If you wish to read the parable you can find it: HERE! St. Luke 18:9-14
On God’s Side
Charles arrived early for church on that rainy October Sunday morning. He was always a little early for church. He liked to be early. He was committed to coming to worship and he was there every week, without fail. He had been a member for a long time. He and his wife had been married in this church, they raised their children in this church. He had also been an active member, serving on council and participating in lots of other activities over the years. Charles was a good man. He strove to do what was right and to live a Christian life. And so, on this rainy Sunday morning he and his wife slipped into their favorite pew to wait for the service to begin.
Zeke had also been a member for a number of years, but had not always been very regular in his worship attendance. In fact, this particular Sunday was the first Sunday he had been in church for some time. But on this day he felt compelled to come. He was alone. He and his wife were separated and he was now living alone. His children were also grown, but he didn’t get along with them very well. There was something else that was bothering Zeke on this Sunday morning. He knew that come Monday he might be getting fired from his job. Money had been tight in this economic crunch and he had “borrowed” some petty cash from work. He had planned to pay it back, but hadn’t been able to. He knew he had done wrong; he knew it was his fault that his family was broken. So, here he was – on a Sunday morning, slipping into a pew almost un-noticed.
But he was noticed. Charles noticed him immediately. Charles had heard about all of the goings-on at the place where Zeke worked; he had heard rumors about other things too. So, he was surprised to see Zeke and maybe a little angry too. “Does he think coming to church will fix all of these problems?” Charles found himself scoffing at Zeke, and not a little offended at his presence.
“In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…” the Pastor began the service with the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness. Almost by rote the men followed the service in their bulletin. “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires know and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse…… “
Charles’ mind began to wander. “No secrets are hid, yeah Zeke, you better watch out. You can’t pretend you are all righteous here. God knows your heart. God can see through you. God knows who the righteous and good people are and who the fakes and sinners are. Thank God, I have spent my life living a Christian life.”
“…. Let us take a few moments for self-examination….. most merciful God, We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves….” Charles spoke the words automatically, but his mind was still elsewhere, he thought of that Facebook conversation he had participated in where he had made it clear that on that particular moral issue he was on God’s side, and that those who argued with him had chosen to oppose God; he thought about that conversation with his neighbor where he had “witnessed” to the prevalence of sin in the world and how he was certain that all of the problems in the country, the community and the church were all because of sin. Other people’s sin – people like Zeke. “… We have not loved you with our whole hearts, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, for the sake of your Son have mercy on us, forgive us, renew us and lead us, so that we might delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name…. “ “I am on God’s side,” mused Charles as he lifted his head and looked at the Pastor for the words of absolution.
Zeke could hardly stand, the words of the confession had weighed heavily on his spirit and he felt like he needed to sit, so he braced himself with one hand on the pew in front of him. “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me,” he kept repeating over and over again in his mind as he felt tears well up in his eyes. He could not look at the Pastor and simply listened with his head bowed, “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for His sake, God forgives you all your sins….” Forgiveness, me? Is it possible? Is it possible to heal the broken relationships in his family and what about the consequences for stealing? Well, all of that was still there. But, as the organist began the first hymn he could raise his eyes and smile, he felt a burden gone. Forgiveness is the first step. And as Charles opened his hymnal all he could think about was, why can’t that organist play the hymns faster!
So which of these men do you identify with? The Pharisee or the Tax Collector? Charles or Zeke? Or Charlotte and Zoe? The characters are male but they represent all of us. Perhaps, we see some of ourselves in both of them? This well-known parable is timeless in the way it represents two ways of approaching God: the Pharisee who is a little too proud of his righteousness and the tax collector who is well aware of his failings. It is easy for us to scoff at the one and lift up the other as a role model. But before we do this, it would be a good thing for us to take a moment and reconsider some details of this parable.
First, as easy as it is to turn these two characters into stock characters we need to try to resist that. Casting the Pharisee as the bad guy and the Tax Collector as the good guy is just too simple. Let’s look at these characters – first the Pharisee. Jesus is always butting heads with the Pharisees in the Gospels. The Pharisees were an important group in Israel at this time. In fact after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 by the Romans, the Pharisees were the only group to survive and they are the ancestors of today’s Rabbinic Judaism. And the reason – the Pharisees lifted up and focused their lives and faith and tradition on Torah. And they interpreted the Torah in a very strict manner. But make no mistake, they were good men, they were honorable men, they were righteous men. The problem with this particular Pharisee is not his righteousness. It is his self-righteousness. Count the “I” statements in his little speech: ‘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 a good guy, but his righteousness has turned into self-righteousness; his completely admirable and honorable way of life has turned into his elevating himself above others and thus his relationships with others and even with God are threatened.
Now the Tax Collector: we like the Tax Collector. As we listen to this parable we are perhaps reminded of Zacheaus, the short, head Tax Collector who climbs a tree and then gives all of his wealth away in response to Jesus; or Matthew the Tax Collector who leaves his booth to follow Jesus and become a disciple. But, we need to be careful that we are not too overly disposed towards seeing the tax collector as the good guy. He wasn’t. Tax Collectors were collaborators with the Roman occupiers. And in order to fund the occupation the Romans needed to collect money from the population. So, they employed these volunteers who would collect the taxes and the deal was that they had to submit a certain amount to Rome, but whatever else they collected above and beyond what was expected and required they got to keep. That is what Zacheaus is so rich and why he is so hated. The Tax Collector is a swindler, a cheat, one who uses the law and any other method he can to get money out of people, especially those who are workers and farmers and those who are poor and struggling.
Jesus tells us that in the end the Tax Collector was justified or made right with God, because of his humility and honesty. In other words, the Tax Collector was the one who left the Temple on the path to having his relationships with God and others restored, and not the Pharisee. Why? It is the Tax Collector who recognizes that his life is filled with broken relationships – with God, with others. The Pharisee does not see this. He is so proud of himself that he can’t see that his pride about being on God’s side has actually distanced him from God and that he is now guilty of placing himself in God’s place and presuming that he knows the mind of God. This parable is not only about humility, it is also about honesty and relationship. In the end, the possibility that is held out is the possibility of healed relationships.
So which one are you? Which character do you identify with? And does it make any difference? Self-righteousness is a problem in our society and it is a problem many of us struggle with. Self-righteousness is a problem which divides us, which separates us from each other and from God. This parable is a call to repentance and a call to look at ourselves honestly. God offers to us forgiveness and relationship, but accepting this is only the first step. Then the hard work of rebuilding our relationships begins. Repentance is the first step towards the restoration of relationship; Forgiveness is a promise of God’s presence with us through the process of restoration.
Charles and Zeke stayed through the service and participated. When it finally came time for Holy Communion by some quirk of the ushers they found themselves kneeling next to each other at the altar rail. “The body of Christ, given for You.” “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” Given and shed FOR YOU. In those words we have the power and promise of God’s love and grace; FOR YOU Jesus has given Himself so that you might live a new life, forgiven and renewed, and in relationship with God and with others.
As they got up from kneeling on that particular morning Zeke stumbled a little and Charles reached out to keep him from falling. They exchanged warm smiles and returned to their pews. Forgiven, renewed, gifted, loved – they had both been touched by the gracious presence of Christ.