Remember 1966? 1966 was the year the Beatles wrote the song ‘Taxman’. Already by then they had started earning enough to be placed in the top tax bracket. In fact they were in the 95% ‘super-tax’ bracket, under Harold Wilson’s government. I don’t think I’ll ever have to worry about being placed in the top tax bracket. In any case, rather than income tax rises the current coalition government is more interested in deep spending cuts, despite the moral difficulties: it's said that disadvantaged children could be the ones who suffer most. But high taxes are not something that people are naturally fond of either, and ‘the Taxman’ is surely considered ‘the bad guy’ by many.
In reality tax collectors share a similar stereotype to that of lawyers: generally described as greedy and dishonest. But in today’s gospel reading, it’s the Taxman that comes out tops in the eyes of Jesus. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector clearly points to the Tax Collector as ‘the good guy’, and the Pharisee as ‘the bad guy’. And that’s not too surprising because throughout his ministry Jesus made plain his views about the Pharisees: they were hypocrites, phonies – who pretended to be righteous, but were not - Self-righteous, but not actually righteous.
The Pharisees thought they were superior to everyone else. They sought praise and attention as guardians of the Jewish laws. They prayed loudly in the synagogues so people could hear them. They made sure that people would see them giving money to beggars on the street. They wanted to be honoured for their pious behaviour, but their pious behaviour was all for show. In today’s parable, the Pharisee stands as a symbol for anyone who thinks to themselves, ‘I’m better than those other people, the riff-raff who are vile and disgraceful’. The Pharisee said, ‘I thank God that I am not like those thieves, rogues, adulterers and even that tax collector right here next to me in the Temple. Because really, I am a good person. I am at least a lot better than these other people. I go to temple every week. I give ten percent of my income. I say my prayers daily and loudly. I’m not like the riff raff of society. I’m much better than that’.
This conflict between the self-righteous hypocrites and the sinners of the world goes back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus called his first disciples. We read in Matthew’s gospel, ch. 9 v. 9, one of the disciples is Matthew, the tax collector. When Jesus called Matthew to follow him, he knew that tax collectors had a bad reputation. The tax collectors were the villains of Jewish society. For one thing, they collected taxes. But to make matters worse, they collected taxes for the despised Roman government. And they made a lot of money from collecting taxes. If anyone was considered a thief and a betrayer in Jewish society, it was the tax collectors.
So the Pharisees were deeply offended that Jesus called a tax collector to be his disciple. One day, Jesus was invited to Matthew’s home. Lots of other people were also there who were regarded as ‘sinners’: the social and moral outcasts of society. Jesus was having a meal with these people, chatting, laughing, and telling stories. The Pharisees were there, too, watching the action around the table. The Pharisees asked around, ‘Why does Jesus eat with such contemptible people like these?’ Jesus answered, ‘I have come not to call the righteous, but those who know they are sinners’ – Matthew 9:13. So from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus said that his disciples would be sinners and not self-righteous folk like the Pharisees.
In his parables, Jesus wants his listeners to discover where they fit into the picture. So perhaps we need to ask ourselves, in what way might we resemble the Pharisee? Who do we think we are superior to? Who do you think you are ‘better than’?
Let me tell you about last Wednesday. I had the most amazing day last Wednesday. It was one of the regular training days that curates have to attend, and this time we spent the day at a prison, a Young Offenders Institution for males aged 18-25. The 'restorative justice' programme offered there was a real eye-opener, and I'm sure it will influence future sermons. But thinking about prisoners and connecting it with our parable for today, the question begs: do we think we’re better than a prisoner who commits crime and deserves to get locked up in prison for months or years?
Or what about thinking that we’re better than those alcoholics that hang around our streets late at night asking for money? Or that ‘I’m better than all those people on benefits who spend the tax-payer’s money on cigarettes or in the betting shop’. How about, ‘I’m better than those Muslims, those Jews, those gays, lesbians and transexuals. You know, those abominable kinds of people (who I would never call ‘abominable’ in public, but I can think it). I’m better than them’.
Well this is exactly what the parable has to do with us, because Jesus doesn’t want us to be like the Pharisees - to have hardened hearts towards other people who the world considers as ‘substandard’ in some way. Jesus was angry with the Pharisees because their hearts were hard. Their hearts showed no sign of the compassion of God. Jesus’ heart is full of compassion for the outcasts of society. And this is the problem: if our hearts are not compassionate to others here in our own community of New Brighton and beyond.
Jesus wants us to be a bit more like the tax collector in this parable. So let’s think about this Tax Collector for a moment. The tax collector was at the temple to pray, but he stood back at a distance. The text says that he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ And Jesus says, ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbles, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’
Jesus wants us to be honest in assessing our own sinfulness, and not to secretly feel that our sinfulness is not as bad as someone else’s sinfulness. So at the heart of this parable today is the tax collector’s deep awareness that he is a sinner in need of the mercy of God. And we never outgrow the need to be aware of this ourselves. Throughout our whole lives, we need to have this awareness that we are imperfect people who need God’s grace and his mercy. None of us are worthy of God’s grace, but yet he offers forgiveness and mercy as a gift to all.
Jesus taught at the beginning of his ministry: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician. Those who know they are sick know that they need a doctor.’ On this side of eternity, we never outgrow our need for the healing touch of Jesus.
Last Easter we hosted an Easter egg hunt for the carers and tots group in church. One of the child-minders said something interesting as she came out of the church and back into the hall that probably sums up what many outside the church think:
She said she’d better get out of there quick before she was struck by lightning because she wasn’t ‘good enough’ to be in church.
I quickly pointed out that I’m not ‘good enough’ either, but really, do we think we’re better than those outside who (for whatever reason) don’t want to come in? Even Jesus said, ‘no one is good except God alone’ (Luke 18:19). But the sad truth is that we Christians can be arrogant and critical of others and to come across as “holier than thou” and this has left many people feeling hurt and angry and put off church altogether. Contrary to this, the gospel is most powerfully demonstrated when our brokenness is acknowledged, and when we engage with the world outside in humility, recognising that we have much to learn from those we should be seeking to serve - the poorest and the weakest in our community. This is the way we discover the signs of God’s reign that go before us as disciples in mission in any place or time.
The truth is, yes sometimes we are like the Pharisee, but sometimes we can also be like the tax collector, too much – despairing over our sinful condition and never getting up off our knees. Yes, we’re sinners and we’re broken, but we also have hope – the hope of Christ that lives in us - that in Christ we have been set free. Only in Christ are we counted worthy in God’s eyes. And Christ welcomes everyone to his table – so who are we to condemn?
Arrogance always robs the ‘other’ of their humanity and dignity. Humility, on the other hand, results in an openness to other person's story – to compassion for the many complex causes of their predicament (many of which are beyond their control) - and humility commits us to mutual care. Humility opens us to God’s Spirit which works among us and in us as we serve one another, allowing us to experience God’s reign here and now.
Let us pray: Dear God, whenever we are tempted to think of ourselves as better than others, more worthy, more deserving, more important to you, may your humility break in and challenge us, reminding us of our brokenness and need, and teaching us to serve and to love others with the grace and humility you show towards us. Amen.