In our Gospel reading, Jesus contrasts a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee is obviously a jerk. He thanks God that he himself is so awesome, definitely more awesome than the people around him including particularly the tax collector in the next pew. The Pharisee is self-righteous and judgmental. That’s bad.
But we need to sit with the Pharisee for a minute. He has a bad attitude, but his behavior is good. He is not a thief, a rogue, or an adulterer. That’s good. He fasts and tithes. That’s good, too.
Now, this is a parable, not a story about a specific Pharisee. But let’s assume for the moment that the Pharisee in the parable were here this morning. Then we could ask him, “are you really so good as you seem to think? Are you holy, as the Lord your God is holy? Do you love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself?”
Here is the response I imagine the Pharisee making. “I am not saying I am perfect. But I am good enough. I avoid the big sins. I practice the religious disciplines. Surely that is all God can reasonably expect of me.”
That would make the Pharisee a lot like me, a lot like many of us. Think about the full spectrum of human possibility. All the way at the bottom are people like Hitler. All the way at the top are people like Mother Teresa.
On that spectrum, I am somewhere in the middle. Not a great saint, but not a great sinner either.
Most days, and this is the problem the Pharisee illustrates for us, being somewhere in the middle feels good enough. I am reasonably satisfied as I am. I don’t feel any particular need to work harder or grow better. On most days, the fact is, the Pharisee in our parable speaks for me. That is a troubling thought.
Better, according to our parable, is the tax collector. But he, too, requires a little reflection.
The tax collector has clearly done some bad things. He can’t claim what the Pharisee can. He can’t say he is not a thief and a rogue. He can’t claim to practice the religious disciplines. He is a sinner. That’s bad.
But the tax collector knows he is a sinner, and that’s good. So he looks down, and he beats his breast, and he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
But if we sit with that image in our heads for a minute, the behavior of the tax collector is a little troubling. It is good that he repents. But I don’t really want to be crushed with a sense of my own sinfulness. I don’t think God wants us to be crushed with a sense of our own sinfulness. At some point the tax collector has to move forward, not just wallow in his own wretchedness.
So, what exactly does the tax collector teach us about our Christian journey, about our relationship to God? Not that we should beat ourselves up. No. The tax collector teaches us not to be satisfied too quickly and too easily.
The Pharisee in our parable has lived a better life than the tax collector. Unfortunately, the Pharisee is content as he is. The Pharisee no longer aspires for more. The Pharisee is not even trying to grow into the full stature of Christ. The Pharisee just wants to be a decent human being. As a result, that is all he will ever be. And that is NOT what God wants for him.
The tax collector has done some awful things. But at least the tax collector understands that he is not yet the person God calls him to be. The tax collector knows that he has a long way to go, that he needs to get better, that he needs to grow more Christ-like. And knowing that he is not yet the person God wants him to be gives the tax collector a chance to grow into that person.
The tax collector knows another thing, too, that the Pharisee seems to have forgotten. The tax collector knows that he needs God. He knows that he cannot grow into the person God calls him to be on his own. The tax collector knows he needs God’s help to get there. And so the tax collector throws himself on God’s grace and mercy.
And once he opens himself to God’s grace and mercy, great things can happen.
When Weston receives baptism in a few minutes, he will be taking a big step on his Christian journey, without even knowing it. As he embarks on that journey, the tax collector in our parable reminds us that Weston should not settle too easily, that there is always more room to grow, that his ultimate goal is to grow into the full stature of Christ. And, of course, that is true for the rest of us, too.
Our Old Testament reading makes the same point from the other end of the journey. The prophet Joel looks forward to a day when God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all flesh. Sons and daughters will prophesy. Old men will dream dreams, and young men will see visions. Male and female slaves will receive the same Spirit. Everybody will be prophets.
It is a beautiful hope. And the Apostle Peter tells us that it came true on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit touched the entire Christian community, and they all began to speak in different languages about God’s deeds of saving power (Acts 2:1-21).
Things are normally less dramatic here at Saint David’s. But what was true of the first Christian community remains true of us today. People sometimes ask me, where are the prophets of today? The answer is, all around you. You are sitting next to a prophet. You are yourself a prophet. That is what comes from living in the grace of Jesus Christ.
You may not know the future. You may not speak in tongues. You may not receive a special revelation from God. For the record, I haven’t.
But we are all called to speak about God’s deeds of saving power in a world that needs to hear the message of Christ’s love. And with God’s help, we can all do that.
The tax collector shows us where we start. He reminds us that we are sinners before God who desperately need God’s help to grow into the people God calls us to be.
Joel shows us where we are heading as we ourselves experience God’s deeds of saving power and begin to share that good news with others.
Today Weston begins his journey from the position of the tax collector to the point that he knows and can share the good news of Jesus Christ, just like Joel promises.
My prayer is that God will bless Weston with a divine dissatisfaction, with a refusal to settle for half-truths and mediocre virtues. I pray that God will bless Weston with the determination to grow into the full stature of Christ. I pray that God will aid Weston on his journey. And I pray that God will do the same for all of us.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.