Reading Time: 4 mins

Gospel: Luke 18:9-17 (Pentecost 20: Series C)

Reading Time: 4 mins

This parable does its surprising work of turning everything upside-down, as Christ’s Kingdom always does.

The only way to be the tax collector in the parable is to know you are really the Pharisee.

Once again, Luke tells us the point of the parable: Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” In other words, Jesus told this parable as Law. He told it to afflict the comfortable.

Jesus does comfort the afflicted and bind up those whom He Himself has wounded, but the first audience of this parable is the Pharisee, not the tax collector. There is judgment for the Pharisee and for all those who trust in themselves and their own goodness, obedience, and perhaps even their own faithfulness. The parable is spoken to and against the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax collector seems to initially be the foil against which we see the Pharisee for who he really is.

The parable resonates today. We get it. We are on-board immediately. We are on Jesus’ side with this one. We might not like what Jesus says about how we spend our money, we might do more than a few gymnastics with what Jesus says about divorce and remarriage, and we probably dismiss a little too quickly Jesus’ command to bear our cross and die to ourselves, but this one, this judgment against the Pharisee, we are on the same page.

Pharisees are the worst. They are judgmental. They are arrogant. They think they are better than everybody else. They are so proud of doing the right thing all the time. Pharisees are the worst.

This parable is... easy.

And that is the problem. Like most of the parables, this one has a significant Kingdom-centered twist. The fact that we quickly resonate with this parable, and it makes natural sense to us should be a bit of a concern.

The “twist” for Jesus’ original hearers had to do with how, in His context, the Pharisees were the good guys, and the tax collectors were the bad guys. The Pharisees were the faithful ones who walked the walk. They valued God’s Word and will and took great pains to faithfully observe all the Lord had commanded, and more!

The tax collectors were traitors. They were sellouts. They betrayed their brothers for a buck. The tax collectors were hated in Jesus’ day the same way we hate Pharisees today. In our context, we are pharisaical in being anti-pharisaical. We judge the Pharisees without mercy because they are so judgmental.

When we see someone flouting their religious piety or someone who makes me feel bad about myself because they are acting like they have it altogether, we judge them for making us feel judged. When I encounter a modern-day Pharisee, my first thought is, “God, I thank you I’m not like them.”

And there you have it. This parable is spoken to me. It does not pat me on the back and tell me what a good tax collector I am and invite me to pause and give thanks because I am not like the Pharisee. Nope, I am the Pharisee. This parable is spoken to and against me.

I am the Pharisee. This parable is spoken to and against me.

To first see ourselves as the tax collector, as the ultimate good guy, is a clear indication we are really the Pharisee. When Jesus told this parable, they would have recognized the Pharisee as the apparent good guy. By assuming I am the good guy (which ultimately is the tax collector in the parable), I am functioning as the Pharisee (who turns out to be the loser here).

This might start to feel like the parabolic equivalent of an M.C. Escher sketch but stick with me (if you print bulletins or have screens, you might even consider showing an Escher sketch at some point).

When we pharisaically judge the Pharisee for being pharisaical, we show we are the Pharisee. And now, Jesus is talking to us. Jesus is talking to me. Now, I am the audience He is addressing. More than simply “addressing” me, Jesus is accusing me, convicting me, and humbling me.

Humbled by our Lord’s rebuke, I find I lower my head a bit. I find myself backing away in embarrassment. Cheeks flushed in shame I try to escape unnoticed out the back door. After all, nobody likes the Pharisees. They are the worst, and I am them. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

And He does.

The only way to be the tax collector in the parable is to know you are really the Pharisee.

This parable puts me in my place. I judge the judgmental. I treat the Pharisees with contempt for treating others with contempt. I thank God I am not like other people who are so boastful. I thank God for my humility and for my faith. So, the parable does its surprising work of turning everything upside-down, as Christ’s Kingdom always does.

But the topsy-turvy nature of God’s work and Word is not done yet. For it is in the moment of being put in my place and humbled that I find myself right where God wants me: Ready to receive the undeserved mercy which God longs to give.

If we can help our hearers get to the place where they are thinking, feeling, and saying, “God, be merciful to me,” then we have proclaimed the first vital step of the parable.

The second vital step of the parable is to announce that God does have mercy. God is merciful. The one who was humbled before the Lord did not go home ashamed or judged. He went home justified. He went home righteous. He went home with a righteousness which was not his own. He went home with a righteousness imputed to him from without. He went home with the righteousness of Christ.

The only way to be the tax collector in the parable is to know you are really the Pharisee. But when you feel judged as the Pharisee, you will find mercy as the tax collector.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Luke 18:9-17.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 18:9-17.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 18:9-17.

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 18:9-17.