Two men went up to the temple to pray. It’s another story about prayer, after last Sunday’s about the very persistent widow. We’re told that this parable is particularly for people who trust in themselves that they are righteous and regard others with contempt. In Luke’s entire gospel, the word for regarding others with contempt is used only twice; here and again later when Herod and his soldiers ridicule and abuse Jesus. It’s a subtle reminder that the people we judge and regard with contempt are in the blessed company of Jesus.
This story about the two men going up to the temple to pray is quite dangerous. Some of us have heard it many times and we may be inclined to dismiss the Pharisee as a self-righteous, religious hypocrite, but then we leave this place of prayer with contempt in our hearts – which is not what Jesus has in mind for us. He keeps telling us this story, because he wants us to go home with mercy in our hearts and a more complete knowledge of God.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. Some of you may remember that years ago, I decided to name the two, Phil and Max. Phil is a Pharisee and Max a tax collector. Phil is a good man, and he knows it. He takes his religion seriously. He observes the prayer times diligently, he studies scripture daily, and he gives generously to help the needy. Phil is the kind of dedicated person of which every congregation and every community needs a few. He has taught Sunday school, he has been an Elder for several years, and when you talk to him about giving it doesn’t turn into a sales-job. Phil gets it. He is committed to his congregation; people like Phil hold any community together with their leadership and their example. Phil knows what is right and he does it.
Max, on the other hand, is not at home at the heart of the community. He collects taxes, and that doesn’t mean he got an accounting degree and started working for the IRS. Max works for the Romans. He has crossed the line by collaborating with the occupying power, helping to squeeze the local population in the name of the empire.
The Romans created a fairly simple and effective way of collecting taxes through a franchise system. Rome auctioned off the office of tax collector to regional brokers who then employed locals to do the dirty work. The local tax collector was given his quota, and nobody really cared how he managed to raise the amount. He set his own rate, and from whatever he was able to collect, he skimmed off his profits.
That’s what Max does for a living. You can imagine he doesn’t have many friends. He has betrayed his people by collaborating with the Romans, and to make matters worse, he profits personally from his neighbors’ suffering under pagan rule. Max walks down Main Street, and as soon as people see him, they cross to the other side of the road. Nobody wants anything to do with him. They view him as outside of all that is honorable, honest, and holy. Max is a sinner, and he knows it.
So the two went up to the temple to pray, and Phil, standing by himself, thanked God that he was not like other people but a good man. He recited two short lists, one telling of his great faithfulness in tithing and fasting, and the other naming the thieves, rogues, adulterers and this tax collector whose behavior was a disgrace and undermined faithful life in the community.
Max, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven. All he said was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This man, rather than the other, Jesus said, went down to his home in righteousness.
But for all we know, Max returned to his old life. The next morning he would get up again, collect a little more than his quota, hand over to the Romans what he owed, and use the rest to pay the bills and save for retirement. Max was not a good man and he knew it. And Phil was a decent man who, for all we know, returned to his life of religious observance and civic responsibility. Nothing really had changed, except of course some of our assumptions about what constitutes righteousness.
Jesus hasn’t been telling us this outrageous story so we would walk away saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like Phil, but rather quite humble in comparison.” Jesus is not a teacher of contempt, but one who will always stand with those whom we regard with contempt, whether it’s Max or Phil. He draws our attention to God’s mercy. He steps across the boundaries of what we consider honorable, honest, and holy, not to shame honorable, honest, and holy people or even those who like to think they are; he steps across to help us see that God’s righteousness does not exclude the sinner but overcomes sin for the sake of communion with all who live under the power of sin.
Phil’s prayer is short, and it begins beautifully, “God, I thank you.” If he kept his heart’s attention on the hands of God and on the gifts of God, he would never run out of things to name with gratitude. But his eyes are on his own hands and all he has to offer, and so the only gratitude he knows is for not being like other people. He looks around and compares himself to those who cannot measure up, and he is pleased with the difference, but he has lost sight of the hands of God.
Max doesn’t look around at all. His eyes lowered, gazing at his toes, he stands far off to the side, but his heart’s attention rests on God alone. When we pray with a sideward glance, comparing ourselves to others, finding those whose brokenness seems worse than our own and quietly saying, Well, at least I’m not like her, not like him, not like them; I may have my faults and failings, but compared to them … Thank you, God – when we pray with a sideward glance, Max becomes our teacher. Standing outside all that is honorable, honest, and holy he has no one to look down upon. All he sees is God and his need for God’s mercy.
Jesus dares us to imagine a different kind of community. Instead of a community of righteousness whose boundaries we negotiate with mercy given or withheld, he dares us to imagine a community of mercy that changes how we think about holiness and righteousness.
I named these two men many years ago, Max and Phil, but only recently have I begun to think of them as brothers. It’s because of another story Jesus tells, in response to people who were grumbling about his habit of eating with sinners. It’s a story about a father who had two sons; the younger went to a distant country and burned through his inheritance while the older stayed at home and did everything he was supposed to. You know the story and how it ends with the father standing outside, pleading with the older son to come in and join the banquet. It’s Phil, and in his righteous anger he can’t see that mercy has prepared a banquet for all. He thinks that righteousness is something he possesses and his brother Max doesn’t, and he can’t see yet that righteousness is the new relationship the God of mercy is creating between them and between all whose lives have been fractured and divided by sin.
“We are saved by grace. That means that we did not deserve to be saved. What we deserve would be quite different,” said Karl Barth in a sermon. “No one can be proud of being saved. Each one can only fold [their] hands in great lowliness of heart and be thankful (…). Consequently, we shall never possess salvation as our property. We may only receive it as a gift over and over again with hands outstretched.”
With hands outstretched not only to God, but to one another. Only mercy can teach us to pray, with empty hands outstretched, with our hearts’ attention resting on the hands of God, “God, we are all like other people, far from home and far from who you made us to be. Thank you for reconciling us in your righteousness.” Much of our salvation is about learning to say we again, standing on the common ground of our need for God’s mercy, standing in the company of sinners, knowing that Jesus is standing with us. None of us enter the kingdom of heaven, because we deserve to be there, but because Jesus has joined us in our lonely exile to heal what sin has torn asunder. He brings us together in the beloved community of forgiven sinners where we recognize each other as brothers and sisters.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. It’s another story about prayer, about Phil and Max and the rest of us. I’m making this one up, but not really. I see them going up together and stopping right by the gate. There, between the tall, massive columns the women and men hang out who long to come home but hesitate to enter, wondering if the rumors are true that the holy assembly is a place for sinners, wondering if the rumors are true that a banquet has been prepared for them.
“It’s true,” says Max, and Phil says, “Come on in!” and on the way to the table they pray, and all of us with them, as the Lord has taught his disciples, saying, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
 Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Harper, 1961), p. 39