Shuck and Jive

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Tale of Two Toll Collectors: A Sermon

A Tale of Two Toll Collectors
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 15, 2011

The Gospel of Jesus 13:5-10

Jesus also told this parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a toll collector.

The Pharisee standing by himself, prayed as follows:

“I thank you, God, that I’m not like everybody else, thieving, unjust, adulterous, and especially not like that toll collector over there. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything that I acquire.”

But the toll collector stood off by himself and didn’t even dare to look up, but struck his chest, and muttered, “God have mercy on me, a sinner that I am.”

Let me tell you, the second man went back home acquitted but the first one did not. For those who promote themselves will be demoted, but those who demote themselves will be promoted.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 63, Luke 18:9-14.

This parable as Luke has framed it and as the tradition has read it is about the contrast between humility and arrogance. The Gospel of Luke written many decades after Jesus died tells us how we are supposed to read it. Scholars, including the Jesus Seminar think that last line,
"For those who promote themselves will be demoted, but those who demote themselves will be promoted,"
is probably an editorial addition by Luke.

Luke begins the parable by telling us what he thinks was in Jesus’ mind:

Then for those who were confident of their own moral superiority and who held everyone else in contempt, he had this parable.
The issue with that reading is that it refers to types of individuals in the abstract. The Pharisee and the Toll Collector represent types with postures. One posture to emulate and the other to avoid. While that reading may capture some of what this parable might be saying, I think it misses a larger meaning. The parable may invite its hearers then as well as now to rethink some fundamental questions. These questions are:
  • Who belongs?
  • Who is inside and who is inside?
  • Who gets to interpret what the sacred texts say?
  • Who gets to speak for God and offer the redemptive mojo?
  • Who gets to decide of whom God approves and does not approve?
  • Where is the sacred?
  • Where is the holy?
  • Who gets shamed and who is honored?
  • How do our institutions participate in this honoring and shaming?
This parable is not about individual piety. It is a challenge to the legitimacy of the religious power structures. William Herzog in his book Parables as Subversive Speech suggests that it is little wonder Jesus was crucified. A parable about personal piety won’t bother anyone.
Be humble and not arrogant!
Well, of course, yawn.
But a parable that exposes the illegitimacy of a sacred institution, that will get you in trouble.

When we read this parable we immediately think what a jerk is this Pharisee. Listen to his prayer:
“I thank you, God, that I’m not like everybody else, thieving, unjust, adulterous, and especially not like that toll collector over there. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything that I acquire.”
Even the most self-righteous busybody won’t say a prayer like that. You may think it, but to pray it out loud? If we say something, we say it in a more politically correct manner. We may say, “Bless her heart” and “There but for the grace of God go I.”

That is a matter of culture and tradition. The prayer of the Pharisee is not atypical. Similar prayers were found in the Talmud. Here is one:
I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.
From the Talmud’s point of view, this prayer is not self-righteous or boasting. The rabbi is giving thanks for the privilege to study Torah. Here is another prayer. We may wince when we hear it, but that is only because our attitudes have changed fairly recently that we do so.
“One must utter three praises every day: Praised be the Lord that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him (Is 40:17); praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under the obligation to fulfill the law; praised be He that He did not make me . . . an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins.” Scott, p. 95
The prayer of the Pharisee is a prayer within the framework of the rabbi who is grateful that he has been blessed with the privilege of studying Torah.

Our problem is that the New Testament and 2000 years of Christian tradition is already predisposed against the Pharisees. They are the foils against which the figure of Jesus is portrayed. They are the "bad guys" in contrast to the "good guy', Jesus.

We know the rest of the story. Jesus, rather than be seen as a Jew, a critic of his own religion, became a religion. The followers of this new Jesus religion called their book the “New Testament” over against the so-called “Old Testament”. This has led to a long history of discrimination and violence against Jews.

I think that if we are going to read this parable with meaning today, we need to read it not as a critique of Pharisees, the Temple, and Judaism. We need to read it as I think Jesus--within Judaism--told it, as a critique of his own tradition. In that spirit, we need to read it as a critique against our own tradition.

What is the critique?

If the Pharisee represents the institution’s favored son, the toll collector represents the outsider. The toll collector was a low-level employee of a Roman taxation system. It was a subsistence-level job of collecting tolls on behalf of toll contractors. These guys did the actual work and were thus the target for contempt.

A modern analogy today might be telephone solicitors! Everyone hates them. But they are simply the public voice of the corporations that pay them (and don’t pay them much) to hassle you at inconvenient times. We pour our contempt on the phone solicitors, but the hidden ones, the ones making the profits off of these sales, we never see or hear.

Toll collectors were the visible representation of Rome’s oppression. They were as much oppressed as anyone else. Herzog writes of them:
“The toll collector was a convenient target for the Pharisee’s assault, for he was poor, socially vulnerable, virtually powerless, and without honor. A pariah figure considered an “extortioner,” a “swindler,” and an adulterer of God’s law.” P. 188.
A lot of bad names right there.

The Pharisee is an upstanding citizen. He would be the guy everyone would want in their church. We mistake his prayer for arrogance. Bernard Scott says that
“He has only done what the temple map requires of those on the inside.” P. 96
This is the map. This is the way the institution is set up to evaluate insiders and outsiders, good and bad. This may be a first century Jewish map, but we could make our own map. John Dominic Crossan who was a Catholic monk before he left the order, said this parable could be modernized by saying,
“the pope and a pimp went to the church to pray.” P. 94
You can make this contemporary. Who is in and who is out within the Church, for example, today?

The scandal is at the end of the parable when Jesus says that the toll collector is acquitted and the other not. The outsider is in. According to Scott:
“The map has been abandoned. It can no longer predict who will be an insider or an outsider.” P. 97
Scott goes on to conclude:
“This parable subverts the metaphorical structure that sees the kingdom of God as temple. Given this metaphorical system, things associated with the temple are holy and in the kingdom, and things no associated with the temple are unholy and outside the kingdom. In the parable the holy is outside the kingdom and the unholy is inside the kingdom.” P. 97
For Scott, this parable takes to task the institution that legitimizes insider/outsider roles. This is true for the 21st century Christian situation as it was for the 1st century Jewish situation.
In our parable the toll collector stood far off because he was ostracized for his impurity. The Pharisee stood apart probably because he didn’t want to brush against anyone unclean.

He is too clean for the group. The toll collector too unclean, so both stand apart for very different reasons. One stands apart because he is considered a deviant shunned another because he is prominent. This has nothing to do with their individual characters, but with their roles in the institution.

In a sense they are both toll collectors. The toll collector in our parable is a functionary in the Roman system, but the Pharisee is a functionary to enforce the collection of tithes for the temple. That is his big brag. He tithes for the Temple. He collects and promotes this institutionalized system that divides insiders from outsiders.

One of the roles of those within legitimizing institutions is to make and enforce social rules. Who decided all of this clean and unclean anyway? Norms and rules are created to decide who is in, who is out. It is done in a way to further one’s own interests. The enforcement comes in the public enactment, the spectacle of ritual.

This parable is the spectacle of ritual in which the legitimizing figure of the temple, the Pharisee, enacts a ritual of honor and shame to reinforce the temple’s order. We are right with God. We are the blessed ones. The best way to reinforce that is to single out a scapegoat.

The Pharisee publicly shames the toll collector.

Herzog invites us to imagine the scene:
“If the toll collector has stood far off to remain inconspicuous, the Pharisee stands apart to be conspicuous. At the precise moment that the officiating priest is entering the Holy Place to burn the incense, and at the very moment when the people believe the prayer to be most efficacious, the Pharisee steps forward and prays aloud.” P. 186
And what does he pray so the crowd can hear?
“I thank you, God, that I’m not like everybody else, thieving, unjust, adulterous, and especially not like that toll collector over there. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything that I acquire.”
Herzog writes:
“The Pharisee has proclaimed his honor while shaming the toll collector.” P. 186.
But it isn’t just about the Pharisee.

It is a spectacle of ritual. It is designed to enhance and reinforce the legitimacy of the Temple and its rules for who is righteous and who is not and what it takes to stay on the righteous train.

What is the toll collector supposed to do now? In order to fulfill his role as the unclean, he needs to slink away in shame. He needs to recognize his place in the scheme of things and leave. Thus the institution will remain “pure.”

Here is the scandal.

The toll collector does not go away.

Neither does he accept the labeling of the Pharisee. Nor does he appeal to the institution and its priests for redress. Instead he speaks directly to God.
“Have mercy on me.”
This is how Herzog puts it:
“If the toll collector had followed the script, he would have left in silence, a shamed man put in his place. But he does not go quietly. Having heard the worst that the Pharisee could throw at him, he cries out, beats his breast, and prays for mercy, the very mercy being made available through the afternoon sacrifice. He refuses to consent to the Pharisee’s shaming but appeals to a higher source. He refuses to accept the labels attached to him, the stigma of toll collector, but speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks the deafening silence that followed the Pharisee’s effort to reinforce the status quo. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisees words have created, and by his actions, he challenges the Pharisee’s reading God’s judgments.” p. 192
Herzog goes on to say:
“The parable provided a model of a figure who refused to be silenced but found his voice in the process of discovering God.” P. 192
This is not a parable extolling pious humility. It is a parable of a person who claims his humanity and his place before God when denied that place by the institution that is supposed to act on behalf of God.

I am going to say that again.

This is not a parable extolling pious humility. It is a parable of a person who claims his humanity and his place before God when denied that place by the institution that is supposed to act on behalf of God.

The institution said, “No.” But he stood his ground and waited for what God might say. The punchline of this parable is that the toll collector was right to do so.

Jesus said ”Yes” to him.

This past week the Presbyterian Church finally ended 33 years of official legitimization of discrimination against gays. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have been treated as modern toll collectors by the church. Through the ritual of spectacle, preachers and those who represent the religious institution have vilified, ostracized, and labeled as sinners God’s children. They have abused sacred texts and traditions to do so.

The institution of the Presbyterian Church did not take this recent action because it is nice.

It did so kicking and screaming. It was forced to do so because of courageous people who stood their ground and prayed to God,
“Have compassion! See us for who we are.”
In 1973, when I was eleven, a man named David Sindt stood up at the Presbyterian General Assembly with a hand-lettered sign that read,
“Is anyone else out there gay?”
Thus the movement for justice began in this institution, the Presbyterian Church.

I celebrate today, 38 years later, not the church, but the courageous people like David Sindt and the cloud of witnesses who have followed his example of breaking the silence.



  1. John, thank you for this. You know the subject of inclusive faith is near and dear to my heart. And as a defector from Fundamentalist frigidity now making his home in the Reformed tradition's sunnier climes, the passage of 10A only reinforces my confidence I made the right choice.

    I recognize the PCUSA isn't the end-all, be-all and it grieves me it took three decades-plus to reckon with its injustice to LGBT believers called to service. As you do so splendidly here, our pastor also reviled the institutional "binary" mindset that reduces faith to 1's and 0's, in or out, right or wrong, black or white. We're called to an alternative ethic, she said, which equalizes rather than divides and believes grace makes impossibilities possible. So while we rejoice in this long overdue breakthrough, we also examine our comfort with the either/or construct. It need not be, when grace says "all of the above."

    Which brings me back to your revelatory parsing of the parable. It's just that we not saddle the Pharisee with all the blame. Whether naïvely or knowingly, he's a product of culturally perpetuated fear. Somebody convinced him religion is a weapon that devout people discharge on sight of any unworthy interloper. Whether or not his actions were right (they weren't), he believed he was doing right. I'm delighted you give him his due, without letting him off the hook for not thinking for himself.

    Sadly, this myth of safeguarding sacred territory remains alive and well--so much so that in the Pentecostal tradition I grew up in we who were/are on the receiving end of bigoted behavior actually refer to "dodging bullets." But the Toll Collector doesn't dodge--and that's his beauty.

    As someone who lived in his shoes for many years, I can answer Undisclosed's challenge to your reading by saying whether the Toll Collector actually heard the Pharisee is immaterial. He knew what was said of him and how Temple conformists worked condemnation into their prayers. If I had a nickel for every "saint" that told me "I'm praying for you" (i.e., "You're going to Hell"), I'd be writing this aboard my private yacht.

    Presuming the Toll Collector caught the Pharisee glancing his way--a safe bet, since both were in plain sight of one another and nothing in Luke indicates their eyes didn't meet--he had no doubt the Pharisee would leverage his alleged sinfulness to enhance his own piety. And based on my experience it's probable the Toll Collector's apprehension of the Pharisee's error influenced the nature of his own prayer. There's nothing like becoming a target of high-handed religiosity to teach one humility.

    I've rambled on far too long and pray you'll forgive one last observation. The Toll Collector had no viable means of escaping religious ammo. There were no "welcoming and affirming" Temples. LGBT and other shunned believers no longer have to dodge bullets or suffer wounds. There are open arms eager to receive them as worthy believers--gardens where they can be nurtured, instead of battlefields where they survive by burrowing underground.

    Whatever the PCUSA's past and present failures may be, that your church, my church, and hundreds of others witness their faith by authentic inclusion and compassion is a miraculous thing indeed. For that, I and many, many like me are eternally grateful.

    Blessings, my dear brother,

  2. Blessings to you, Tim! Thank you so much for your gracious comments. I appreciate them and you!!