The Pharisee and the Tax Collector: What’s Underneath

Luke 18:9-14

We’ve had some road construction done on our street over these last couple of weeks.

As of this writing, they had taken the pavement down to the original bricks and put down the first layer of pavement.

The had replaced much of the curbing at the intersections — including the cuts in the cement which allow for handicapped access.

They had put off the corner closest to our church out of deference to events taking place here and so they only got to that corner a few days back.

When they opened up the ground a huge sink hole opened up as well. Hidden from our eyes for decades has been a complex network of pipes including one which holds the wires for nearby traffic signals, a large cement block structure which routes a whole lot of cables and wires related to phone service, what we thought might be a now defunct gas pipe and underneath it all our own drain pipe. When it was first put in, the cement block conduit was laid right on top of our drain pipe. At some time, who knows when, the weight became too much and the drainage tile is now in pieces. The standing water can be easily seen in the photograph here for it has been dyed bright red.

I stepped outside to look at the mess underground and was reminded of the upright Pharisee and the repentant tax collector in Jesus’ parable today. For it is so that in the same way we had no idea all this was going on underground until it was opened up for us in these last few days, so it also is between any two or three or a hundred and more human beings. We may live and play and work and worship side by side week after week, but it is a rare thing to get a window into the actual workings of another’s heart as we do with the Pharisee today. Indeed, just as he clearly did with the tax collector whose time of prayer coincided with his own, all too often we categorize and compare and judge one another without any real understanding whatsoever of the truth of what is ‘underneath.’

And yet it is also so that the sort of obnoxious superiority displayed by the Pharisee’s secret thoughts and the seemingly genuine repentance offered by the tax collector here can and does show itself in how we live. Indeed, with the drainage issues unearthed above, we now suspect that the water coming up through the floor of our atrium whenever we have had a driving rain may well be related to this issue. Time will, tell, of course, but the truth still holds: what happens that is unseen to others in one way can often be seen in other ways.

This came to mind the other day when I sat down to lunch with a possible spiritual director. It has been far too long since I have availed myself of this kind of intentional companionship on my journey of faith and upon the recommendation of a mutual friend, we decided to meet. In the hour we shared, Pamela spoke of this certain truth: in particular, those of us who are charged with the spiritual care of others need to find ways to be tended and cared for ourselves or it will surely show. What happens on the inside — underground if you will — will eventually ┬ámake itself known on the outside. Without a doubt, this is true for most all of us in all walks of our lives. Indeed, after only an hour with this deeply prayerful person, I knew my own spirit to be fed and challenged both by her kind but probing questions. I expect it will not be the last time we will meet.

And so what are we to take with us today, having paused in the temple with the Pharisee and the tax collector?

  • Is it to be more deeply aware that we may well not know what goes on with another’s life ‘underneath?’ Is it a call to be less judgmental of others, opposite of what the Pharisee certainly was?
  • Is it a call to pay attention only to our own spiritual journeys — our own relationships with God — and to not be concerned with that of our ‘neighbor’ across the way?
  • Is it (although this is not necessarily demonstrated in the parable Jesus teaches here) to seek to be aware of what is going on ‘underneath’ in ourselves, recognizing that eventually it must show in the rest of our lives?

Perhaps we are meant to take all of these with us now. And yet, truth be told, I expect we can never fully grasp what is going on ‘underneath’ even in ourselves. Surely the posture of repentance modeled by the tax collector in Jesus’ teaching now should inform and shape us all, for whatever else may be so, this is surely so: Even as we do the best we can, we always fall short of God’s intent for us. We all stand in need of God’s mercy. It is ours, finally, to rest in the promise of grace which is offered and entrusted to us in Christ Jesus.

  • So what do you think? What is the message of the Pharisee and the tax collector for you? For your congregation? For your community? What are you made more deeply aware of having heard Jesus’ teaching for us today?