Parables from the Back Side: “Why God doesn’t like Religious People”
Rev. Sandy Johnson
July 3, 2016
A minister and a lowly taxi cab driver both died and went to heaven. St. Peter was at the pearly gates waiting for them. ‘Come with me’, said St. Peter to the taxi cab driver. The taxi cab driver did as he was told and followed him to a fantastic mansion. It had everything you could imagine… a private golf course, a beautiful swimming pool… EVERYTHING! ‘Wow, thank you’, said the taxi cab driver. Next, the Lord led the minister to a rugged old hut with a funky old bed and a little dinky yard.
‘Wait, I think you are a bit off’, said the minister. ‘Shouldn’t I be the one who has the big house etc.? After all I was a minister, did church duties daily, was highly respected & very well-known and I taught God’s word every day. That taxi guy just drove a car.’
‘Yes, this is so’ said Peter,
‘But up here we work by results. …during your sermons…everybody slept.
When the taxi cab driver drove…everyone prayed.’
Let us pray: Gracious God, as we prepare our hearts and minds to receive your message, we pray that the words will represent your timeless teachings and we will all be moved to action. Amen.
Our series, Parables from the Back Side, continues this morning with the “Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” At first glance it may be difficult to determine which character in the parable will be our hero, and which will be the villain. On the one side we have a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
Let’s look at the Pharisee first. The name Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word which means to separate or detach. To be a Pharisee was to be set apart from others, to be insulated from any type of impurity as defined by the Levitical law. They led a simple lifestyle and were described by the first century historian, Josephus as “affectionate and harmonious in their dealings with others.” Their main focus was to keep the commandments handed down by Moses as well as the numerous regulations that were added to assist them in keeping the law. These were traditions handed down in oral form that gave them a greater “interpretation, application and expansion of the Old Testament law.”
The Pharisees were influential but were controlled by the king. Some were known to oppose Herod, but most followed his rule. During the time of Jesus we know that the Pharisees were often opponents of Jesus or the early Christians, although there are incidents where Pharisees were helpful and of course Paul was a Pharisee before his conversion.
The other player in this drama is a tax collector. Here was a man that was despised by others. He was one of their own, most often a Jew, who had gone to work for the occupiers, their enemy, Rome. Tax collectors were no better than the worst kind of sinners and prostitutes. They were hated by their own people because they taxed their neighbors excessively and were allowed to keep the amount they gathered above the Rome requirements. All of those living in Judea were charged a “1% annual income tax…and there were also import and export taxes, crop taxes (1/10 of grain crop and 1/5 of wine, fruit, and olive oil), there were sales tax, property tax, emergency tax, and so on.”
Both of these groups of people were known to Jesus. He ate with both, spoke to both and shared the “Good News” with both. Probably the most famous Pharisee was Nicodemus and the best known tax collector was Levi who is also known as Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Neither had a clean cut reputation but the Pharisee certainly was the “better” of the two, at least on the surface.
Jesus begins the story by telling us who he was speaking to. He described his audience as “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” He knew in the parable to come that they would find themselves in the story. “Two men went up to the temple to pray,” Jesus said, “a Pharisee and a tax collector.” “The Pharisee stood up for his prayer “and prayed about himself. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
Then he got down to the important details, “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He wanted to be sure that God knew who was praying to him. Here was a man who was supposed to fast once a year on the Day of Atonement. But he wanted to earn special merit and so fasted on both Monday and Thursday. Why these days? These were the principle market days in Jerusalem. Those coming to shop would be face to face with these fasters, those who would “whiten their faces and dress in clothing that would mark them as being in pious mourning, thus drawing attention to themselves.”
We can conclude that this man was certainly a man of God and demonstrated piety, but his motives and heart are all wrong. Let’s look next at the tax collector. A known sinner. We don’t have very high expectations for this one, do we? But wait, here he is, standing off to the side, avoiding the limelight and attention, eyes cast down to the ground, beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Those who witnessed certainly could understand this sinner needing repentance. Many had been victim of his thievery. They were pleased to see him humbling himself. Most had also seen the Pharisee parade into the temple, in full view of everyone to see. This story was pretty typical. That was until Jesus landed the punch line.
“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.” Shocking! But this isn’t surprising to us because we have read all of Jesus’ parables and we aren’t shocked any longer by his honesty and forthrightness. We may likely identify with the tax collector. We want to be the heroine in the story and self-identify with the humble man who knew he was a sinner and was forgiven.
“But when we view the story from the painful vantage point of the Pharisee, we’re closer to what Jesus originally intended.” This story wasn’t told to make the tax collector feel better. The story was told to call to task the Pharisees who were parading around, all high and mighty like. As much as we may want to deny it, we are all a bit more Pharisaical that we would like to admit. How many of us have asked, “Why me, Lord?” “Let’s face it: this is a Pharisee’s question. The assumption here is that some other people (like this tax collector, Lord) perhaps deserves to suffer reversals, but I don’t. If misfortune would come to them, we could understand it, because they have it coming to them. But me? Why me, Lord?””
How could Jesus like the tax collector better than the Pharisee? If you put these two side by side it is clear who the “better” person is. One takes advantage of his own kind, the other is a man after God’s own heart. The Pharisee isn’t a bad person, maybe a little (or a lot) prideful, but nothing like the tax collector. We are so used to the Pharisee being the “heavy” in this parable that “it’s almost impossible to put ourselves in his shoes. Worse yet, we don’t recognize ourselves in him. It’s probably true that most congregations in our Western world are made up of people who are close kin to the Pharisee. We are people who congratulate ourselves now and again on our moral achievement. We don’t often go to the temple, as the Pharisee did; perhaps we don’t even belong to a congregation. So while reading the newspaper or while watching the evening news, we ask, “Why can’t all the world be like me?”
“Why didn’t God appreciate the Pharisee’s goodness or religiosity? Or ours for that matter, when we are like him? For one thing, the Pharisee was using religion to hold God at a distance. The purpose of religion, clearly, is to draw us nearer to God, and then to our fellow human beings. But the Pharisee was using religion to hold God at a safe distance, and other human beings at a level below. God wanted a place in the Pharisee’s heart; the Pharisee wanted to give God a place in the ritual. God wanted truth and sincerity within; the Pharisee wanted a set of rules he could follow.”
“True worship of God should make us humble, for it is in humility that we are more apt to love God and other people. The Pharisee’s religion, however, made him proud. He had just enough religion to make him feel superior to other people. In many ways, he really was better than most people. But the point is that we don’t have to be better than others.” We are not called to be better than our neighbor, we are called to be the best “me” that God created. We are to strive to be Christ-like. To love our neighbor as ourselves. The Pharisee got it wrong. “Comparing himself to the tax collector was a little like a college graduate boasting that he or she knows more than a fourth grader. But he not only looked down on the tax collector, he also despised him. You can’t make a case for loving God when you hate your brother or sister. In that regard, the Pharisee was in big trouble.”
“True religion makes us feel our need for God, so that we are drawn to him.” The Pharisee focused more on the law and following the traditions than on a relationship with God. He had it backwards telling God how fortunate God was that he had the Pharisee. “The tax collector, on the other hand, was praying, “Do you see, O God, how badly I need you?”
The real villain in this story is pride. “Pride is such a subtle devil because it is, at first, a hero. In proper guise, pride is an essential element in our human personalities. When a person is converted, part of the transformation is a restoration of the sense of dignity and self-worth; that is, of pride. But pride can change costumes before our every eyes, so that the first aid becomes the chief villain. And pride so quickly comes to work in the good person. Having won some battle of the soul, whether small or large, we easily conclude that we are now better than others. Pride makes it impossible for us to repent, because repentance requires us to acknowledge that we have been wrong. Pride also makes it difficult for us to accept grace, because grace is humbling; pride would rather do it alone.”
Tax collector or Pharisee, the choice is ours. God sees our heart and asks us to be authentic in our relationship with Him and with one another.
Let us pray: Gracious God, humble me now to accept your love and grace. Give me the courage to be who you created me to be. Amen.
 Adapted from “Parables from the Back Side: Bible Stories with a Twist,” by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1992.
 http://www.21st-century-christianity.com/Pride.html accessed July 2, 2016
 Kalas, J. Ellsworth. Parables from the Back Side. Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 1992
 Luke 18:9
 Luke 18:11
 Luke 18:12
 Kalas, page 61
 Luke 18:14
 Kalas, 62
 Kalas 62
 Kalas, 63-64
 Kalas, 65
 Kalas, 65
 Kalas, 68