In the gospel we have just heard, Jesus tells a shocking story. Perhaps you didn’t experience the shock? Part of the problem is that many of us have heard the parables so often since we were children that we know what’s coming: It’s like watching a movie for the tenth time.
Another part of the problem is that we only vaguely get the shocking bits. Indeed, they often go straight over our heads. Yes, we know, or think we know, that the Pharisee was probably like one of those people we may know, who are so proud of their own rectitude and morality that they have no compassion for anyone who doesn’t live up to their standards. It’s easy to be completely lacking in sympathy for this Righteous person. After all, we are tolerant, accepting, open people. We hope our parishes are welcoming places, open to all who join us or want to join us. We can feel secure in disliking this person who lists the sins of others, is sure he’s God’s particular friend and has God’s approval, a person of good values.
We can also approve of the penitence of the Publican, who bewails his faults, dares not even to assume the customary attitude of prayer, standing with arms extended, but who crouches on the ground and begs God for mercy. Our approval comes easily because we don’t know what a “low life” the Publican is. To understand just what a crook the Publican is, we have to remember who the tax gatherers were in Jesus’ day.
Tax collectors worked for the hated Romans, who were not only unclean gentiles, but oppressors, those who had conquered the Jewish state and ruled it with sometimes savage enthusiasm. Jewish tax collectors were the equivalent of those who collaborated with the Nazis, or the Soviets in occupied Europe during World War II, or Christians in Rwanda who stood by or participated in the massacre of their fellow citizens.
A tax gatherer was given an area and told to raise a certain sum of money. How he did this wasn’t an issue; how much he pocketed for himself didn’t matter as long as the Romans got the money they wanted. Probably no one was hated as much as a tax gatherer, not even a self-righteous Pharisee who looked down on those who didn’t meet his standards.
So when Jesus approves of the Publican, the tax-gatherer, one can imagine the shock that went through his hearers. It would be as if he’d singled out someone who has ruined people with a Ponzi scheme, and now enters our church and professes repentance in the company of those defrauded. If we are to be polled, we’ll vote to approve of a self-righteous but upright person over a swindler and a crook.
To tell the truth, we, too, can sound like the Righteous Man who thanks God that he is not like other people. How often do we blame the poor, saying that they are feckless, irresponsible and culpable in their own poverty because they haven’t bettered themselves or taken advantage of the American Dream? We don’t want to be taxed to pay for their health care, housing, feeding. Why should we share that which we’ve worked hard for with those we regard to be lazy and unworthy? To justify our lack of “faith, hope and charity,” we trot out examples of people who really want to live off others, and blame all poor people for the indolence of a few.
Worse still, we feel that God owes us his attention to our needs, that we deserve his love and grace because we are better than others and keep, or think we keep, God’s laws. We trot out “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” quite easily.
“Forgive us our debts,” that which we owe God and owe others implies that there is something to forgive, that we do fall short. Of course we do.
This morning, here in the presence of God, we feel secure because we believe that God is ever loving, ever forgiving, always ready to restore us. We are right. Jesus offered himself for us, placed himself between “our sins and their reward” in an act of self-sacrificial love.
We come before God today not secure in our own righteousness, but as the old prayer puts it, “in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”
God approves of the wretched tax gatherer over the Righteous Man, because the tax gatherer admits his faults. We show our own penitence not just by making our confession together, but by our willingness to forgive and love those who are in need.
Without God’s love, our love isn’t up to that task. With God’s love, we can love even those who repel us.