“Two Kinds of People”

October 23, 2022

Luke 18:9–14

He also 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.’

Jesus tells a parable with two characters and both are praying to God in the temple. The first mentioned is the Pharisee who presents as the good person — all full of faith, devotion, living by the rules, giving charitably 10% of his income to the church. He seems to shine as a good person and he knows it — as he points out in his prayer that he is a much better person than the guy over on the other side of the church. The Pharisee makes us think he’s probably had a good week.

The other character in this parable is a tax collector — he presents as the bad person — for tax collectors in the Roman Empire were known to be cheats. Skimming collections to put in their own pocket. He has no shine as a good person and you think he probably has had a bad week — given that in this story he is pleading with God to be merciful to him because he’s a sinner.

Two guys. Both praying. Two kinds of people. On the surface, good and bad. From time to time, I hear people say that there are only two kinds of people in the world. Have you heard such expressions?

Two kinds of people — those who wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, Lord,” and those who wake up and say, “Good Lord, it’s morning.””

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who walk into a room and say, ‘There you are’ and those who say, ‘Here I am’

According to late Indira Gandhi — the prime minister of India — there are two kinds of people in the world — those who do the work and those who take credit. She went on to say: Try to be in the first group. There is less competition there.

C.S. Lewis, the famous British author and lay theologian said — ‘There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’

Finally, Woody Allen said: “There are two kinds of people in this world, good and bad. The good people sleep better, but the bad people tend to have more fun during the waking hours.”

On the surface, the parable in Luke this morning affirms this view that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who are like the Pharisee and those who are like the tax collector.

Jesus is telling this parable to a group of people “who trust in themselves that they are righteous and who regard others with contempt.”

The parable is pretty straightforward. Both guys go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee sees the tax collector and thanks God he’s not like him and “those people” like thieves, liars, adulterers. He details to God how good he is following the rules about fasting and giving away more money than is required.

The tax collector on the other hand can’t even lift up his eyes. Completely repentant, he beats his breast and cries out to God: “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”

What happens in this parable is what many of us might expect if we’ve been around the stories of Jesus for a while. Jesus flips around logic, common sense, even fairness. And he announces grace.

And so, it is not a surprise to us that Jesus finishes this parable by explaining that it is the tax collector who goes home justified, made right in the eyes God, rather than the Pharisee.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus concludes, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The message we are supposed to take away seems to be quite obvious. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are humble like the tax collector, and those who are prideful, hypocritical, and judgmental like the Pharisee.

There are two kinds of people in this world: the good and the bad. Tax collector = good. Pharisee = bad. Don’t be like the Pharisee. Be like the tax collector. The end. Amen. That is a fairly easy message to accept. Because let’s face it: it’s pretty easy to point out those self-righteous, prideful, and judgmental “Pharisees” we see around us, especially in times like these. While we might not have come right out and said this directly to God, haven’t there been times when we have at least looked around and thought to ourselves how thankful we are that we are not like those other people over there?

Those legalistic church-goers or those un-committed Christians. Or those particular kind of Lutherans or those evangelicals. Those Republicans or those Democrats. And as we have thought these things, haven’t we also patted ourselves on our backs? “I am welcoming, I’m inclusive, I don’t judge others. I am involved in church or in my community. I give money to charity and do acts of service. I don’t join in when I hear people saying homophobic, racist, or sexist comments. I know I’m not as bad as some people.”

In other words, as columnist Dave Barry says: “There are two kinds of people in this world, and I am one of them.”

You see, this parable is not as straightforward or as easy to hear as we might have hoped. There is a lot more to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector than what we may have first assumed.

Too often we give the Pharisees a bad rap. While they were not perfect and definitely made some mistakes (even pretty big ones at times), for the most part, the Pharisees tried to do the best they could. The Pharisees were actually progressives of their day. They maintained a liberal interpretation of Scripture and recognized that the Law could be adapted, based on the “changing conditions of life.” They cared about their faith, and they took it seriously. And they also actually cared deeply about their faith community — everyone in it. Much like Martin Luther, they believed that everyone in the faith community — not just the priests — should have access to the Torah — the Jewish scriptures. And so, they advocated for and established a free, universal Jewish education system that was accessible for all — even the average everyday person. The Pharisees meant well and did the best they could.

On the other hand, while the tax collectors were considered outsiders and were excluded from the Jewish community, we have to understand that the Jewish people had good reason for distain toward them. You see, many of the tax collectors were Jews who were collaborating with the despised Roman Empire. The Jewish community viewed these tax collectors as traitors, who chose to help the oppressive government rather than fight it. Additionally, the tax collectors took home very high salaries. Yet it was common knowledge that many of them cheated those they collected taxes from– including those who were most vulnerable in society. And yet, Jesus welcomed tax collectors, dined with them, forgave them, and offered them new life. Here in Jesus’ parable, we see a completely repentant tax collector going home justified — made right in the eyes of God. And it doesn’t seem fair.

So, let’s just say, there is a little more to the story than we might have originally assumed. Maybe we need to reshape the way we think about this parable and then place ourselves in it. And here’s a question I do not want you to ponder: which of these two characters might you be? Rather, the question to ask is: when do I see myself as the Pharisee and when do I see myself as the tax collector (with all the complexities that make up their stories)?

Because maybe there are two kinds of people in this world: “those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who are smart enough to know better.” — author Tom Robbins.

There are not just two kinds of people in this world. There are multiple kinds of people who have complex stories and multiple parts to their identities.

So, it comes down to the fact that there is just one type of person in this world: human. Good and bad. We are both/and. Both Pharisee and tax collector. Or as the reformer Martin Luther put it: “simultaneously sinner and saint” created good in God’s image, and yet fallen sinners in the need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The tax collector went home that day — feeling good — knowing as sinner and saint he had been given the gift of grace — the undeserved, unmerited love of God. The Pharisee? Well, Jesus doesn’t end the parable with further mention of him. We’ll have to ask that question some day while sitting at tea with the Divine. And yet, I want to believe the Pharisee left with a takeaway to ponder and an opportunity to grow as Jesus’ words were wafting through his mind: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.