is ever before me;” and asks, “Create in me a clean heart … do not cast me away from your presence.” So, the tax collector beats his chest like a man at war with himself and refuses to even lift his eyes in hope.
If we are honest, some Sundays we arrive at church feeling as full of ourselves as the Pharisee … and our prayers reflect it. Life has smiled on us and we need nothing. So, we approach God with a certain delight in our goodness, maybe even pride. But when we go home, after hearing Jesus tell his parables, there is a gnawing emptiness that makes us wonder.
And some Sundays we feel as low as the tax collector, muddied with our sin and sure that everyone can see the stains. But if we are as bold or desperate as the guy in the parable, we go to worship anyway. Our prayers taste like ashes on our tongues – empty and out of place. And yet, thanks to God’s mercy, we leave this place of worship certain of more than we ever dared possible – an assurance of God’s grace filling us despite who we are, not because of what we’ve done.
And every Sunday, we pray a prayer that is different from either the Pharisee or the tax man. It is a prayer taught by Jesus himself. A prayer that begins … “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive our sins …”
It is a prayer that celebrates who God is and what God is doing, rather than trumpeting the prayer’s accomplishments. It is a prayer that admits our needs for bread and forgiveness, and deliverance … and trusts God to respond. It is a prayer full of life and faith, a prayer that molds the prayer in a certain way, a prayer that can be said as easily at a stoplight as in the sanctuary.
Come to think of it, we don’t need an expanded version of this parable, just a better prayer!
 “The Parable of The Pharisee and The Tax Collector” by Rebecca Brogan
 From Bruce Modahl’s comment on the text for the Christian Century, 10/13/10
 From JoAnn Post’s comments on the text for the Christian Century, 10/2/19
 From Matt Skinner’s comments on the text for workingpreacher.org, 10/27/19
 I am grateful to Meda Stamper for this observation – see her comments at workingpreacher.org 10/27/13
 See Luke 11:2-4