Today’s gospel parable is not really about Pharisees and tax collectors. It’s about God. It poses the question, what is required for God to hear our prayer? What do we have to do in order to obtain God’s favor? The parable answers: not that much. For whenever we turn to God and ask for mercy, mercy will be given. The parable delivers us this message through two characters, a Pharisee and a tax collector. It is very important for us to understand who these characters are. We generally have a negative view of Pharisees because they are always arguing with Jesus in the gospel. But to a first century Jew, a Pharisee would universally be seen as a good religious person worthy of respect. This description fits the Pharisee in today’s gospel. He takes his position in God’s house and speaks to God as a friend. He thanks God that he has not fallen into serious sin such as greed or adultery. He takes his faith seriously. He fasts twice a week and he gives one tenth of his income to the temple and to the poor. This Pharisee is a good religious person who is at home in God’s house. The same cannot be said of the tax collector. He was a collaborator with the Romans. He made his living by oppressing his own people. Almost every Jew would rightly see this tax collector as a criminal. When he comes to pray, unlike the Pharisee, he has no good works to point to. He does not fast or tithe. He does not feel at home in God’s house. He stands off at a distance. The only thing that he can say is that he is a sinner, and that one true statement is his only prayer.
The surprise of the parable is that God accepts the prayer of the tax collector. The parable ends by saying that the tax collector went home justified, that means he was accepted by God. Now sometimes we miss this because in our translation it goes on to says that the tax collector was justified, not the Pharisee. But the Greek word for “not” can also be translated, “along with.” I think this translation brings a deeper meaning to the parable. So that the last line would say that the tax collector goes home justified along with the Pharisee. You see Jesus’ hearers would automatically presume that the Pharisee would go home justified, and he does. But the surprise is that the tax collector also goes home justified, right along with him.
The challenge to us, of course, is that we are the Pharisee. We are good religious people who come to church regularly, who try to avoid serious sin, who share our wealth with the church and with the poor. We take our faith seriously and God loves us for our faith and generosity. We expect that when we leave church, we will go home justified, accepted by God. And we do. But this parable tells us that we are not the only ones. There people are in our world who are comparable to the tax collector, people who are non-religious and perhaps not even that good, sex offenders, white collar criminals, atheists, people who are motivated by greed or violence. This parable says that all any of them need do is admit, “I am in need, I am a sinner,” and God will accept them and justify them.
Now don’t get me wrong. God wants us to be religious. God wants us to hear the gospel, live it, and share it with others. But this parable tells us that the fact that we take our faith seriously does not mean that we have a monopoly on God’s love. The tax collectors of our world, the non-religious, the compromised, only have to recognize that they need mercy, and mercy will be given. They will go home justified, accepted by God—right along with us.