Christ Lutheran Community Church

Upper Darby

Christ Lutheran Community Church

October 27, 2019 Worship Sermon - "The Pharisee and the Tax Collector"

Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser


Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22, Psalm 84:1-7, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

Well, thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!

One Sunday morning when I was on vacation, I attended a church in my neighborhood.  I always like visiting other churches because I get new ideas for what works and what doesn’t work in worship.  The church that I visited that Sunday tends toward the fundamentalist end of the theological spectrum.  Suffice it to say, they would never print the kind of welcome statement we have on the inside front page of our bulletin.  But that morning, I had gotten up late and this is the closest church to my home, so I rushed into the sanctuary and found a seat in one of the back pews.  While the prelude was playing, I was scanning the congregation and checking out the other worshippers.  Since this church is so conservative, I came into the service with a lot of negative biases towards anyone who would be worshipping there.  Two rose ahead of me, there sat a woman I knew I just wouldn’t like.  She was all prim and proper; and there was something about her expression that just exuded self-righteousness, like she knew she had all the right answers and she would judge harshly anyone who disagreed with her.

After the prelude, the pastor invited everyone in the congregation to greet their neighbor.  I smiled and said hello to the people on either side of me, then to the person behind me, and then to the people further down the pew, but out of the corner of my eye I saw this woman with her hand stretched out toward me, waiting for me to respond.  I couldn’t ignore her, so I stuck my hand out and mumbled hello.  She smiled a beautiful smile and welcomed me to the congregation.  As she spoke to me, I realized there was nothing self-righteous about her at all.  The organ played the introduction to the opening hymn and the Holy Spirit helped me to understand what I had done.  I had projected onto this woman – a complete stranger whom I knew nothing about – my bitterness toward people of a certain theological perspective.  And because I was so focused on her, I was going to have a pretty hard time focusing on God. 

Because Jesus knew that people like me sometimes let our biases interfere with our relationships with other people, he told this parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple.  Jesus paints a picture of these two men using very bold strokes – in just a few words we get a powerful image of each man’s problem.  The two are almost caricatures – comical in their behavior.  But what prevents the description from seeming completely absurd is that we can see ourselves in one or the other of them – or maybe in both.

In the prayer of the Pharisee, we get right to the heart of his problem.  “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people.”  Again, these words sound ridiculous and it’s hard to imagine anyone praying like this; but the fact is, this prayer is on many of our hearts.  We are bred in a society that encourages people to set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd.  From a young age, we strive to distinguish ourselves from others by our grades or our athletic accomplishments or our artistic skills.  Then, there are all the advertisements that encourage us to express our individuality by the clothes we wear or the car we drive.  The irony is, if we try too hard to be different, we end up being just like everyone else who is trying to be different.  We all end up with pierced navels sitting in Starbucks paging through the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue.  Trying not to be like other people is counter-productive.

Then there’s the tax collector.  He’s not praising God because he’s different from everyone else.  He’s lamenting this fact.  He’s full of shame because he sees himself as a sinner in a world full of righteous people.  The distance between himself and the rest of the community isn’t a comfortable distance as it is for the Pharisee.  It’s an agonizing chasm.  Unlike the Pharisee, there are no accomplishments to remind God of, so his prayer is short and to the point: “God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”  Again, I believe many of us will resonate with this prayer.  We are tortured by the shame that keeps us apart from others.  We feel like we’re the only person who has ever messed up in life.

Two men, praying in church, feeling deeply isolated from the people around them.  But Jesus tells us only one of these men went home justified – the tax collector.  Why?  Why was the arrogance of the Pharisee any worse than the sin of the tax collector?  It’s simple: the tax collector recognized his sin and asked God to free him from it, while the Pharisee, oblivious to the sin that was isolating him, pushed himself even deeper into it. 

It’s like this: salvation is being gathered into a community – becoming a member of the body of Christ.  So, the tax collector who longs to be rid of the sin that is keeping him out of this community will be saved, while the Pharisee who hopes to maintain that distance from others will be lost.  Each man gets just what he wants, really.  The tax collector is forgiven and brought back into the community; the Pharisee remains alone.  Salvation will only come to the Pharisee when he lets go of his need to be separate and different and accepts his common humanity.

To those of you who feel like the tax collector I would say, “Welcome to this community of sinners.”  Christ took on sin so that your sin need no longer isolate you from God or from other people. 

To those of you who feel like the Pharisee I say, “Being like other people is actually a wonderful thing.”  Thomas Merton wrote, “Thank God that I am like other men… it is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, even though it is a race that makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God gloried in becoming a member of the human race.” 

Christ has taken on sinful human flesh so there is no longer a scourge to being human, so that both the tax collector and the Pharisee may be reconciled to the human community.  Whether your isolation comes from shame or arrogance, Christ stands before you with outstretched arms, beckoning you to come and live the abundant life that you were intended to live in fellowship with others.

Today we celebrate Reformation Day and the message of this parable is very appropriate to our celebration because the church that Martin Luther struggled to reform was as polarized as the prayer of the tax collector and Pharisee.  There were the masses of ordinary believers and there were the “super-Christians” – the priests and monks and nuns.  The chasm between these two groups was huge and nowhere was this more obvious than when the church gathered for worship.  The ordinary Christians would stand in the sanctuary and watch as the priests performed rituals in a language that no one understood.  Communion was only offered to lay people once a year because it was considered too holy for them to receive without special preparation.  Luther recognized that this division between priests and the laity was contrary to the very heart of the Gospel, which says that we are all one in Christ.  Before Christ, we are all dreadful sinners and we are all incomparable saints.  We are all priests… not because of something that we do, but because of what God has done. 

When you gather around this table, shoulder to shoulder with your fellow Pharisees and tax collectors, Christ is as close to you as the bread on your lips.  Let Christ heal whatever wounds might be keeping you isolated.  Let Christ heal you, so that you may live.