30th Sunday 10-23-16 yr c Sirach 35: 12-18; Ps 34; 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14
Every once in a while, we’re given the chance to look at something in a different way. For example, you might go on a ride down a familiar road, but this time someone else is driving, and you see a house or a business or a tree you don’t remember ever seeing before.
Sometimes this happens with Bible stories. But this new awareness is not always pleasant. Take, for instance, the Pharisee in today’s Gospel. Reading the Gospel of Luke, it’s hard not to develop an attitude about Pharisees. In chapter 5, when Jesus heals a paralytic, the Pharisees begin a controversy about forgiveness of sins, laws about fasting, observance of the Sabbath, and Jesus’ habit of eating with “sinners” and tax collectors. In chapter 7, the Pharisees refuse to let John baptize them. In chapter 11 Jesus harshly criticizes the Pharisees for their attention to minor details of the Jewish laws, yet failure to love of God. In chapter 12, Jesus says plainly, “Beware of the leaven, that is, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees”.
Yet in Chapter 13, the Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him that Herod wants to kill him. Maybe they weren’t all bad. What was the common view of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time? And what were their prayers like?
Well, there were many devout and sincere Pharisees, spending their days studying and discussing the laws of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. They lived lives dedicated to careful and meticulous observance of those laws. Pharisees could routinely quote entire books by memory. It’s hard not to admire their dedication; they seemed to love God. Most Jews who went to worship in the temple stood and said their prayers aloud – it was the custom, and not a way this particular Pharisee might show off. But Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor as yourself) somehow was set aside. His prayer seems to follow the ancient commandments; still, the love commandment is missing.
One of best books I’ve read about the Parables of Jesus says that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were highly respected among most Jews, and were considered righteous. And the Pharisee in this passage far exceeded any of the laws for fasting or tithing. To the people listening to Jesus, this Pharisee would have been the hero of the story, far better than any tax collector.
Tax collectors, of course, are rarely heroes. But in 33 A.D., the view of a tax collector was very negative. They were collaborators with the Romans, they enforced an extremely heavy tax burden on the people, they were notorious for dishonesty and extortion, and were classified with murderers and traitors. At one point they were not allowed even to be witnesses in court. Some people have suggested that a tax collector wouldn’t have been allowed in the temple, but that is an exaggeration. But everyone understood why the tax collector would not even raise his eyes to heaven, for failure to rise your eyes was a sign of nearly unpardonable guilt and shame in many cultures. The tax collector would be, clearly, the bad guy to those listening to Jesus; and that would be supported by his apparent estimation of himself.
Imagine then, the how stunned people were when Jesus declared the Tax collector the one who was justified. Knowing this helps us to better understand the reading. We need to look again at why Jesus told this parable and why Luke included it in his Gospel. And of course, we need to consider what this might have to do with us, and not just that the Pharisee sounds like an empty braggart to our ears.
The opening verse of the reading is a good place to start. “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Up front we know this isn’t going to be warm and fuzzy, my friends. Jesus identifies two problems. One is when we choose to be judge of our own goodness. Ah, that is so easy. It’s risk free – there is no chance that anyone will bring up any of my faults. We always have a reason why we’re right when we judge ourselves. It puffs up our ego, no painful change or correction is required. We feel powerful and in charge, able to be faultless without anyone else’s help.
Of course, doing this robs us of any opportunity to see any other point of view, or grow in faith or in relationship to God or our fellow human beings – in fact, it isolates us and stunts our growth. Which leads to the second problem – when I think my self-perceived goodness makes me inherently better than other people, and above the need for God’s forgiveness. If that is the case, then I have broken both the commandments to love God and to love my neighbor as myself. Breaking both of them puts us a bad place indeed.
What is it like when guilt and shame bursts into our self-assessment? A friend sent me a link to a site on the internet that will tell you where you rank, both by income or assets, in the world’s wealth. With my little monthly pension and social security, I am in the top 5% of the world’s wealthiest people!! It ruined my day to realize the bottom 5% is dying from preventable disease and starvation. I went from what I perceived as a position of grace to feeling like a self-centered miser complicit in the world’s poverty. My privileged status is largely an accident of birth. It gave me much more compassion for the tax collector, and reason to relate to his prayer.
This is why Luke included this parable- to warn us, to ruin our day, to stun us, to shake us up. He makes us take a second look at our self-assessment. Do we really follow Jesus or follow our own path, making life as we live it seem much more righteous than it really is? Are we much more dependent on a merciful God than we’d like to think? Luke gives us a chance to see ourselves in a different way, and Luke provides the assurance that Our Creator wants to grant us new sight, to forgive our false pride, and to have us part of The Kingdom of God. Our God is the God of second chances.