The Riddle of MercyPentecost
The parables that Jesus were in fact riddles containing multiple layers that must be peeled like an onion. At first, the story seems simple and you think you understand, but then another possibility occurs as to what this story might potentially mean.
This story begins, “Two men went up to the temple to pray.” That’s what the Temple was for, that is not out of the ordinary. And then as parables are prone to do, the riddle continues with the second line “one man was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
Suddenly, there are not just two men who enter the Temple to pray, but the men represent different approaches to the work of faith. Pharisees were members of the Jewish elite. First-century Pharisees believed that God’s blessing directly resulted from following God’s law, and that was their first priority. That was the priority of the man in this story.
The Pharisee “standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘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.’”
His prayer appears elitist and off-putting. We do not often see the other layer of how he is viewed in Jewish culture. The Pharisee is a Jew under the covenant. He does not do good works to earn a place in heaven, but rather he does them because this is how he understands his commitment to living God’s law faithfully. The Pharisee is reflecting his own worldview. In his estimation, he has done more than what God has required him to do.
The second man in the story was a tax collector and was not respected in the community. He regularly overcharged and since tax collectors had the weight of the Roman government behind them, the average citizen had no recourse and was expected to pay the declared sum or else end up in debtor’s prison.
This man, “standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The tax collector stands apart from the Pharisee and the other worshippers. Perhaps he feared the other worshippers wouldn’t accept him because of his unethical behavior. Perhaps he felt unworthy to come before God. But here he is, in this place of worship, to ask for God’s mercy.
Remember the ten lepers who came to Jesus didn’t ask for healing, they asked for mercy. The widow in front of the unjust judge asked for her situation to be avenged. The tax collector did not ask for forgiveness for all the people he has wronged— he asked that God be merciful to him, a sinner. We don’t know what happened next, but this isn’t about these two men, it is about how the disciples heard it and how they appropriated mercy for a large swath of people who, in their view, did not seem to deserve mercy.
How do we receive mercy? How do we give mercy, first to ourselves, and then to others?
Our Call to Worship is taken from the prophet Joel and this text is one of my favourite’s. When all seems lost, as in the year the locust ate, Joel reminds us that God is not finished with us. I seem to say that every week. Joel reminds us that the old shall dream dreams and the young shall see visions. Those dreams and visions are an indication that God has not given up on us. That is mercy.
Do we really believe in mercy? The only one who can be merciful is the one who has been transformed by receiving mercy. I keep thinking about the way we approach this parable or riddle. With whom do you identify, the Pharisee who does much more than is expected, and perhaps is a bit self-satisfied in the process, or the tax collector who, it seems, has done nothing for the benefit of the community, but seems to grasp confession and receiving God’s mercy?
Amy Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, goes another step saying that this is a story of the tax collector’s ability to tap into the faithful practices of the Pharisee and to participate in the communal grace of the Temple. She calls this an ancient version of the middle school group project. The group is put together to include the smart one, the one who is artistic, the one who keeps the group supplies, and the one who both literally and figuratively brings nothing to the table. Three of the group members do their fair share and more since\ they cover for the one who contributes little and benefits from the work of the others. Amy Jill was the “smart one” and found the system unfair because she earned the “A” and the whole group, including the slacker, benefited.
Levine concludes: “We are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and we are all living in a community which is another form of group work. We all have something to contribute even if what we give is the opportunity to provide someone else the benefit. If we take more seriously this necessary interrelationship more seriously, we might be more inclined to consider others, because our actions, whether for ill or for good, will impact them. And if our good deeds aide someone else, rather than begrudge them, why not celebrate all who are justified.”