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10.23.22 “The Tax Collector Knows” John Bellaimey

10.23.22 “The Tax Collector Knows” John Bellaimey

8 SLIDE OF PHARISEE/TAX COLLECTOR DRAWING.   There’s an old saying among preachers: our job is both to comfort the afflicted than to afflict the comfortable. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Jesus is mostly afflicting the comfortable.

Pharisees were religious perfectionists, and although they come off badly in the New Testament, they were real life optimists who mostly practiced what they preached, which was the idea that everybody should live a moral and Godly life, not just the clergy, and that if the Messiah was ever going to come, it would be when the whole Jewish people showed they were worthy of a heaven-sent Savior. They didn’t think Jesus was him, not because he wasn’t good enough, but because the people were so far from deserving an Anointed One yet. Maybe someday. And the Pharisees survived! Of all the Sects in Judaism in Jesus’ time–the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots–none of the other Jewish sects survived the second century AD. Just the Pharisees. 

Tax Collectors, on the other hand, had a terrible reputation and deserved it. They were Jews, which is why the creep in the parable got into the Temple, but they were loyal to money and power, not to their suffering fellow children of Israel. To get the job, you’d offer a price to the Roman Governor. Highest bid won. You’d pay that amount every year, or maybe there were quarterly payments with form 1040-ES. But depending on how mean, frightening, and greedy you were, you could demand that people pay a lot more than their fraction of your territory’s total. Big money. License to extort. People hated you, but you had Roman muscle, so they had to fork over. 

The parable shows one kind of person and the opposite. Respectable and despicable. And the respectable one’s prayer is useless. He’s bragging about giving the full 10% to charity. He tells God how glad he is that he’s not an extortionist like that fellow over there. Nor an adulterer or actually, a sinner in general. He’s perfect, really! But he doesn’t really seem to think God has anything to do with his wonderfulness. He’s rehearsing his Pearly Gates interview, and he’s quite satisfied.

The scumbag Tax Collector, on the other hand, knows quite well what everyone else is thinking. And he can’t blame them. They fear his knock at his door but now, when they see him pounding his chest, pretending to be all sorry for betraying everything this Temple stands for and every single person in it, well, they don’t care. His prayer is not eloquent. He mumbles to the paving stones, Lord be merciful to me, a sinner.  If anyone heard him, they could imagine interrupting and saying “A sinner? How about the worst sinner we know?  He’s telling the truth, though. His wrong are many and his judgment day looks dark.

The Tax Collector knows God is merciful, and he asks for mercy.

9 NEW SLIDE OF SCHUMACHER AND BOOK COVER  E.F.Schumacher, a German immigrant to England, wrote a slim philosophy of life book called Guide for the Perplexed. He borrowed the title from the famous Jewish writer Maimonides. Schumacher said that we have four fields of knowledge, all important, and each helps us make progress in our spiritual and ethical lives. Here’s a diagram.


What is going on in my inner world?     I-inner

What is going on in the inner world of other beings?    You-inner

How do others see me? I-outer

What do I observe in the world around me? You-outer

Field 1 is the quest to know ourselves. To recognize our strengths, our triggers, our tender places, our lazy ways, our passions…  To cultivate mindfulness. 

In the second field: the quest to know others as they really are. To listen to them, to ask loving and curious questions. To appreciate their life stories and their daily moods. To find connection, empathy, trust, and the kind of love best exemplified by Jesus himself.

The third field is the knowledge others have of me. How I appear. How I behave. How they would describe me to someone else. My reputation. My style. My activities and maybe even my character. We don’t have any direct access to this knowledge, but we do get some feedback from others. Some is helpful, and some hurts.

The fourth field is our knowledge of the outer world. How other people, and places, and things appear. We do have direct access to this field, and with it, we make art. Take photographs. Tell stories. React to situations.

The Pharisee brags about things others can observe. He’s in our Field Four. When we listen to him, using our Field Two eyes and ears, he describes his inner life. He says he’s got it all. He’s also kind of a jerk. In his own Field On, he is self-satisfied. He sees himself as perfect. Definitely not a jerk! If he found out what Jesus thinks of him, Field Three, I wonder if he’d listen. But when he looks at the Tax Collector, he sees worse than a jerk. He sees scum. When he bothers to look at Field Four, he only sees inferior people. Maybe he sees competitors. Surely he sees people who think he is wonderful and he enjoys their compliments very much.

The Tax Collector is deeply aware of his inner self, field one. And what he sees is awful. If what he knows about God is true, field two, God is merciful. Everyone in the district knows he is a traitor to his people, and his great wealth is unearned, field three. His day to day vision of field four is pretty creepy, I imagine. For every house he passes, he knows who is easily frightened into coughing up taxes. He knows who just inherited a farm. Who just collected on a debt. Who still owes how much. His world looks like a map of revenue streams, presided over by the cold gaze of Rome. His Field Four is full of ways to exploit people’s weaknesses and capture some of their wealth.

Jesus tells the story, choosing the best and worst people as far as others see them. Their reputations are opposite one another. But inside them, says Jesus, they are thinking about how they come off to God. Field Number One for the Pharisee is pretty awesome. Field Number One for the Tax Collector? Awful. But Jesus clearly sees deeper into the Pharisee’s inner self and finds someone unaware of his own arrogance and phony religiousness. 

The Tax Collector, Jesus knows, is being real. The first step toward what we moderns call transformation. Jesus, using his impressive skills in Field Two–he is the Son of God, after all, plus he’s telling a story he made up, so there’s that. Anyway, Jesus sees in the heart of the Tax Collector a real belief that God is merciful. And a frank understanding that he himself is a sinner. Somebody who does wrong things. He wants to stop. He has become used to seeing people as ATM’s and seeing their possessions as something he is entitled to a piece of. He acts as if money is God, and the Market is the invisible hand of God. Thank God none of us ever thinks like that.

The reason Jesus told this parable wasn’t mostly to afflict the comfortable Pharisees listening to him, although I bet that happened. Nor was it to give hope to traitorous Tax Collectors, none of whom were in the audience: they were out evicting widows. Inspecting purses in the market. 

Jesus wasn’t teaching an ethics lesson. He was teaching a prayer lesson: when you go inside yourself and pray, when you let God into your Field One time, let God overhear your deepest and most trivial thoughts. 

Don’t lie to yourself, or at least try to lie a little less as you get older. Don’t tell yourself how awful you are. Or how magnificent. Prayer, Jesus says, is about being sincere, humble, and vulnerable with yourself. And God. 

Schumacher said a whole lot more about the Four Fields, and I’m going to have to go back and re-read the book this week. Years ago, he really helped me understand so many things. But I’ll mention one more great truth from A Guide for the Perplexed. Our task in life is to develop our skills in all four fields. Learning to dwell deeply and lovingly in our inner world helps us be better friends, lovers, siblings, parents, and grandparents. The more we understand our inner selves in field one the better we will be able to understand others in field two. And we will be able to accept criticism as well as admiration in field three, when we learn what others see when they look at us. We will be able to tell the difference between helpful and unhelpful feedback. Be accepting and less reactive. Have more of a sense of humor about how different we all are. That’s the benefit of developing our field three knowledge. And field four? There is so much to learn about the world and all the living beings that share the world with us. The more we know, the better questions we can ask, and the more we can wonder.

11 CHANGE SLIDE AT 9:00 ONLY So… { at 10:00 during coffee hour, let’s talk about the Pharisee, the Tax Collector, and the four fields of knowledge. Join me at one of the round tables in the Parish Hall after you get your coffee. Or }….practice some good field two conversation with someone you know or someone you don’t. Or sit quietly in here with your thoughts. Or go take a walk and be mindful of what’s inside. And outside. And the God of compassion will be with you. Amen.

9am Contemporary Service

11am Traditional Service