Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.” For most of us, that opening line to today’s parable holds little meaning, and certainly not its intended meaning. If we’ve read much of the Gospels, we can probably see where this story is going. We have been taught to be suspicious of Pharisees. We think of them as hypocrites, not the good and righteous religious people that they really were. But in fact, Pharisees generally were well regarded, as they did their best to preserve and live God’s commandments. More than that, they functioned as a kind of political party in their society, and chances are it was the party most of the people Jesus was speaking to would have supported.
Then there was the tax collector, a common guy in need of help, right? Well, in fact he was a political player of a different kind. Not to be confused with a modern-day IRS agent, this tax collector was not facilitating a useful economic system for the sake of the common good. He was an instrument of an oppressive Roman Empire, helping to take money out of the community to pave the streets in far-away Rome. And though Jesus doesn’t say it specifically, this tax collector probably took an unfair amount for himself, too. For his economic exploitation he was hated, and for his entanglement in Roman government he was religiously unclean. As one scholar puts it, “Tax-collectors are not merely ‘misunderstood’: they are on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically. This man in Jesus’ story is not the so-called “publican with a heart of gold.”
Sure, what we hear so often about tax collectors in the Bible is that Jesus ate with them, so we might have a sense that they were good, ordinary people. But we’d miss the point of the parable if we don’t recognize that Jesus is talking about someone who lives according to different values than we do, who sees political life differently than we do, who relates to money and economics differently than we do.
So how might we retell the story in contemporary terms?
Two men went to worship at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church one Sunday. One was standing by himself. He might have been an usher out in the narthex handing out bulletins. Or maybe he was up in balcony, or in the choir loft. I don’t know, maybe he was even standing in the pulpit. In any case, he was a good and faithful member of the church who worshipped regularly and gave generously. During worship he had been singing to himself an old children’s song he had learned in Sunday School years ago: “Into my heart, into my heart, into my heart Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” And he knew Jesus was with him. Jesus belonged to him. In worship that day, like always, he was perfectly comfortable.
But over all those years of worshipping, he never really paused to listen to Jesus long enough to understand that when you really open your heart to Jesus he tends to bring his friends. And you might be surprised by who he brings. If you had said this to him, he would have pointed out all of the wonderful acts of service he had performed in the church and community, and it was true. He even went on a short-term mission trip to Central America one time. But of course, providing service for people is not the same as opening one’s heart to them. He might have said that he had read books by liberation theologians and black theologians and feminist and womanist theologians. But of course he read them while maintaining those labels, keeping them at arm’s length and not really incorporating their ideas and experiences into his understanding of God and the world. His heart was big but for the most part, closed.
It was certainly closed to that visitor who entered worship that day. No one in the church knew much about that man, other than that he arrived late and didn’t seem to think it was a problem as he walked all the way up the aisle to sit all alone in the front pew. Along the way, people noticed his jacket was covered with surprising political campaign stickers and slogans. You can imagine what they said. The people in the pews were embarrassed by the way the man worshipped, moving his body, bowing his head, barely looking up at the preacher and presider up front. They guessed he had never been in a church before.
And with head bowed down and mind racing, the visitor prayed. That day he felt that his life was a mess, and he didn’t know how to get out of it. He was stuck. His circumstances were not what he had ever imagined for himself. No matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get things together. In his prayer, he asked for help, for something to change, for mercy.
There was nothing unique or special about the service that day. They sang old hymns. The sermon was an old one from the file. When it was all over, the first man returned to his home while the second sat in his pew weeping. Somehow, he received the message that he was loved and was not alone.
So what’s the point of the parable? Be humble, right? Well, that’s a good lesson and how it all gets wrapped up in Luke’s Gospel, but I’m not convinced that’s the real point. You see, there are two kinds of parables that Jesus tells. Some parables are examples for us, and they show us how we ought to behave. But most parables aren’t quite like that. Most parables aren’t meant to teach us what to do; rather, they teach us something about God. Most parables, like the one Jesus tells us today, offer a picture of who God is.
I used to think that this parable was meant to teach us to try harder at being humble. But a sermon by preacher William Willimon helped me to see that that would be just another attempt at trying to clean ourselves up. We’d be no better than the Pharisee who thinks that getting right with God is all a matter of how we pray, how we behave, how we measure up to others.
Theologian Richard Rohr has said, “It’s not addition that makes one holy but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking one’s private self too seriously.”
Two men went up to the temple to pray, and they were both beloved children of God. But the one who was justified that day, healed by God’s grace, who caught a glimpse of who God really is, was the one who let down his guard and opened his heart. God was present for him because that’s who God is. The tax collector wasn’t trying to be humble; he was humble. He was feeling low down to the ground, and he was just willing to be honest about it. He wasn’t acting like he didn’t know what to pray; he didn’t know how to pray in that moment. He wasn’t pretending that he needed help; he needed help.
This parable doesn’t tell us how to behave as much as it tells us how God behaves. God shows mercy to people in need, not because they deserve it, but because God loves us.
I suspect that all of us—even us regular church-goers—sometimes feel out of place at church, or in day-to-day life, for that matter. We all encounter things from time to time that keep us distant from God. Sometimes it looks like everyone else is so righteous, so put-together, and we just don’t know what we’re doing. In those times, you’re down low. You’re humble. The good news is that it’s in those times that God comes to meet you and to bless you.
Parker Palmer has written that there is no way to be human without having one’s heart broken. Sooner or later, whether because of grief or disappointment or crisis, we all come to know the experience of heartbreak. Religious faith cannot save us completely from those experiences. But spending time in prayer and worship with a faith community can help us in our response to them, our response to heartbreak.
The reason for that, as Palmer says, is that the heart can break in at least two ways. For one, it can break into thousands of sharp pieces—pieces that can be carried along for years to continue to wound a person or to repeatedly wound others in an unsuccessful attempt at resolving it. The broken apart heart tries to deny the severity of the pain, or, on the other side of the spectrum, it refuses to see anything beyond it.
But the other way of heartbreak goes right through the middle of that tension—that tension between denial and despair. The other way, as Palmer puts it, is that “a small, clenched fist of a heart can be broken open into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.” This heart is honest about the pain, fully aware of it, but it also allows itself to be more present to others and compassionate, precisely because of that experience of pain. Rather than being broken apart, it is broken open.
As we worship this morning, we might be feeling on top of the world or low to the ground. But at some point each of us knows heartbreak. A disappointment at work or school, the death of a loved one, the injustices of our day. The question is will our hearts be more open? Will they be open to the justifying and transforming grace of God? Will they be open to our neighbors, even those who stand on the other side of the lines we draw?
In our communion liturgy today, we’ll hear Pastor Ingrid say the familiar words, “Lift up your hearts.” This is not a simple command; it’s an invitation to a way of life. With hearts broken open, we can boldly receive the grace and mercy of God, and we can receive the gifts of communion with one another. It’s the invitation that wherever you find yourself in your journey of faith today, lift up your heads and lift up your hearts. God’s grace is for you.