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Aug. 16, 2020: The Real Truth About the Pharisees by Bobby Swineford

The Real Truth About the Pharisees Recording:

The Real Truth About the Pharisees

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 16, 2020
Bobby Swineford


Text:  St. Luke 18:9

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”


         Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.” Conversely, the tax collector, who was standing off to the side, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but instead beat on his breast saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

         There are some parables which are so familiar and on the surface so uncomplicated in the message they convey, that they seem almost to interpret themselves. “Two men went up into the temple to pray.” So far apart were these two men in their approach to God – the one praying “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men,” and the other, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” In comparing these two prayers, I believe that there can be little doubt as to how Jesus meant for us to approach God.

         Who of us can have any deep sympathy, any real liking for a pompous, self-inflated braggart? If you really want to alienate people, just begin by telling them how much more virtuous you are than anybody else, such as a neighbor down the street. This kind of presumptuous self importance and holier-than-thou attitude, that we associate with the Pharisees, is so unbecoming that instinctively we know that this is not the way for us to pray.

         Conversely, there is something appealing about the tax collector. When a man stands before his God and says: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” he touches a sympathetic chord within us. Our hearts go out to those who have stumbled and fallen along the path of life. Our hearts go out to losers and underdogs. I believe that we tend to be more comfortable associating with the tax collector because, we too have possibly done a few things in our lives that we are not proud of; therefore, we can feel a certain kinship with him. Remember, as I mentioned in the sermon, “The Peace of God,” saints have a past.

         I think that we warm up to the tax collector, because he seems to be more human, more in touch with our own fragile, fallible, and fallen human nature. Common Sense tells us that there is something wrong about pomposity and something right about penitence. Common Sense tells us how difficult it is to live with people who have a holier-than-thou attitude about themselves. Common Sense tells us that humility is one of the necessary virtues if families and communities and churches are to dwell together in peace and harmony.

         So far as it goes, this is an accurate and thoroughly orthodox interpretation of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. So far as it goes. Having said all of this about them, we need to look deeper into the mind-set of these two men, and examine the spirit which each of them represents.

         It is all too easy to condemn the Pharisee, he is an easy target, when, in fact, he was one of the most honored men of his time, and the honor that he received was, in many respects, well deserved.

         In the second century before Christ, in a time when Israel was cruelly dominated by foreign powers, a group of men arose who made themselves champions of the law of Israel, which they believed to be God’s law. These were the Pharisees.  Dr. Walter Rusell Bowie has called them “the puritans of that day.” They did not flinch from self-discipline and obedience to God’s law; therefore, when the Pharisee stood in the temple and said, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men,” he was not saying what was a cheap boast. He was in fact not like other men in his own behavior day by day. He was much more strict and more demanding in the requirements that he laid upon himself.

         The Pharisee’s prayer may strike us as the pompous chatter of a self-inflated ego; but when we live in a society where religious and moral responsibilities are treated lightly, as we experience in our society today, at this point we begin to develop a more sympathetic attitude toward the Pharisee and his self discipline.

         On the other hand, the tax collector had good reason to say “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” As the old saying goes, “he was a humble man, and he had a lot to be humble about.” Some of us may complain about the burden of taxes in our society, but at least the system is reasonably fair. In Israel, the system was anything but fair! It was corrupt and fraudulent; and those who got cheated the most were the poor. So let us not be under any illusions about the tax collector. He was adding his bit to a thoroughly crooked and dishonest system.

         Surely our Lord was aware of these things. Surely He was under no illusion as to the corruption of the tax collectors. He could not have been. He Himself had suffered under the system, that is why He said “those who are sick have need of a physician more than the healthy.” I am sure that our Lord was aware of the contributions that the Pharisees had made to preserving the heritage of the Old Testament.

         The real problem for the pharisee – and it is a problem for people whenever they feel smugly satisfied with their place in life, proud of how well they have done, convinced of their morality, and sure that God must certainly be pleased with them – the problem is that there is always a tendency to look downward rather than upward. They may be any or all of these things: a self-made success; a faithful and sacrificial supporter of the church; a moral person in an immoral society, who is constant in prayer and church attendance. But, the danger is always there; and that danger is – becoming complacent and satisfied with ourselves and with our way of life.

         Even as a nation, we Americans regard ourselves to be the greatest nation in the world, and it is; but, woe be unto us if we lose sight of the greater greatness to which we are called.

         Conversely, the exaltation of the tax collector is the experience of  anyone who ever looked up and had a vision of how much greater and finer life can be. It is then that we pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” We pray this not necessarily because our lives are overwhelmed with guilt, but because we have caught sight of how much more growing we have to do – inward growing, growing toward God.

         There is also in this story of the Pharisee and the tax collector a recognition of what may be the most growing of all experiences. If you have ever stumbled and fallen in some important way and experienced the agony of failure and then found yourself lifted up, restored, and, by the grace of God, given a fresh new beginning, then you know that there is no other experience in life which is quite like it. It can be one of the turning points in a person’s life. We Christians call this, the forgiveness of sins. We say that we believe this each time that we say the creed. When this happens to us, when we fail and start anew, we end up becoming more honest about ourselves and more aware of our need for others, and of our need for God. We become more open to growth, and more aware of what mighty work was accomplished when our Lord died on the cross. No one enjoys having failed – it is usually painful – but failure can put us directly in touch with the loving, forgiving, and healing grace of God. Remember, not only do saints have a past, but sinners have a future.

         So, “two men went up to pray,” and I believe that there is at least a little of each of these men in each of us. If the corruption and injustice in our society, the moral laxity and lack of self-discipline, the X-Rated movies and violence, not only on the television, but also in the streets, ever make you feel like the Pharisee, then remember that our Lord felt this way too. He, too, cried out against injustice and against everything that was dehumanizing in His society. But, if in our moral outrage, as we condemn those things, we are becoming more and more self-satisfied and find ourselves more convinced of our own fundamental rightness, then we must remember the tax collector. For in the long run, it is his prayer that will keep us in touch with the eternal need to grow; and it is his prayer that will open our lives to the glowing love of God.

         I would like to close this sermon with a warning from Thomas Melton on the subject of “Phariseeing Yourself.”

“As soon as you begin to take yourself seriously and imagine that your virtues are important because they are yours, you become the prisoner of your own vanity and even your best works will blind and deceive you. Therefore, in order to defend yourself, you will begin to see sins and faults everywhere in the actions of other men.    ~Amen


Offered by Bobby Swineford

August 16, 2020