The Penitent Tax Collector
A sermon preached by The Rev. Russ Minter at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, October 23, 2016
Two pious Jews, a Pharisee and a tax collector, go up to the Temple to pray.
The Pharisee, member of the strictest party of the Jews, prayed, “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.”
Jesus then points to the tax collector far off, who would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus concludes, “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.” Jesus loves to throw us into confusion with these shocking reversals of what we are used to. The Pharisee was one of the “good” people we all know. We love to have them around, to lift the tone of our gathering, our group, our community. We can go up to them, introduce ourselves to them, invite them to our clubs, our churches. In Texas, where I spent twenty years, the first thing you ask of a stranger at a party is, “What church do you go to?” The expected answer is, if not a Baptist, Episcopalian will do. They are usually well-off; most of them go to college.
I did a quick run-through of all my cherished platitudes. None left me feeling an ounce of gratitude that I had to deal with this poor tax collector, like having to preach on Trinity Sunday, or the Nicene Creed. Made me groan in that place in soul from which sermons emerge, dark, grimacing and familiar to the point of cliche. But I also had a suspicion that he was just the kind of person that can lead to the challenge for which you are grateful beyond all others. What a thought! I’ll try to unpack that.
So, to work.
Last Tuesday night at 3 a.m. I had a dream. I’d been most deeply asleep. Friends, don’t knock your dreams. God is there oftener than you would dare to think. Not always a pretty experience, even deeply shocking, but I suggest you will profit, if you pay attention. Take a paper and pencil to bed with you so you can capture the images and feelings you’re having.
In my dream I was preaching this sermon. Let me not belittle what was happening to me. I felt the Pharisee, so full of himself, bursting with satisfaction over his life and prospects, but even more that dreadful tax collector, beating his chest in agony, unable even to raise his eyes to see his opposite. I saw them with a power and richness I hope I never forget. They were more than visible for me, they were fully alive and real, as characters in dreams sometimes are, as though I was looking straight into their souls, their being, and it mattered terribly.
Now I want to tell you, forget the Pharisee. Take a long look at that tax collector. His is the heart of the story. Is it any wonder he was loathed and abominated by his own people? Is it any puzzle that he went up to the Temple to pray, that he had a lot to beg forgiveness for? That his prayer was heartfelt, profound beyond all measure?
Go even deeper. What sort of man was this, who crushed his neighbors for all the money they had, and always came back for more. Plenty of room to offer mercy to them, but did he? Don’t forget he was doing what his Roman bosses demanded of him. And human nature, turned loose where money is concerned, is never a pretty thing. I went deep in my dream. I took his point. That man wept tears of remorse and rejection in the Temple that day. How many people had he ruined? How many families had had to abandon their homes, their jobs, their friends? Who in the world wanted anything to do with him, or ever would?
Jesus says he went home “justified“ rather than the pious Pharisee. Trouble with that word is it means too many other things at the same time. Let me suggest a better word, from the Old English which would have been familiar in London in the 10th century: “Rightwised” will do the job much better. Simply means put right with God. I’m tempted to refer to the tax collector as “that poor man,” because of course he was not poor at all and I knew that in my dream. He was simply sorry for what he’d become. He felt the full horror of his life and what he had done with it all those years since the Romans came. Later, when he gets home, he will gradually come to feel better, I dare to hope. After all, it was my dream! In actuality the soldiers may come to carry him off if he refuses to do the job they are counting on him to do. He may suffer a fate like Jesus’, as an example to his fellow Jews, same as Jesus. Many of them di d.
So you see, now and then we get a glimpse of reality that leaves us stunned. Dreams can be one avenue for them.
In Texas, where I spent twenty years preaching and praying in hospitals and parishes which I shall always cherish, the black people had way of responding when you asked them how they were, and just in ordinary conversation, they would respond, “I’m blessed.” How lovely.