You are probably wondering what a parable is. That’s easy. “Parables are imaginary gardens with real toads in them” (M. Moore). In other words, parables are harmless little stories until they grab hold of you and rip your head off. To say it much more nicely, a parable is more than a narrative with some homespun wisdom. Instead, it is a weapon of mass disruption designed to make the hearers think or, maybe more accurately, make them rethink everything they believe. In short, parables intend to distract an audience so that when the audience isn’t looking, it can hit them with the truth in a way they didn’t see coming! See, parables are not simple stories. They are stories with teeth. But to do that, parables employ the “unexpected twist”—a twist in the story that no one saw coming, a twist in the story that was shocking, a twist in the story that turned the whole story on its head. And in today’s script, the “unexpected twist” plays a huge part.
After last week’s script with all of its complications (six parts, crazy names, choral singing and Babylonian myths), this week’s edition will be easy. It has three simple parts: a narrator, a Pharisee and a tax collector. There is no singing and no Babylonian meddling. It looks pretty straightforward, but be prepared. There is an “unexpected twist” in this story that, if you are not careful, can give you whiplash. Please, prior to reading, make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened.
The Twisted Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Narrator: The Story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Pharisee: Hey, look at the time! I’ve got to be at the temple in five minutes. It’s almost prayer time! I’m sorry to leave, but I’ve got to run! I’ve got a date with God.
Tax Collector: Ugh! Look at the time. I need to get to the temple. It’s almost prayer time, but maybe I should skip it. It’s true. I really do need to spend some time with God, but I’m also sure God doesn’t want to spend any time with me. See, I’m a tax collector, and tax collectors are not God’s favorite people. Or maybe, it’s just me. Maybe I’m not one of God’s favorite people. In any case, it’s almost prayer time; and I should go and pray.
Pharisee: Hey, look out, scum. You’re in my way. It’s almost prayer time, and I can’t be late. After all, it is a very important date.
Tax Collector: Sorry, Mr. Pharisee, sir, I didn’t mean to cut you off. But just add that to my almost endless list of sins.
Pharisee: Pond scum sinner. Your kind makes me sick.
Tax Collector: Righteous do righter! Your kind makes me feel sick and sinful and utterly worthless.
Pharisee: Then I’ve done my job! One minute to pray! Everyone, get in your positions.
Narrator: The Pharisee stood off to the side so he didn’t have anyone near him. He liked it that way. He could wave his arms more. And he began to pray . . . loudly.
Pharisee: O God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.
Narrator: That’s right, the Pharisee not only looked good, but he was good. In fact, he went way above and beyond what the law required. In short, he was righteous through and through.
Pharisee: Hey, maybe I should start giving a twentieth of all I have and fast ten-times a week! That would make me even more righteous, and I like being righteous!
Narrator: Meanwhile, the tax collector also found a place to pray, but feeling less than righteous, he kept at a distance from everyone. He didn’t even look up to heaven. After all, why should he bother? He knew God wasn’t going to look down on him. After all, he was a filthy, lousy, rotten tax collector. Plus, if God was looking down from heaven at this particular moment, he would be so taken with the Pharisee that he wouldn’t even notice the tax collector. It’s hard to pray when God isn’t listening.
Tax Collector: You’ve got that right, but here I am. See, when you’ve got nowhere to go but up, you start that climb by drilling down—as in drilling down in confessing your sin. Hey, I don’t mean to be rude, but I really have a lot to confess; and so, if you will excuse me, I need to get to it.
Narrator: And to add to his confession, the tax collector repeatedly beat his chest in grief as he said:
Tax Collector: God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Pharisee: That’s it? That’s all he prayed? That’s not much of a prayer, is it? And why did he add that little tagline at the end? Everyone already knows he is a sinner. You can see it from a mile away. And he’s not just a little sinner. He is a big sinner. What a joke! It would be better if he prayed, “O God, there’s no hope for me because I am a big, big sinner. Sorry for taking up your time. Amen!”
Narrator: The Pharisee had a point. Tax collectors were considered the scum of the earth. They bought the right to collect taxes throughout the land; and then, they went out and extorted all the money they could. Plus, they had taxes for everything. There were transportation taxes, sales taxes, inheritance taxes and taxes for taking certain roads. Now, Rome set a price for all these taxes, but anything else the tax collector could embezzle out of the poor Israelite, was his to keep. That’s why everyone considered tax collectors, traitors. After all, they worked for the Romans and in the process, they hurt their own people. But it was worse than that. Tax collectors didn’t have a compassionate bone in their body. Instead, they were greedy and uncaring. See, the average person didn’t have a lot of extra cash to pay for all these taxes; and yet, the tax collector always squeezed any extra they had, out of them. That’s why tax collectors were often grouped with murderers and robbers and liars. In fact, they were so notorious they were not allowed to be judges or witnesses in court!
Tax Collector: It’s true. It’s all true. We are pond scum.
Pharisee: Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing. My, that description sure sounds bad. You tax collectors are the very worst. Hey, narrator, since we are on the topic, could you share with everyone how the people viewed the Pharisees?
Narrator: Sure. Pharisees were highly respected and were considered the righteous of the righteous and the best of the best. Pharisees went out of their way to obey the Law and went around doing good. In fact, typically, Pharisees went beyond what the law required so that everyone would understand they were super serious about their faith. See, the Law says you only have to fast once a year, but Pharisees regularly fasted twice a week. The law said tithing was super important, but Pharisees liked to tithe on everything they received, no matter how small or insignificant. Pharisees, they were the best of the best. They were like Super Holy Men.
Pharisee: Yeah, I know, but it is so good to hear it out loud. I guess I am Super Holy Man.
Tax Collector: That’s true. That’s why as soon as I entered the temple, I knew I was sunk. I can’t compete with that!
Pharisee: Well, few people can, but you tax collectors are just so far beneath me that I think it is safe to say that you are destined to be eternal toast.
Narrator: Hey, Super Holy Man, can you define the secret of your success?
Pharisee: Sure. Obey the law and then go beyond the law. Be extra good. Be extra observant in all spiritual things.
Narrator: But what about love?
Pharisee: What about it? I love the Law. I love my life. I love my family. In fact, I love everybody.
Narrator: Really? Because it doesn’t look like you love the tax collector and his friends.
Pharisee: Well, of course not! They don’t count. I only love people who love the things I love. Everybody else doesn’t count. They are scum.
Narrator: And how confident are you in your own righteousness?
Pharisee: Very! Even the people I love can’t measure up to my righteousness. After all, I am Super Holy Man.
Narrator: And how about needing God’s grace?
Pharisee: God’s grace is nice; and as a member of Israel, I feel God’s grace for the nation, but for me personally, I’m not sure if I need it. Didn’t I just say that I am Super Holy Man? And that is without grace. With grace, I would be Super, Super, Holy Man.
Tax Collector: See, I am toast. I can’t compete with that.
Narrator: Ummm, not so fast. See, this whole story was told to people who were confident of their own righteousness and who looked down on everyone else.
Pharisee: I’m sorry, what was that?
Narrator: The whole point of the parable is that “all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Pharisee: I’m not even sure I know what that means.
Tax Collector: Yeah, I’m lost, too. What’s going on?
Narrator: It’s like this: at the end of the parable, Jesus says that you, the tax collector, went home justified while our Pharisee friend just went home.
Tax Collector: What? That can’t be! You’ve got it backwards. I’m the sinner, and he’s Super Holy Guy!
Narrator: Yeah, but you came to God recognizing that you needed grace. But our Pharisee friend was sure of his own self-righteousness. He is building his own reputation, thinking he can do life all on his own. And it is clear that he really only cares about himself. In fact, if he is super at anything, I would suggest that he is super-judgmental. And all of that is as far away from true holiness and righteousness as you can get.
Tax Collector: Yeah, but what do I have to offer God? If our Pharisee friend can’t make the grade, then I am surely doomed.
Narrator: Are you kidding me? You gave God your perfect offering. You confessed your unworthiness and your sin and threw yourself totally on God’s grace. You can’t do any better than that.
Tax Collector: So, wait? Are you saying that I get grace? Even though I’m not Super Holy Man, I’m in? And Super Holy Man over there is out? Man, that is upside down!
Narrator: That’s because God’s gift of forgiveness is by grace and by grace alone, not by your own effort or by your own self-righteousness.
Tax Collector: So, everything is based on grace? Wow, that is unexpected!
Narrator: Yep! Everything is by grace and by grace alone. And here’s the good news: not only are you forgiven by grace, but you have also been made one of God’s dearly loved children by grace. But unfortunately for others, trying to earn God’s love by working hard is the very opposite of grace. So, it’s true. You, the tax collector, are in, but our Pharisee friend over there is, sadly, out.
Pharisee: What?!? Are you kidding me? Let me tell you right now; this parable is messed up! I am Super Holy Man, and I want to complain. If anyone should get in, it’s me. After all, he is a self-confessed sinner. How could he get in? I want to talk to someone in charge. In fact, I want a lawyer!
Narrator: Sorry. See, you can’t be good without love, and I love saying this: The end.
Pharisee. Wait! You can’t do this to me. I hate this parable! I am the good guy here. He’s the bad guy. I should get in, not him. Oh, the humanity! Oh, the injustice! Oh, the unexpected twist!
© 2023, “The Twisted Parable,” Dane Lewis, River’s Edge Community Church