We expect the worst from a Pharisee. They are the bad guys in the Gospels. It’s possible some of Luke’s readers hated them. But check out this guy! He fasts when he is supposed to, he tithes, and he is not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer. He is pious and upstanding. If he wanted to join Trinity, there’d be no serious issue. Some of us might be a little concerned that he’s too boastful of his life, but we’d figure we could work with that. If you sought the closest contemporary approximation, the Pharisee is probably the most revered church lady you’ve ever known, a long-time member who lives a noble life and gives liberally. You may not like her, and if so that makes you terrible because honestly how could you not like her!?
Conversely we expect the tax collector to be praised, because the whole point is that he’s sorry while the Pharisee is a jerk. Well, the Pharisee isn’t necessarily a jerk, and I’m really not sure about this tax collector. Most of us have heard at some point that tax collectors were hated because they made their income by overcharging, and they were Hebrews hurting other Hebrews. That’s true. This guy, though, he’s like the Chief Tax Collector. The tax collectors overcharge you so much because they have to pay him. He is rich on the misery of everyday people. Closest contemporary approximation? This guy is like a manager at a crooked bank, or someone accused but never convicted of misleading others into buying subprime mortgages. He is well-dressed, got a great car, always a gorgeous woman with him (and never the same one twice). If he came here…I mean, we’re Reconciling in Christ, All Are Welcome, we’re not going to turn the guy away. We’d be happy to have him. But… what the heck is he doing here? Is he really here to pray? What’s with the chest-beating? I’m not buying it, and neither are Jesus’ contemporaries.
Jesus says this sleazebag is justified. It’s an outrage! In the First Century as in the 21st Century it shocks us that this crook is justified and the Church Lady isn’t. It makes us mad. It’s not fair. And, now that we’re good and mad about this injustice, we might as well admit that we do resent the Church Lady Pharisee, even if that makes us horrible. It’s easy to be pious when you have resources. It’s easy to stay out of trouble when you live in a good neighborhood; it’s easy to be a fine, upstanding member of society when you have a socially acceptable job; it’s easy to be a model family when you’ve been lucky in love and your kids stayed out of trouble. Heck, even I could be a Pharisee.
I’m not gonna trust either of these guys. I will say that at least the tax collector says he is sorry. He’s admitted to having shortcomings. But I am not ready to trust him, and neither are you (and you shouldn’t be), not until we see some evidence that he means it. Shows of public humility are fine and good, but if you don’t back them with action they ring hollow. It’s like dealing with a loved one who struggles with addiction. They can swear to you that this time is really different, but after getting hurt a lot you learn to listen but not believe, to offer empathetic words but nothing else, to shut that part of your life off from the rest.
I have to wonder if it is similar to how people of color interact with white Americans. Imagine the Temple is the downtown of Valparaiso. (That’s not so far off; the Temple was a huge public place full of businesses and people chatting.) In walk a couple of white guys. Nothing unusual, there. One starts talking really loudly about how racially progressive and “woke” he is; he really wants us to overhear him. The other guy holds up a sign that says, “I confess to the sin of institutional racism.” What sort of reaction from people of color would you expect? The Pharisee is gonna garner some eye rolls. The tax collector might get some stares, but it’s not like he’s suddenly cool with everyone, not with the history of people who look like he does mistreating people who don’t look like he does. No, people of color are gonna want to see some evidence that he means it. They are going to be asking questions, like, is he going to listen to what we have to say? Is he gonna try to run our lives and think he’s owed that because he held up the sign? Is he going to understand that some of us aren’t going to talk to him, ever?
It can be incredibly frustrating as a white person trying to be an ally to people of color when you can’t even get the time of day out of the people you want to help, but I have to ask, “How would I treat the Pharisee or the self-righteous churchgoer, the tax-collector or the shady broker, if they came here asking me to trust them?” Because we are the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Would we be patient with us?
God calls us to be patient, to listen. God calls us to be in solidarity with people of color in this country, and to expect that their warming to us might take a long time. God calls us to be patient because God is patient with us. Look at how patient God is with us! Our First Reading from Jeremiah is set in the midst of a drought. Ancient people interpreted droughts as divine omens, (much like Chicagoans interpret droughts of a different kind as the work of a goat…?) The people of Judah cry to the Lord, confessing their sins and asking for rain. What they hear is, “Yeah…you really haven’t been interested in following me up to this point, so, I kinda figure you’ll lose interest the moment I send rain, so, I’m not going to.” And if that were it, we would just have to say, “Geez! Everybody remember not to get God mad!” But it isn’t it. There’s more praying. And more confessing of sins. Finally, long after today’s reading ends, the people are prepared to hear God. Drought will come and go. Babylon will conquer you and take you away, and you will return. God’s presence with you is not as simple as defender from what you see as evil, and provider of what you see as good. God is bigger than that. Jeremiah put this together 2,600 years ago. We’re still struggling with it. And God has waited patiently with us the whole time. (I don’t even like waiting for those new credit cards with “the chip.” What is this, dial-up?) God’s endless patience with us calls us to be patient with others, including those who the system has repeatedly hurt. God’s restoration of exiles after seventy years calls us to be patient in waiting for others to forgive us. In the meantime, we confess our sins, like the Tax Collector does.
The tax-collector, after all, is justified. Jesus says so. I have to go with that. I don’t like it. Sounds like a mistake, to me. He is justified not because he does a good job of acting sorry. It is because he gets that he is nothing without God. These two guys, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, are just guys. They’ll live, they’ll do stuff, and they’ll die. God’s been watching people do that for a long time, watching and working with them like with Jeremiah, and before him, and God will be watching and working still when everyone who ever knew us is also long gone. The only hope any of us have is in a God who is with us now, remembers and holds us in death, and raises us up on the Last Day. The Tax Collector recognizes that without God he is nothing. Maybe it was just today that God got through to him, I don’t know. But he sees it, now.
Like the Tax Collector, we confess our sins trusting God’s forgiveness, and praying for human forgiveness as well. I confess a role in systemic racism because I have one by virtue of birth. My great great grandpa Leitzke got into the US because Germans were okay in the 1860s. At that time, we were still trying to ship free blacks to Liberia. My great grandpa Leitzke got odd jobs from farmer who wouldn’t consider hiring a black man. My grandpa Leitzke got into public University, paid for in part by black taxpayers who couldn’t get in. My father was able to get an education and provide for me because of the advantages given to his ancestors. I am embedded in the system.
And I don’t expect that saying this is going to earn me instant rapport with people of color in a town in which I’ve lived for just shy of a year. I also don’t wave it in the face of contemporary Pharisees, saying, “Nah Nah Nah Nah, I got justified, you didn’t, hah hah!”
I do it knowing the God who waited seventy years for the exiles to figure out that God was bigger than just their little corner of the world. I do it knowing the God who has waited and worked with us for the 2,600 years since then while we repeatedly forget the fact that God is bigger than we are. I do it knowing the God who became human and died on a cross, then left a couple of buddies at his tomb to point out to anyone who came by, “He’s not here; he’s bigger than that.” I do it knowing that God has stuck with us through all of that. I do it knowing that God forgives me, that by the grace of God I am Jesus’ brother. And I do it praying that by the grace of God I might be forgiven and accepted as a brother by those who cry out for justice, now.