The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Sermon Date: 
17 Oct 2010
Bible Base: 
Luke 18:9-14

David Jeans

Our Church school would welcome more pupils. As I was talking about that with the Head I said that as we walked past ‘for sale’ signs in the parish we should start praying that the people who would move into those houses would have children to send to the school. And then I thought about praying that maybe Christians would move into those houses, or maybe people who might become Christians.
There is actually the beginnings of a slippery slope there that ends up with attitudes not unlike those of the Pharisee in the parable from Luke’s gospel. Who are people ‘who might become Christians’? Am I wanting people I might like, people who would fit in, people who would become ‘nice’ Christians?
The stories in Luke’s gospel that begin with this parable are about a similar question. Jesus has just said ‘when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the earth?’. And these next few stories are giving examples of the sort of faith that Jesus is looking for. And remember at the back of your mind that he is on his final journey to Jerusalem and to the cross.
So here we have the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is full of his own claims to goodness, all concerned with correct religious observance. He fasts twice a week and tithes his income. He is regular in his prayers. Just the sort of chap we might want to move into Deepcar and come to our church (especially the tithing bit)......
But Jesus does not want him in his church unless he changes. The Pharisee is shut up against the grace of God. Jesus rather wants people like the tax collector – standing at a distance. Standing outside while he has a fag???? Standing outside because the people inside are like the Pharisee and look down upon him? But the tax collector is open to the grace of God because he is not proud and self-sufficient, he doesn’t look down on others. His prayer is very simple. ‘God have mercy on me a sinner.’ But his very simple prayer has become the heart of one of the best known Christian prayers – the Jesus Prayer. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’. The Eastern Orthodox call this the Prayer of the Heart because it opens us up to communion with God. No pretence, no bargaining, just simple faith that calls Christ Lord and asks his forgiveness. Here is the faith that Jesus wants to find when he returns – not proud religious observance but hearts open to receive God’s grace. The Pharisee tries to justify himself and misses being justified by God. It is the tax collector who ends up justified by God because he does not try to justify himself
The stories that follow have a similar message;
Luke 18:15-17 Jesus welcomes little children and tells us to receive the Kingdom of God like a little child.
Luke 18:18-29 Jesus challenges a rich ruler (just the sort of person to move into our empty houses and bring his wallet to our church!) to sell all he has and give to the poor – not to the church, by the way!. The disciples are aghast – if the rich are not welcome, how can the poor get in. Blessed are the poor in spirit, said Jesus, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit don’t have fences up in their hearts, fences that keep the grace of God out. The poor in spirit pray Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Luke 18:35-43 Jesus recognises the faith of a blind beggar, and responds to that faith with a wonderful act of grace and mercy, he restores his sight. 
Interestingly, the disciples try to stop both the children and the blind beggar from coming to Jesus. Are we sometimes more interested in excluding than including. My subconscious little prayer about people likely to become Christians runs that risk too.
Before the entry into Jerusalem there is one final incident that is a climax to this part of Luke’s gospel, and to this part of Jesus’ ministry. It happens in Jericho, and it concerns the one person who lived in Jericho then whose name is known by millions now. Who lived in Jericho? Zacchaeus. And in the story of Zacchaeus, the parable that we started with becomes a living reality. The tax collector and the sinner becomes the one who entertains Jesus in his house. Not what the disciples would have chosen. We don’t want any dodgy people in our church.....
Tax collectors, children, the poor, blind beggars, sinners. These are the sort of people Jesus wants in his kingdom – because they have no obstacles to God’s grace. They are not trying to bargain with God, or make God think they are good – they simply want to receive grace from God.
So on his last trip to Jerusalem Jesus is still seeking to save those whom the respectable look down upon. The Son of God came to seek and save those who are lost. And in Jerusalem he does not just eat with sinners, he dies with sinners and for sinners. And still the self-righteous could not see it.
One final thought....there is a temptation to pray ‘thank you God, that I am not like that Pharisee’. That of course is falling into the same trap. We need to ask God to show us where we have the attitudes of the Pharisee that look down on others , and think that we have got everything right. We need to pray the Jesus prayer
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’