Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

Sometimes Jesus tells us a parable that takes a lot of work to figure out. And sometimes, they are in stark contrast and seem to hit us over the head. This morning is one of the latter ones.

In the Temple at prayer are two men, one a Pharisee, the upright and moral leaders of the faithful, the other a tax collector, one of those people who collaborates with Rome, who makes his salary by how much more than is necessary he collects from people.

And if we left the story there, we might assume which one God shows more favor to. But then they speak and we see something more.

The Pharisee says, “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.”

How easy is it to give thanks that we are not like some others?

Lord, thank you that we are not like those with no faith.
Lord, thank you that we are not like those unethical people over there.
Or those immoral people over there.
Or those refugees over there.
Or those poor people over there.
Or those young people with all the tattoos and the funny smelling cigarettes over there.
Or those Muslims over there.
Or those people of color over there.
Or those lesbians or gays or bisexual or transgender or queer folks over there.
Or those THEM, whoever our them happens to be, over there.

And his prayer makes me wonder if there is anything that the Pharisee thinks he needs from God. He’s a Pharisee, so he knows he is not unethical or immoral. He’s got his religious practices: fasting twice a week and giving a tithe of one tenth of his income.

“Just checking in, Lord. Letting you know how good I’m doing…”

But the tax collector is standing a ways away, beating his breast and praying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Which is what the Pharisee probably thinks is the right prayer for this man to be praying. For the Pharisee knows that the tax collector is a sinner. When Jesus gets criticized by the Pharisees for who he eats with, it is with “sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors.” This shows us where they stand in the eyes of the religious and the righteous.

And we might think this the right prayers for each as well. Except that when Jesus tells us an obvious story like this, we have started to expect a whammy at the end of it.

And the whammy is that Jesus praises the tax collector for his prayers and not the Pharisee.

Let’s look at the Pharisee and his prayer compared with the life of Jesus.

The Pharisee is in the temple praying. Jesus spent very little time inside the temple, but prayed on the mountains, in the wilderness, in the towns where the sick and the possessed and the dead were brought to him.

The Pharisee gives thanks; Jesus gives thanks. Okay that part checks out.

The Pharisee gave thanks that he is not like those bad people out there. Jesus gives thanks that he is among the bad people.

The Pharisee gives thanks that he is one of those who are spared the problems of bad people, by his birth, by his status, by his practice.

Jesus gives thanks for those who come to him because they know that nothing saves us from our problems, not our birth, not our status, not our practice, only God.

The Pharisee revels that he is not one of THEM. Jesus claims THEM as his own, and chides the Pharisees for not seeing that we are all THEM.

The Pharisee is grateful that he is not like that tax collector standing over there. By all accounts, where would Jesus be in the story? He would be “over there” with the tax collector.

The faith of the Pharisee is “Thank you, Lord. I got mine.”

The life of Jesus is “thank you God that you have given me to those who have little or nothing.”

My friend and fellow student Levi Jones posted a lovely quote by William Cavanaugh: “Those who want to follow the way of Christ must always recognize that Christ is an exile from their own communities.” (William Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy)

When we gather here for pray and praise, song and worship, we must not be fooled into thinking we have a monopoly on God. When we gather for fellowship and food, we must remember that Jesus is out there, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting those in prison.

I love the people of this congregation. But Jesus is not yet here, because Jesus is constantly calling us out beyond the walls of our church and into the messy and difficult lives of our world of neighbors.

It is good to give thanks to God. But not because we are better than those not here, or better than those that sit over there in that other pew.

It is good to give thanks to God because all of us are in need, and God provides all that we need.

It is good to give thanks to God because all of us are wounded, all of us are anxious, all of us are worried, all of us are in need of healing, and Jesus is the great healer.

It is good to give thanks to God because while each and every one of us, myself included, have prayed some version of the Pharisee’s prayer, we are called to a faith, we are challenged by a faith, that says “reach out to those in need, whether they are in our homes, our pew, our neighborhood, or our world.”

Jesus stands with the exile, the outcast, the hungry, the poor, the poor in spirit, the jailed, the prisoner, the addict, the tax collector, the whoever-they-are.

So when we need to know Jesus, let us go find him where he is, and serve those he loves, and we too will know a love that is larger than our problems, bigger than our worries, deeper than our fears and greater than all that we face.

Thanks be to God.
Amen.