A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
October 27, 2013
Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 84:1-7, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
In the New Testament, there are a variety of settings that form the “where” in Jesus’ stories. The where are all those locations where Jesus’ stories are told and where events of significance take place. Jesus often used the outdoors … the seashore, the hills, the cities and villages, anywhere “on the way” wherever it was they were going. But there were religious locations too: Typically they were either the Synagogue (where rabbinical teaching and discussions took place), or the Temple (where the priestly sacrificial system was operative). The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is set in the Temple in Jerusalem where Jewish sacrifices were made and prayers were voiced the holiest site for Jewish faith, a place where the extraordinary sights and sounds and smells were nearly overwhelming to the senses.
So, in order to hear the story, we must first visualize what it was like to pray in the Temple, consider one writer’s depiction:
The priests are up well before dawn. Sleepily they rub their eyes in an attempt to coax them open as they begin stoking the great fire at the altar. Soon, the musicians arrive in clumps, begin tuning their strings and complain about the early hour. The ram’s horn player warms his instrument in his hands and under his cloak, then gently blows air through it. A priest’s assistant pulls a hesitant wide-eyed lamb from its pen. He binds its legs with leather cords and brings it to the altar in preparation for the moment of sacrifice when an innocent lamb is required.
As dawn breaks the ceremony begins. The musicians and singers take up the familiar tunes of Jewish psalms. The priests march in procession. At the altar one priest raises a knife to the lamb’s throat, then drains its blood into a basin and throws the blood on the altar’s hot flames.
With that, the sacrifice of atonement is made and the sins of the people are covered. Now the priests light incense, and plumes of smoke indicate it is the time for the prayers of the people to rise on those scented clouds to God.
The same ritual is repeated at three in the afternoon. Again the priests offer the sacrifice of atonement in elaborate ritual. Again the people ascend to the temple to pray. They gather to pray their individual prayers out loud.
Now consider Jesus’ story on prayer: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
The story is told of two pastors who fall to their knees at the front of the church, crying out to God, saying: “I have sinned. I am unworthy. I am unworthy.” Just then the janitor walks in, and observing their display of piety, he joins their refrain: “I have sinned. I am unworthy. I am unworthy.” The first pastor turns to the second and sneers, “Now look who thinks he’s unworthy.”
Who knows what the tax collector had been up to all night? He looked as if he hadn’t slept at all. Whatever he’d been up to, he felt sorry about it in the morning light. He stood in a corner at the back of the congregation, far removed from the others, and in honest contrition he began to beat his chest in a display of emotion reserved for the funeral of someone dear.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, was refreshed and eager after a night’s sleep reserved for those with a clear conscience. He moved confidently to the very front of the room. He too stood apart, but his motive for it was different—he feared brushing his clothing against the clothing of those who did not keep the law. Such contact would render him unclean.
He adopted the prayer position of the day, then raised his hands with palms up and open. He lifted up his eyes to God and prayed loud enough to make his prayer a lecture for all within earshot. “Thank you, God,” he prayed. “Thank you that I am not like other people, especially those who don’t care about you or about making this a holy nation. Thank you that I am not a cheat or a rogue or an adulterer, like that tax collector cowering in the corner. I fast twice a week. I give 10 percent of my gross income, and 10 percent of the food I buy at market just in case the farmer who grew it and the vendor who sold it have not recognized your Lordship, O God, by tithing it to you. I have done what is right.”
Ironically, this is not a parable about the virtues of either morality or humility. This story is not about goodness or badness in any of us. It’s about mercy. It’s about seeking mercy from God not because you’ve earned it with your goodness or whether you come to beg God for mercy for whatever it is you’ve done.
This story stands at the intersection of confession and worship. Both men go to the Temple for confession of sin and worship of God. Both are there for a word with God and yet both come to God from wholly different stances concerning the truth about how they see things … how they think of God and how they think about themselves.
A word we might choose to describe the Pharisee is the word hubris. Hubris is the word that typically means excessive pride. Interesting that hubris is taken from the Greek word for violence or arrogance. We do violence to ourselves when we think too highly of ourselves at the expense of those around us. We do violence to the mercy of God when we seek to circumvent confession and worship.
So what can we do about our pride, the hubris that keeps us from God and from one another? Here’s one answer to that question: The desert fathers of the fifth century considered the residue of pride in their hearts and their need for mercy. So they made a spiritual practice out the prayer of the tax collector. Over time it’s come to be known simply as the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. The Jesus Prayer is considered to be the response to the lesson taught by the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, in which the Pharisee demonstrates the improper way to pray by exclaiming: “Thank you Lord that I am not like the Publican”, whereas the Publican prays correctly in humility, saying “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:10-14).
People who say the prayer as part of meditation synchronize it with their breathing; breathing in while calling out to God (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God) and breathing out while praying for mercy (have mercy on me, a sinner).
There’s an old saying (surely a brazen one) that people in heaven celebrate their earthly sins throughout eternity. If that’s true, it’s because they realize where they’d be without them. Perhaps the tax collector felt that odd joy in his thumped-upon heart. Something akin to “For those who bear great sin, feel great forgiveness.” If we had more imagination, more irony and perhaps more honesty, maybe we would feel the joy of being alive and of being forgiven. If we did, then perhaps we’d know what it feels like being redeemed from our failures and transgressions.
We’d know then what it’s like to live in God’s blessed mercy.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2013
 This scenario is adapted from Bruce Modahl, Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest IL, Christian Century, 10/19/10
 Adapted from J. Mary Luti, “General Principles,” Christian Century, 10/21/13
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).