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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Portraits of Reliance on God - 10/23/2016

The parable seems clear in its teaching on the surface –don't suppose your are better or worse than anyone else – even if you have devoted your life to being a God-fearing, law-abiding Pharisee... “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b)

But then we might remember the other thing we can say about Jesus – there's usually more than just what is apparent on the surface.

We often get what seem to be such stark contrasts in Jesus' parables. Today is no exception in the portraits of the two men here – a tax collector who has sold out to the empire and a Pharisee who has set himself apart to obey all of Jewish law, perfectly if possible.

Pharisees often get a bad rap by us contemporary Jesus followers. It's easy to typecast them as the enemy of Jesus and his teachings. But to see them as only that is to create a very one-dimensional view of this pretty large group of people – and that kind of generalization of a whole group of people just doesn't service God well. Each of us are far more complex and multi-faceted than a one-dimensional caricature.

So I think it's important to remember that Jesus is not calling into question the life this Pharisee has chosen – of being one who is faithful to God's law – of leading a life dedicated to keeping God at the center – not empire or human desire,  and to helping others do the same.

What Jesus is calling the Pharisee out on is that he has made that dangerous and sinful leap from righteousness to self righteousness. Remember who Jesus is addressing here – “some who trusted in themselves,” which is followed by a string of the Pharisee's self-congratulatory “I” statements: “I am not like other people,” “I fast twice a week,” “I give 10 percent of my income.”

The real contrast I think Jesus is getting at in this parable is between the attitude and postures of two men who have a lot more in common then they think because they are both and entirely – like us – dependent on God's mercy.

It would be so hard to be a tax collector. This was a job into which one was often born. Perhaps there were also cases of people who took this job simply because they needed to make a living. The Roman Empire put a lot of people to work on public projects like building roads and temples.

Naturally tax collectors were needed, those whose job it was to collect the money that paid for these projects. Those taxes also paid for things like religious freedom and the right to self govern to some extent. Anything the tax collectors gathered beyond what was due to Rome was theirs to keep. That was how they made their living.

But they paid for it heavily. Tax collectors were typically local, Jewish men. If you were another Jewish man out in the community tending to your own business of the day, these tax collectors could stop you in the street and tax you on what you were carrying. They were charged with collecting a one percent tax on a man's annual income. They also collected 10 percent of crops and 5 percent of any wine, fruit and olive oil produced. Plus there were often sales, property and emergency taxes to be collected.

So you can see that these guys were not popular neighbors in these predominantly Jewish communities. Let's face it, in the long view of human history, taxmen or women have not dominated the popularity contests. The Beatles wrote a whole song about it. Even today, I imagine an IRS employee would tend to cringe when they heard the question “What do you do for a living?”

Because of how these 1st century tax collectors made their living, they were also placed in categories with the worst of sinners – thieves, adulterers, rogues. Their allegiance was to the empire and often replaced their allegiance to God. Even if it didn't, it was publicly perceived in that way. They became outsiders in their own communities by virtue of their vocation – chosen or not. They would not have received dinner invitations or been invited to be leaders and teachers in their local synagogues – the center of not only a community's religious life, but also their education system, their governing system, their social and economic systems. Their kids would not be invited to go bowling.

Histories of these times tell us these tax collectors sometimes employed dodgy tactics to get the taxes and sometimes even grew to become extortionists collecting quite a bit more than was due to Rome. Maybe the logic for some was that if they could squeeze extra money or goods out of the people, at least they could lead their isolated lives with a lot of creature comforts.

So it's not too hard to see why the tax collector was the perpetual odd man out.

And yet … these are the people Jesus consistently holds up as examples of who God loves and treasures and protects and forgives in these parables. Jesus has already attracted attention, especially from people like the Pharisees, in response to his tendency to hang out with sinners like tax collectors.

Just a few weeks ago we read how “all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to (Jesus). And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” (Luke 15:1-2)

We noted recently in our Wednesday night bible study on the Gospels, that in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is particularly interested in ministry to the oppressed and the lost.

A tax collector could fall under both those categories, I would argue. They were often lost and needed to be found. Jesus sought to open their eyes to where their allegiance to power should be. John the Baptist urged them to be honest in their work. “Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.'” (Luke 3:12-13) And they were lost also in the sense that they were painfully placed outside of community.

But in a way the tax collectors were also oppressed. We can see from the way the parable describes him that the tax collector is deeply distressed by his sin. Jesus says he is standing far off and will not even look up – he does not feel welcomed or worthy of being at the temple. He beats his breast, a sign of deepest lament. He begs God, “be merciful to me, a sinner!”

In the portrait of the tax collector this parable paints, we could easily imagine him reciting words from Jeremiah that we read today.

“Although our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake; our apostasies indeed are many, and we have sinned against you. … Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!” (Jeremiah 14: 7-9)

And despite all this remorse and lamentation, this repentance and request for mercy, we do not know if the tax collector returned to his home and his work in renewed and more God-fearing ways. We don't know if he would be able to do that. A tax collector couldn't simply change careers. It didn't work that way and without a job, he likely couldn't feed or care for his family. He was a very small part of a very large and sinful system. 

In a way, I can really relate to this. In the course of my previous career in marketing and communications, I once worked for a corporation that used fear tactics to convince people to purchase its services. I didn't control the corporation or come up with the business plans, but I contributed to the sin of tapping  people's insecurities and fears in order to grow profits. But I needed that job and that health insurance. It was logical and rational that I should want to work for a company with a good retirement program, disability insurance and the like. It was not easy, in some ways, to leave that upwardly mobile career path. But I had more options than the tax collector in our story today.

So, we can see how this man is both lost to the ways of the world that places all its faith in human power, and oppressed by a sinful system that is both dependent on him and has trapped him.

And despite the fact that we do not know what the tax collector did when he went home from the temple that day, we do know that he returned home justified by God … just as we will when we leave here today – the tax collectors and pharisees the saints and sinners of our time – who came to stand before God today and beg, “be merciful to me, a sinner,” … who will shortly be fed at this table because of the that mercy, and then sent from there back into the world of our homes, justified by God.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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