Go to the Table before You Go Home
A few years back, at O’Hare airport in Chicago, I spotted a new vendor selling chocolate. The company was “Vosges.” The creator is one Katrina Markoff, and she learned her trade at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The theme of her chocolates is “travel the world” – so she combines spices, flowers, roots, herbs and liquers with premium chocolates. So I bought a small package of four chocolates as a gift for Kris when I arrived back home. She enjoys these chocolates, I enjoy them vicariously, and now whenever I get to O’Hare I say to myself “Don’t go home until you’ve been to the chocolate shop.”
You may well have some routines of your own before you go home … like getting your mind cleared of your work by listening to some music, or pondering what you will do in the evening with your family or your friends, or finishing off some duties – like an errand at the grocery store – so your evening will be peaceful.
You are in church this morning, and I shall suggest to you that there’s something you need to do before you go home, and that something emerges directly from reflecting on this marvelous parable told by Jesus, often called the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
If you have been paying attention to the lectionary readings or the sermons this Fall, either one I might add, you will have observed over and over Luke’s ability to find a good example among what was perceived to be the wrong group, the outsiders, the unclean. Like finding a good man among the Packer or Yankee fans.
We learned from Luke that we are to invite to our parties the poor and lame and crippled and the blind (14:13). We are to see the right person in the sinful son and not the apparently saintly son (15:11-32). We find an example in the shrewd manager (16:1-9). We find a heaven-bound person in Lazarus the dog-licked dead beggar and not in the upstanding rich man (16:19-31). We find faith in the grateful leper (17:11-19), and we find a model of trust in the persistent widow (18:1-8).
So neither those who accompanied Jesus nor the readers of the Gospel of Luke are one bit surprised when Jesus sets a tax collector against the Pharisee. From one of these we will learn what to do before we go home.
We are inclined as enculturated Christians to think ill of all Pharisees. When someone calls you a “Pharisee” you don’t say “I appreciate that” unless you are given to dry, ironic humor. But before we get to the Pharisees posture in this parable, just a brief clarification to show Jesus is using a stereotype.
In the world of Jesus there were some major “denominations.” As we have Anglicans and Baptists and Methodists and Churches of Christ and African American Methodist Episcopals, so the world of Jesus had groups. The major ones were
Sadduccees – who were the landed aristocrats, the Kennedys and Rockefellers; they were centered in Jerusalem and ran the temple.
Essenes – who were the separatists and holier-than-thou group; so holy they withdrew from normal connections and were living in a monastic like dwelling on the Dead Sea at a place called Qumran. They rigorously followed an interpretation of the Torah that led them to think they were the one true group.
Zealots – they were the hot headed violent “nuke ‘em til they glow” sort who believed that faithfulness to God meant taking up arms if necessary. Some would say the Zealots weren’t officially around until a decade or so later, but their spirit was in the air – and they go back almost 200 years to the Maccabees who led the freedom war that liberated Jerusalem from the rulers of their day, the Syrian overlords.
Standing alongside these three groups the Pharisees were moderates, but faithful to the Law Jews. Their distinctive strategy was to get ordinary Jews into Bible study groups to learn the Torah and to learn how better to practice it. They were also keen on telling others where they measured up or fell short.
For a neighbor… we might have preferred the Pharisee to the Sadducee, who would have had too much money and too much power, to the Essene who was always withdrawn, or to the Zealot who seemed to flash his sword a bit too often.
I’m often asked which denomination is most like the Pharisees today or I’m asked to line up those groups with denominations today. I refuse because it always is asked by a person who thinks he’s or she’s in the right group. But I also do because every group has its groupings: evangelicals and Anglicans and Baptists and Presbyterians have their Sadduccees, their Essenes, their Zealots and their Pharisees. You can’t line up Episcopalians with Sadducees because they have money; Mennonites with the Essenes because they are more withdrawn; Fundamentalists with Zealots because they’re so feisty; and Baptists with Pharisees because they can be pushy about their views.
So instead of blaming, which is precisely the wrong way to read this parable, let’s look deeper so we can go home in peace.
Here’s how Jesus describes, in stereotype fashion, the Pharisee:
* Confident in their own righteousness (9).
* Looked down on everyone else (9).
* In the most sacred place to pray (10).
* He prayed about himself (11).
* He compared to others (11).
* He saw himself as superior to the riff raff (11): robbers, evildoers, adulterers.
* He stereotyped others (11).
* He called attention to his pious practices (12): fasting (twice a week) and tithing (rigorously).
The Pharisee did all this while praying, in the act of praying.
The Pharisee made this part of his piety.
The Pharisee no doubt felt good about himself when he went home.
The Pharisee is a stereotype of self-justification and judgmentalism.
There’s a proud Pharisee-like-this in all of us. When? Where?
When teens compare their trendy clothes to the ordinary clothing of others.
When young adults compare their university status to the junior college or Christian college or state university of others.
When whites think they are better than other races.
When the Christian college student looks down on the secular school.
When the homeschooling parent looks down on the public schooling parent.
When the wealthy Christian businessman thinks his wealth is God’s blessing while the struggling Christian business man is seen as less than obedient or confident.
When the evangelical looks down on the liberal for their theology.
When the liturgical look down on the non-liturgical as chaos; when the non-liturgical see the liturgical as ritualistic and formal and impersonal.
When the non-drinker sees the guy-who-just-enjoys-a-beer as less committed.
When the faithfully married look down on the divorced.
When the generous look down on those who give less.
When the young minister becomes obsessed with Calvinism and sees all other thinkers as inferior, and in fact slurs the non-Calvinist as an Arminian or a semi-Pelagian or as compromised.
When the educated think themselves superior to those who had to work to keep the family afloat and so never had a chance to go to college.
When the Mac user … sorry, that’s justifiable superiority.
I can’t speak for you, but if you will but listen to the Spirit’s voice the Spirit will reveal where you are justifying yourself by comparing yourself favorably to others.
Let us not look down on the Pharisee by doing what the Pharisee does – looking down on others!
My friend, Mark Allan Powell, wrote a book called What Do They Hear? In which he argued that pastors and preachers, when they read the Gospel stories, identify with Jesus while lay folks identify with the characters in the story. Since I’m a professor I’m not guilty of this, but just in case… we are not to take Jesus’ posture toward the Pharisees, which is condemning, but to see if we are the Pharisee or the Tax Collector.
The Pharisee was self-satisfied and proud, which is precisely the point. He prayed about himself … or as Will Willimon re-expresses his prayer, “God, I thank thee for me.”
Remember this proud Pharisee went home (from temple) happy. Contented. Peaceful. His peace came from self-justification. He had convinced himself.
The Tax Collector
The tax collector, too, is a stereotype:
Unclean by contact with Roman coins.
Rarely went to synagogue or temple.
Here’s how Jesus describes the tax collector, but this time against all known stereotypes:
Instead of near, he stood at a distance (13). In the parking lot.
Instead of pride, he looked down (13).
Instead of self-satisfaction, he beat his breast in pain (13).
Instead of comparative and superior “gratitude,” he confessed his sin (13).
Instead of “I thank you I am not like all other men” the tax collector says “God have mercy on me a sinner.”
This man’s prayer was so unlike the prayer of the Pharisee.
The Pharisee prayed about himself; the tax collector prayed to God.
This is grace theology expressed well. Instead of pride about believing in grace, the tax collector yearned for God’s grace.
Instead of a sanctimonious trumpeting of grace, the tax collector banked on grace.
Instead of pride in his superiority, the tax collector admitted his true status before God: a sinner in need of God’s forgiving and empowering and transforming grace.
Notice Jesus’ powerful word when this parable ends: “This man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”
A “tax collector” named Jack
In World War I, in France, some English military were struck by German fire. Harry Ayres was killed; the man next to him lived. The man who survived was “Jack,” or as he was named by his parents, “Clive Staples.” As in C.S. Lewis. In his famous Mere Christianity Lewis insightfully describes “The Great Sin” as pride or self-conceit. Lewis says it is the “complete anti-God state of mind.” C.S. Lewis knew by experience that anti-God state of mind well.
Jack Lewis went from being an even more prideful Pharisee to the tax collector. But first he was the Pharisee of this parable, full of pride to the point of arrogance.
Alan Jacobs said of Lewis said this of Lewis’ young adult years: he was a “thoroughly obnoxious, arrogant, condescending intellectual prig.” I want to provide few illustrations in Lewis’ life of his irreverence and arrogance. As a teenager Lewis became an atheist but irreverently faked his way through a confirmation at his father’s church in (now) Northern Ireland. He was later to say “the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually exist… but all the other tomfoolery about virgin birth, magic healings, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other mythology.”
Reflecting on his time in World War I, when asked if he was afraid, Lewis’ steely resistance to God finds its way to a timeless expression of hubris: “All the time, but I never sank so low as to pray.”
In his first book, Spirits in Bondage and well before his conversion we find cold-blooded verse expressing that anti-God state of mind:
Come let us curse our Master ere we die,
For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.
The good is dead. Let us curse God most High.
In his journey Lewis became aware of how arrogant he really ways. In a letter to Leo Baker, his friend, Lewis comes clean with a minimal concession to God: “I have stopped defying heaven: it can’t know less than I.”
He recognizes the iceberg in his path: “The old doctrine is quite true you know – that one must attribute everything to the grace of God, and nothing to oneself.” With candor, Lewis confesses: “Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be.”
His journey was from pride to the tax collector. A famous passage in Surprised by Joy divulges his awareness that God was becoming present to Lewis:
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen [his college at Oxford], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.
With Lewis we have no story of a person seeking God. Instead he sensed a visitation from God and he cracked the door to let the light of faith enter:
In the Trinity term of 1929 [after Easter] I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
Lewis “gave in” and his whole life both unraveled and came together at the same time, leading him to be one of the greatest converts of the 20th Century and a great example of pride undone before the rule of King Jesus. The Lewis we love is the Lewis transformed from pride to tax collector by the presence of God’s grace.
Before you go home today…
From the tax collector, both the one in Jesus’ parable and the one called CS Lewis, let us take our lesson today. From the tax collector we learn before we go home, let us go to the table. Or, go to the table before you go home.
What table? This table in front of us. The Table of the Eucharist, the Table of Thanksgiving, the Table of Blessings, the Table of Grace, the Table that Welcomes you Home to God.
In the words we are about to utter we will confess our sin to God. The words will open up space for each of us to consider our sin. They are wide enough to engulf all sins:
We have not loved you as we ought and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.
At the altar we kneel, at the altar we confess, at the altar we hold out our hands for the grace of the bread and the wine, at the altar we don’t express comparative superiority but instead comparative sameness. We say “I’m like everyone else, I’m a sinner.”
In fact, even if the rest of the world be righteous, we kneel and confess our sin.
The Eastern Orthodox have adopted and adapted the prayer of Luke 18:13 which reads “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They call it the Jesus Prayer and it goes like this:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Today, before you go home, come to the table. At the Table, say this most simple but elegant and truthful of prayers: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Then take the bread.
Then take the wine.
Then go home. Go home with the tax collector. Take the tax collector home with you.
Leave the proud Pharisee in the pew, in the past.
Before you go home, go to the Table and find the mercy of God for sinners like you.
[i] Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 228-229. That chapter is called “Checkmate.”
Vimeo of one of the sermons: