Competitive faithfulness has no place in God’s kingdom; instead, it’s all about love. (Listen.)
So the minister and the deacon are standing at the front of the church, praying. In a big, resonant voice the minister says, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ In a clear, ringing voice the deacon says, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Then they hear a muffled sound coming from the back of the building. They turn to see the cleaner, head bowed, kneeling, beating his breast and saying, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ The minister turns to the deacon and says, ‘Look who’s calling himself a sinner!’
It’s an old tale, but a good one. Sometimes it’s a rabbi and the head of the synagogue praying on Yom Kippur; other times it’s a priest and a deacon; the third guy is always someone of low social status, usually the cleaner. But what if the third guy is someone a bit more dangerous? What if there are few limits to his powers, and he has a brute squad at his disposal? What if he uses intimidation and violence to extort money from the poor? What if he takes far more than required, and keeps the margin for profit? In other words, what if he’s an ancient Palestinian tax collector?
Then the folktale becomes both funnier and more shocking. Because he is a sinner. He’s an a-hole, in fact: the person everybody loves to hate. Who the hell does he think he is, coming in and praying like that?
And yet the story is not really about him. It’s about the minister and the deacon, who, to use Luke’s words, ‘persuaded themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.’ (Luke 18:9). ‘Who does he think he is?’
And it’s to smug, self-righteous religious folk that Jesus tells his own tale. In Jesus’ version, there’s a Pharisee who compares his own virtue with others, and a tax collector with no apparent virtues who simply seeks mercy from God. ‘I tell you,’ says Jesus, ‘this man—the tax collector, the collaborator, the corrupt official, the one we all hate—this man went home justified rather than the other.’ (v 14). So what’s going on here?
It’s easy to show contempt for the Pharisee simply because he is a Pharisee: and that’s what many preachers do. But let’s not do this here. Jesus wasn’t in the habit of limiting people by their labels, and nor should we be. Nor should we respond to a teaching aimed at contemptuous people by becoming contemptuous ourselves; that would be beyond ironic. Let’s also remember that in-house criticism is the worst. When Jesus criticizes Jews and Pharisees, it’s like me being enraged by Christians and Baptists.
Pharisees, in fact, were pretty great. In a way foretold by Jeremiah six hundred years earlier and which we heard about last week, they worked hard to get Torah, the Jewish law, written onto people’s hearts. By twelve years old, a Pharisee would have memorized Genesis through Deuteronomy; then he got to work on the Psalms and the prophets. Pharisees prayed often, including 18 distinct prayers repeated three times a day; and they integrated Torah with all the stuff of life. Everything became infused with the law, and every activity had a prayer, whether that was waking up in the morning, eating or working, or even going to the toilet.
So the Pharisees integrated Torah into every Jewish home and around every Jewish dinner table; and it’s almost certainly because of this that Judaism, including the sect which later became Christianity, survived the destruction of the temple in 70CE. We can be grateful to the Pharisees.
Instead, the issue is not with Pharisees per se, but with this Pharisee. Because this Pharisee chose not to pray quietly at home. Instead, he came to the temple and, ‘standing by himself’, prayed aloud. ‘Thank you, God, that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers or even this tax collector,’ he said. ‘I fast, I give money away,’ by which he meant, I am fully Torah observant. I say all the prayers, and I have never, ever broken even one of the commandments.
The thing is, this is not an entirely unreasonable prayer. Thieves, rogues, adulterers and even first century tax collectors are by definition unrighteous, for the activities which define them involve breaking Jewish law. And as for proclaiming his own righteousness to God, that is, his obedience to the law, you’ll find similar words in the seventeenth Psalm. ‘If you test me, [Lord], you will find no wickedness in me … As for what others do, by the words of your lips, I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths.’ (Ps. 17:3-5). Surely the Torah-observant Pharisee, standing by himself in the temple, is right with God; surely he is justified.
Once, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ The lawyer answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer. Do this, and you will live.’ But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:25-29).
Wanting to justify himself, the Pharisee explained to God that he wasn’t a thief or a rogue; he wasn’t like all those dreadful people; he obeyed the letter of the law. Wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus to define ‘neighbour’, presumably to exclude thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors, Samaritans, and all the rest. And here we get to the heart of the problem.
Before his quibble, the lawyer answered Jesus correctly. He said that the law is entirely about love of God and love of neighbour. He was a lawyer; he knew that there are reams of scripture setting out the law and 613 individual commandments. But he also knew that they are simply fleshing out how to be a just society which embodies love for God and neighbour; he simply wanted limits on which neighbour to love. Because when it comes to Torah, love is everything. Love God; love neighbour; the rest is all commentary: and that’s what the Pharisee in tonight’s story doesn’t understand.
Instead, he ‘stands by himself’ in the temple and regards the tax collector with contempt. He doesn’t see the tax collector as a beloved neighbour, whose salvation is caught up with his own. Nor does he see him as a child of the covenant, made in the image of God. Instead, he searches for fault, and of course he finds it, and he proclaims to anyone within earshot. He puts down the tax collector to feel good about himself; he turns away from community or communion. In other words, he does not love his neighbour or the God made known through him; he has missed the whole point of the law.
Of course, most of us do this. Most of us define ourselves by who we are not; I don’t think I’m the only one who is guilty. Sometimes it comes out as envy: why can’t I be like them? Other times, like in tonight’s story, it takes on the flavour of contempt: Thank God I’m not like those right wing conservative nut jobs. Thank God I’m no flag waver for Christian nationalism. Thank God I’m not a bland cultural Christian. Thank God I’m humble in a grounded and psychologically healthy way, not like those proud types over there. #blessed. Thank God I’ve nailed the interpretation of this story, in fact, the whole gospel! And I’m sure you can create your own sentences here; because, for better or worse, we measure ourselves against others all the time.
But one person doesn’t. One person stands in the shadows, and defines himself only in relation to God. He names the truth of his sin, and opens himself to divine mercy: Lord, I am a sinner. I don’t fulfil the law. I don’t pray fifty-four prayers a day. I haven’t memorized Genesis, let alone the psalms; again and again, I forget you. I am trapped in a life where I do violence to my neighbour; I cannot see my way out. I fail to love, and there is no way to be truly just in this society: have mercy, O Lord, have mercy.
And because it is the nature of God to have mercy, and because this guy dares to ask, mercy flows in abundance and he is justified by God, a-hole and sinner that he is. So let us not stand aloof and alone, measuring ourselves against others. Instead, let us join together in a time of confession, as sinners brought together by love; and let us pray slowly, seriously and humbly, as we consider our pride and recognize our sin and ask God for what we really need. Amen. Ω
From our prayers of confession (with a sung refrain, of course!)
- When we convince ourselves of our own righteousness, and regard others with contempt: Lord, have mercy.
- When we seek to raise ourselves up by putting down our neighbours: Lord, have mercy.
- When we place our faith in our own efforts, and turn from the gift of grace: Lord, have mercy.
- When we limit ourselves to rites and rules, and forget the law of love: Lord, have mercy.
- When we refuse to integrate self with community, and forfeit the wholeness you intend for us: Lord, have mercy.
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Luke 18:9-14 (Year C Proper 25) given to Sanctuary on 23 October 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, the rivers are flooding; the main waterfall has become a great valley of water; and the vast sandbar at the river mouth has washed into the sea. The Hopkins River is now following its God-ordained course, rather than the narrow channel Europeans blasted out for it. Thanks be to God.
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