The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25), Year C.
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”Luke 18:9-14
Much ink and airtime has been spilled over the phenomenon of cancel culture in the past few years. For some, cancel culture is a form of mob justice that threatens free speech in public discourse. For others, it is a genuine expression of democracy; one of the few ways the public can hold the powerful accountable. Still others question whether cancel culture exists at all, wondering if all the fuss made over it is nothing more than empty air for pundits to fight over. Yet another point of contention to sell ad space.
Whether its real or not, the idea of cancel culture has become a staple of public conversation. It’s one of those “hot-button” issues that people talk about all the time, but few ever take the time to explain. Cancel culture seems to exist in this paradoxical state where everyone believes that they know what it means but are actually working with their own definition. If you have been spared from hearing about it, or are unsure, a Pew Research survey gives this common definition: “Cancel culture is a movement to remove celebrity status or esteem from a person, place, or thing based on an offensive behavior or transgression”. Usually the controversy will go something like this: a powerful or influential person will say something offensive or a serious transgression in their past is brought to light, and the public, mostly online, will call for their resignation, boycotting their works, or demand investigation by authorities. And while all this is happening, there will be a debate about if cancelling nothing more than censorship or if it is one of the few ways left for the public to truly hold the powerful accountable for their actions.
Despite all the hot air and pointless division sown in the debate about cancel culture, at its core, we are being called as a society to address profound questions: How do we hold the powerful and influential accountable? Who decides what a cancellable offense is? Can someone who is cancelled be forgiven? How could we know if repentance is genuine, or an empty apology to reclaim power and fame?
Or more simply: How do we balance justice with mercy?
Jesus tells us a parable about two men praying at the temple. One is a pharisee, a pious and just man who holds the wicked in contempt. The other is a tax collector, a traitor to his people, a collaborator with the oppressors, a person who makes his living by ruthlessly exploiting the poor. The Pharisee thanks God in his prayer that he is not like the sinners, the Tax Collector in his prayer begs God for mercy.
Because pharisees and tax collectors have become characters, even cliches, in the minds of modern listeners, it’s worth remembering what these two men represent in Jesus’ parable. The pharisees were a movement decimated to rooting out the corruption that had become part of the temple elite. It’s actually a little funny that the pharisee in our story is praying in the temple, as the pharisees held a belief similar to what we Christians call the “priesthood of all believers”. Unlike the temple elite, the pharisees were quite democratic in their worship, believing in worship at home and in the community by following the commandments, promoting education, and living in kindness. This pharisee is even more a paragon of virtue, keeping the commandments, being just, tithing, and even going above and beyond by fasting twice as often as would be expected of him. Rather than the character of the legalistic and out-of-touch pharisee that we expect, this pharisee is genuinely the paragon of virtue. Jesus chooses him as a character because He expected His audience to recognize pharisees as righteous people, in stark contrast to the Tax Collectors.
As a reminder, the tax collector Jesus is describing is not like your friendly neighborhood IRS agent. Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were wealthy people who bought the rights to extort money from their neighbors. They would pay a flat rate to the empire, then the tax collector would go out extorting as much money as they could from their community. Since the amount going to the state was already agreed upon, whatever more the tax collector could squeeze out of his community he would get to keep as his own profit. Even worse, because the wealthy and powerful tended to hide their money in various forms and were of the same class as the tax collector, tax collectors would prey on the poor, taking more from what little they had to line his own pockets.
To the modern ear, when we hear this parable, we tend to side with the Tax Collector and hold the self-righteous Pharisee in contempt. But its not quite that simple. While the Pharisee is arrogant in his prayer to God and looks with contempt on the Tax Collector, he’s not entirely wrong. Make no mistake, what the Tax Collector does is evil. He is a powerful man preying on the poor and most vulnerable in his community. At worst he is an instrument of state-sanctioned violence, and at best he is a collaborator with his own oppressors. Either way, he should be praying for God’s mercy.
Should we then side with the Pharisee? Do we need to cancel the Tax Collector? If only it were that simple.
As we’ve come to expect in the parables, the whole point is not to simply pick a side, but to draw us closer to God. We cannot forget the great evil and sins of the Tax Collector, nor can we forget the genuine goodness of the Pharisee. Yet at the same time, we also must listen to the arrogant contempt of the Pharisee, and the genuine remorse of the Tax Collector. Because for all their differences and moral status, both stand together praying to God. And they both need God’s Justice and Mercy.
Its no secret that in our society the powerful and influential by virtue of their wealth and positions have for too long been unaccountable. As more of us are being pushed to the margins and squeezed economically, the public has fewer and fewer means of seeking justice. At the same time, if there is no mercy, no repentance good enough, then we are all lost.
In the parable, much to the surprise of Jesus’ audience, the Tax Collector goes home justified while the Pharisee has some more work to do. The Pharisee’s sin is not necessarily his pride for his good and godly life. He is right to be proud of his virtue. He puts in the work of prayer, study, and generosity. Where he fails is not his pride but his contempt. He refuses to meet the Tax Collector, standing far off. In his justice he has left no room for mercy. And so, ironically, he goes home unjustified. Though we must relentlessly pursue Justice, and as for as exhausting as it may be, at the same time, we must always be ready to meet the repentant where they are. There must always be a way back. Contempt cannot stand in the way of compassion.
Though the Tax Collector goes home justified, God’s not done with him yet either. He must be held accountable for the sins he has committed against his community. His repentance is not complete until he gives up his evil profession and reconciles with the neighbors he has exploited. If his prayer for mercy is nothing but empty words, while he goes home justified today, if tomorrow he sins again, he is once again condemned.
The parable does not tell us what becomes of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, just as in life we rarely know people’s true intentions. What we do know is our purpose: to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. We must resist contempt as much as we resist injustice, for God hears the prayers of the righteous and the wicked. We give thanks for God’s Mercy and look to the day when God’s Justice is established on the earth, “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Amen.