“Have You Met a Pharisee?”
Luke 18:13 – October 23, 2016
I’d like to start with a question: has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?
The Pharisees were professional “religious folks.” They were the moral bookkeepers of Jesus’ day, keeping track of right activity and wrong activity. The Pharisees kept an exact mental ledger, and were meticulous about having as little in the “wrong activity” column as possible. They were not only meticulous about their own activity, and went over their own business with a fine-tooth comb, but they gave recommendations to the rest of Israel on how to live, as well.
As this passage mentions in verse 9, righteousness was VERY important to the Pharisees; so much so that “certain ones” even went so far as to trust in themselves that they were righteous, and looked at others with contempt.
I ask again—has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?
Jesus mentions one Pharisee in particular in this parable. From my study and reflection on this text, I see this particular Pharisee being acutely concerned with external activity—wrong activity that was obvious to anyone. Let’s look at verse 11: ”God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people—swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector .” What can we see? EXTERNAL activity, where this Pharisee looks judgmentally with his lip curled at other people’s external actions. May I suggest that this Pharisee had his eyes focused on the external, visible part, on the wrong-activity part of people’s lives?
If we take a look at the Bible, at both the Old and New Testaments, we can see wrong-headed, external actions being committed time and time again. Over and over and over again. People at the time of the Bible just did not learn. I have a feeling that people today are in a similar situation, making mistakes and wrong decisions on a regular basis.
Certainly, our actions are important to God. Wrong-activity goes against everything we have ever been taught in Sunday school, from the pulpit, in seminary, about sanctified living, and how to present our bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God. But, a subtext I see here in this passage concerns INTERNAL attitudes and activities: the inside job.
When we talk about the inside job, the internal attitudes and activities, it does not matter whether we consider Bible times or today. People mess up. They have messed up for thousands of years. People not only do bad things, they say and think bad things. They miss the mark.
The Pharisee from this passage in Luke 18 looks at externals, and says to himself, “Gee, I’m not so bad. Matter of fact, I’m pretty good. Come to think of it, I’m doing all right!” See what his thought-process is here? He’s making himself out to be better, superior to other people. Verse 9: “Trusting in himself that he was righteous!”
This “super-righteous guy” was—in reality—anything but. So busy looking at other people’s outsides that he never did a reality check of his own life. Such a self-serving, prideful prayer! He was blind to his own shortcomings, and his own not-so-wonderful position before God. As long as he considered himself to be pretty good, more-righteous-than-thou, that was good enough for him. So much better than the sneer of contempt he expressed for all of the “sinful people.”
What about the contempt and scorn that Pharisees today express for others? Let’s take a similar situation: the one of a high-and-mighty bully on the playground. “You’re not as (good, fast, smart, pretty….) as me!” Or, “You’re just a (jerk, baby, loser, …) And what about names that belittle – “shorty, four eyes, tubby, pipsqueak, etcetera.” 
You get the idea. Let your mind wander to add labels used in your workplace, school, community center, or neighborhood.
We all can feel what is hurtful about these names and labels, even if we cannot rationally identify it. And, these are not the only kinds of phrases Pharisees—those snide, blustering bullies—use. Just reminding us: we need to think ahead about how to handle similar belittling terms, and even worse terms with racial or sexual connotations.
I ask again, has anyone here ever met a Pharisee?
I am not sure whether you all know this, but at seminary, almost everyone who attends classes for a Master of Divinity degree takes at least one preaching class. We learn how to preach, how to bring a sermon to a congregation.
While I was in the Preaching class at seminary, I ran into one of my professors in the cafeteria. He and I periodically talked about my theological background and where I came from, theologically speaking. As we put our trays on the conveyor belt, I mentioned to him that I was working on a sermon for Preaching class. He asked me which text I was working on. I told him, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, from Luke 18.” His question—”which are you?” My response—”Oh, the tax collector, of course . . . I’m a reformed theologian.” The professor roared with laughter; he really appreciated that. (That’s theological humor for you.)
But it’s true. I do identify with the tax collector. The tax collector here KNEW he was a sinner. He didn’t have any illusions about himself! He knew what the Hebrew Bible had to say about external activity, and how to approach God. He KNEW that he missed the mark. He was conscious—oh, so conscious–of his sin. As Paul says in Romans 3:23, we ALL have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. We have turned, EVERY ONE, to his, or her, own way.
But, the tax collector does not stop at just wallowing in sin. Neither should we!!! No–he falls at the feet of God and claims God’s mercy. As Jesus says in this parable, “I tell you, this man went to his house justified.” The Pharisee in this parable couldn’t even see where he had missed the mark. The tax collector recognized his sin, and he knew where to go. He knew he was powerless over sin. He knew his life was unmanageable. He knew where to flee for help and mercy!
Could the contrast between the two men possibly be more clear? Could the difference between the two prayers possibly be more extreme? What about you and me? Are there places where we have not done what God wants us to do? Are there impatient or unkind words that we have said? What about nasty, mean thoughts that have gone through our minds?
The Pharisee trusted in his own flawed and erroneous righteousness; we can certainly learn from his mistakes. The tax collector knew his own sinfulness very well! He threw himself on God’s mercy and forgiveness, wholeheartedly.
“Mercy there was great, and grace was free, Pardon there was multiplied to me. There my burdened soul found liberty—at Calvary!” We can thank God that God does not use a balance sheet for our accounts.
As I say each Sunday, we are forgiven! If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness. We can go to our houses justified, through the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. What better news can we possibly receive than that? Alleluia, amen!
 http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/09/year-c-proper-25-30th-sunday-of.html ; Worshiping with Children, Proper 25, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.