Which Temple Did We Come to Today? Luke 18.9-14 Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins Two people went to the temple to pray. A Pharisee, a lay theologian who studied religion and made it a point to strictly follow religious rules and traditions is one of the two people. The other is a tax collector. The religion […]
Which Temple Did We Come to Today?
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Two people went to the temple to pray. A Pharisee, a lay theologian who studied religion and made it a point to strictly follow religious rules and traditions is one of the two people.
The other is a tax collector.
The religion scholar wants to believe that his practice and understanding of religion makes him better than others.
That self-satisfying, self-aggrandizing, self-worship doesn’t bring the Pharisee any real joy, and his smugness about being hyper-religious isn’t making anyone else’s life better.
The theology that “saves” us and “damns” them is just a way of covering up our insecurities, worshiping our own prejudices, and avoiding areas in our life where we need to grow. The self-righteous Pharisee is following all the rules, but so what? What is he offering a hurting world?
Then there’s the tax collector. He has a legitimate job. He collects the taxes the government has imposed on the people. Taxes are necessary to provide services and infrastructure and someone has to collect them. But in Jesus’ day, tax collectors were often called “sinners”…the word sinner basically came to mean, “tax collector.”
The tax collector was allowed and even encouraged to create his own commission for collecting the taxes. He would collect the taxes you actually owed, and then he’d say you had to pay even more, and he’d pocket the difference.
And if you didn’t want to pay whatever he said you owed, he could employ some rough tactics to persuade you. The poorest peasants wound up paying almost 90% of their meager income in taxes…most of that going to the tax collector’s personal gain.
Tax collectors were getting rich by intimidating and exploiting poor people. They dehumanized and victimized the most vulnerable. And the people hated them for it.
The tax collector in Jesus’ illustration knows that people call him a sinner because of his business and its unscrupulous practices. And he’s had a moment of clarity…they may be right.
Maybe he is benefiting from an unjust system. Maybe his gain comes at the expense of already hurting people. Maybe he can’t feel good about that.
The reading today says he prayed, “Be merciful to me…” That is contrition; that is someone who wants to make right what has gone wrong.
We’d never be so loathsome as the Tax Collector. We would never benefit from the suffering of others.
We would never buy shoes or clothes or toys at cheap prices that were made by exploited workers in poor countries making less than a living wage.
We never traded with businesses that were invested in South Africa during the time of Apartheid.
We never frequent shops or restaurants that invested money in denying same-gender loving people the right to marry.
That rotten old Tax Collector – we have nothing in common with him.
But there’s a moment of healing and growth for the tax collector. He allows himself to see that he is benefitting from a system that exploits and oppresses others. But what can he do? He has a family he needs to support. He has taxes he has to pay. He isn’t paid enough to make a decent living himself, but he is allowed to shake people down so he can make enough.
He’s trapped in a job that he needs, but in order to make it lucrative for him he has to hurt others, and he’s starting to not feel great about that. So, he prays.
I worked all through college, because I needed to. I worked at a barbecue restaurant, and fast food restaurant, and an aerobics studio, at a sterno factory, at a hotel, and for a college theatre. It was all decent work and some of it I really enjoyed. But I very briefly had a job as a telemarketer.
People hate telemarketers. Guess what? Telemarketers hate being telemarketers.
Sometimes we’d do surveys or offer people free coupons, but sometimes we’d actually sell products or services. A client would hire the company and we’d do what they contracted us to do.
When we were selling, our supervisors would actually call it “scamming.” They would listen to us to make sure we were pushing hard enough and if we failed to do so, they’d instruct us on to how to be a better scammer.
One evening I made a sale that required me to persuade someone who was clearly uncomfortable making the purchase but who was too polite to just hang up in my face. I made the sale, and felt absolutely dirty about it.
The supervisor listening to the call said, “Durrell you old scammer, great job!” I went home and cried and prayed all night. I prayed for that unwilling customer. I prayed for her to be happy with the sale. I prayed for her to remember the ways she could cancel the service at any time so that she woudn’t continually be charged for something she didn’t really want. I prayed that I might prove to be a better person than I seemed to be on that phone call.
The next day, I quit that job. I needed a job, but it just couldn’t be that one anymore. I called my parents to tell them I had voluntarily joined the ranks of the unemployed. I thought they’d be disappointed, but my dad said, “Son, being able to sleep at night is worth at least as much as a paycheck.” Then he shared a story about a job he once quit because it was at odds with his ethics.
The gospel story doesn’t say the tax collector figured it all out that day, but he recognized the problem, admitted it, and invited God into it so that he could find a solution eventually. And, we’re told, he’s the one who got something powerful out of worship that day.
His prayer wasn’t, “I’m better than them.”
His prayer was, “I am God’s miracle and not God’s mistake; God, please help me live like I believe that.”
Two people went to the Temple, but they had very different worship experiences. One went to look down on others. His was the Temple of self-adulation.
The other went to find peace, to grow into his potential, and to experience a love that was greater than his mistakes or pain. His was the Temple of hope and healing.
Which Temple did we come to this morning?
A self-righteous, self-satisfied disciple of a Zen master came to the master one day to tell him how he understood the teachings of the Buddha, how he had memorized many sutras, and how as of that morning’s meditation he had practically achieved enlightenment.
The great Teacher said to him, “My son, leave, and please don’t come back.”
The student was shocked and hurt. He said, “Why, Master, do you want me to leave?” The Zen master said, “Because according to you, your cup is full. How could I pour anything else into it?’
The Tax Collector today goes to the temple to get his cup filled. He’s still working out the kinks in his life, but worship is one way he can experience hope and help as he does so. And he got, in some measure, what he went to the Temple to get. We all do. And this is the good news. Amen.
I am God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
God, please help me live like I believe that.