Jesus talked one day to people who were confident of their own righteousness, their own goodness and who looked down on other people. Other people were people who didn’t measure up, who didn’t get things right. Who weren’t holy enough or spiritual enough or religious enough.
There are three people in this story that Jesus told.
Let’s start with the Pharisee.
We’ve heard of Pharisees, many of us. They were really religious people. When they started, they were doing a good thing. In fact, in the time between the old testament and the new, between 400 BC and 0, they were the ones who obeyed the Bible and taught it. They had kept the faith alive.
But by the time that Jesus was teaching, they had become so consumed with keeping the rules that they forgot that the rules had come from God and were there to help people follow God. They had gotten obsessive. They were proud of the specificity of their daily and weekly and annual rituals. When they prayed, they got the best location. And they were obsessively aware of the people who did not measure up. Which was almost everyone.
And then there is the tax collector.
Tax collectors were Jews who worked for Rome, the country who occupied Israel and demanded taxes. Tax collectors were responsible for getting a certain amount of money per person to Rome. If they charged a little extra, that was their money. If they charge a lot extra, they got rich. And it meant that the fellow citizens of the tax collectors feared them and despised them. When it came to spiritual things, to God things, tax collectors had sold out, gone too far. When they prayed, they were at the edges.
So imagine you are in the crowd listening to the story.
And thinking, “Jesus is exactly right. He knows our culture well. Of course Pharisees are great. Of course tax collectors need mercy.”
Until he gets to the end.
And at that moment, when he tells the Pharisees they are less spiritual than a tax collector, everyone gasps. This is ridiculous, at best. This is crazy talk.
But at that moment, when the Pharisees are getting mad and looking at each other, all the tax collectors at the edges of the crowd look up. The sinners. The prostitutes. The outcasts. The people who felt adrift. They followed Jesus around because he seemed to care. But they had been hopeless against the system. And Jesus just gave them hope.