We continue this morning in our series on Jesus’ parables, focusing specifically on Jesus’ original audience would’ve heard these stories. To help us do that, I’m continuing to lean the book Short Stories by Jesus, by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. Dr. Levine is Jewish, and she is a New Testament scholar—so she brings us a very unique perspective on these questions.
The parable we’re about to hear is a short one—the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector—which may be somewhat familiar to us, but it definitely has some surprises for us, and some deeper mysteries for us to dive into.
So as we listen, I want us to listen for a couple things:
First, who is this parable addressed to?
Second, who goes home justified?
And Third, who winds up closest to God, and who is closest to their community?
Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “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.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
On the surface, this parable seems relatively simple. The main point seems pretty obvious, even to us a couple thousand years later—which is why the original working title for this sermon was “don’t be a jerk.”
We can all go home now, right?
Before we do, I want to peel back a few more layers.
Jesus addresses this parable to a group of people around him who were feeling more than a little self-righteous, and treated others with contempt. They’re not named, so there’s a distinct possibility that he was talking to some of his own disciples.
As he begins the story, no one would’ve been surprised that a Pharisee and a tax collector were going up to the Temple to pray. Good for them!
But almost immediately, the story takes a turn: both men are turned into opposite caricatures of themselves. The people listening would’ve been surprised and horrified that a Pharisee, who should’ve been a trusted leader in the community, would be so dismissive of others—and not just the tax collector. And even the acts of righteousness that he describes: fasting twice a week, tithing 10% of everything—these were not normal. This was above and beyond anything required by the law. Fasting was usually reserved for holy days and periods of mourning, and only certain things were required to be tithed—certain products and livestock—not everything.
In contrast, the tax collector would’ve been almost universally mistrusted and disliked. He was not completely ostracized from society—he was at the Temple, and he would’ve had considerable wealth and privilege by nature of his work with the Roman government. However, he got all of that by cheating and defrauding others, by stealing from his own people, by collecting more than he was supposed to. He would’ve been considered a collaborator with the Romans.
So his unabashed, raw honesty—his uninhibited repentance—would have astounded Jesus’ listeners. The idea that a tax collector could behave this way was just…unheard of.
Both men behave in surprising ways. And then, so does God.
Rather than acknowledge the extra-righteous Pharisee, God hears the tax collector’s cry for mercy – and he goes home justified.
Jesus flips the script, reminding his listeners that God’s love, God’s presence, and God’s help are not dependent on our good works. All one needs to do to receive mercy is to ask for it.
But let’s take this one step further. Both of these men, concerned with their own righteousness (or lack thereof), had also distanced themselves from their community.
The Pharisee chose to withdraw himself: eating together was extremely important in ancient Jewish communities, so by choosing to fast two days a week, he was purposely removing himself from that opportunity. His words, too, tell us that he’s emotionally distanced himself—he’s not like those people—and the fact that he’s saying this out loud in the middle of the Temple is unlikely to win him many friends.
The tax collector, likewise, was withdrawn—not just physically, as he stood at a distance from the other worshippers—but by nature of his occupation, he would’ve been left on the outskirts of the faithful Jewish community. His wealth and privilege was gained at the expense of his neighbors, quite literally. His collaboration with the Romans wasn’t likely to win him many friends, either.
So I have to wonder if Jesus’ goal is not just to take this hierarchy of righteousness and flip it upside down, so that the tax collector is now closer to God, but to flatten it. The point he’s making to his listeners is not just that humility and repentance are good, but that part of being reconciled to God is reconciling ourselves to one another.
What Jesus asks of us is not to say “oh, thank goodness I’m not like that Pharisee!” It is, instead, to turn to the people around us and acknowledge that each of us is, at the same time, a saint and a sinner—people who get it right and people who screw it up—and especially in this place, we live in the company of those who are at the same moment both saints and sinners.
Dr. Levine says it this way: “We cannot fully identify with either the Pharisee, who will continue to behave in a righteous manner far beyond what most people will do, or the currently repentant tax collector, who may continue to do the wrong thing. Once we judge one better than the other, we are trapped by the parable.”
One of the deepest mysteries that God offers us here is a radical equality: God will always hear your cries for mercy, no matter what wrong you’ve done. And yet, there is no extra credit. There is nothing on your to-do list that will make God love you more than anyone else.
You are already so loved that at the last, no other voice, no condemnation, no ranking or metrics or lists will overshadow the voice of God, saying: “this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
That’s the secret to that last sentence–the mystery in this story: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In the covenant God makes with us at baptism, there is no hierarchy of righteousness. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, Pharisee nor Tax Collector–for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
And so, we gather at the font to celebrate, to remember, and to reaffirm our commitment to believe this good news, and live in its peace.
 Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (p. 210). HarperCollins.