First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 23

Pentecost 23: 23 October Luke 18:9-14

The final words in the passage have already appeared in 14:11 in association with the spoof on taking the highest seats at community meals. Luke has obviously seen a similar reversal of norms here and so reused the saying. The parable, itself, has given rise to stereotyping of Pharisees so that ‘pharisaic’ has come to mean by definition something very negative: a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. This is unfortunate and certainly unfair to Pharisees. It may even be more typical of many Christians than it was of the historical Pharisees. It is nevertheless a very eloquent parable which conveys its message powerfully.

It is very hard not to approach the parable with the words: ‘Thank God, I am not like this Pharisee!’ History has us stand in the wrong place so that the story is subverted. We become ‘pharisaic’ about the Pharisees or worse, we stand in a tradition which bedevils not just Pharisees but Jews in general, a stance which has had horrific consequences. We need therefore to make a special effort to reposition ourselves if we are to come close to hearing the parable as it might have been intended.

Luke prepares the way. The parable, he reports, was told to those who were very sure of themselves and disparaged others. We describe this commonly as self righteousness. It is interesting that it follows a common tendency to define oneself by defining others. This is already an unhealthy move. Instead of grappling with our own identity or looking at ourselves we focus on what makes us better than others. Such a stance means that to respect ourselves we need to ‘beat’ others, run them down. It is a game people play: shoring up group identity by joining in a chorus of condemnation of others: ‘aren’t they awful!?’ It is a kind of fellowship of disparagement which gives those who indulge in it a sense of closeness: standing together against a common enemy. It is common at war time or times of crisis. It is also common in daily life; it is the joy of gossip.

Perhaps the Pharisee is standing on his own; perhaps he is portrayed as speaking with regard to himself. The Greek text is a little ambiguous. Might his opening statement be innocent? This seems unlikely. The parable appears to assume that it is distasteful for anyone to claim to be superior to others. Luke’s addition 19:14b assumes this. Hearers would have been likely to find these opening words unacceptable. Can we defend them? What if he really is unlike others? Is he to pretend this is not so - in a kind of mock piety, a dishonesty which plays games?

The story assumes his assessment is wrong. Nothing suggests that the claim that he has not committed the sins he mentions is untrue, nor the claim that he is not like the toll collector, who would have been expected to have ripped people off to his own advantage. Nor are the fast days being disparaged, nor the conscientious tithing which sets aside not only what he produces but also what he buys - in case others have not paid the tithe on it.

The fastidiousness is not condemned in itself, but it is indicative of a religious conscientiousness which can miss the point. It reminds us of the encounter with the rich ruler later in the chapter (18:18-23). It probably has more in common with that story than with the parable of the Good Samaritan which portrays the lovelessness of a priest and Levite (10:25-37). But the theme is generally the same: you can keep the commandments and do many other things and miss the point. The chief problem in our story is with the Pharisee’s pride and his disparagement of the toll collector. Here we have piety which despises other human beings. Love of God has become separated from love of neighbour, just as it had in the other stories.

The toll collector takes a stance which contrasts with that of the Pharisee. He keeps his distance. Partly this indicates that he feels he lacks a claim on divine space. Partly it reflects that people would not have wanted him near anyway. His stance is one of shame. His actions express shame. His words call for mercy, using a word which comes from the language of sacrificial expiation. This is doubtless intended. The effect is to underline Jesus’ claim that what the temple system was designed to produce happened for this man; it did not happen for the Pharisee. Jesus is reflecting a common Jewish theme that there is something more important than the rites of sacrifice: the contrite heart. Jesus is not being anti temple, but expressing a sentiment which his hearers would have recognised and affirmed.

Apart from the cultic language in the man’s prayer, we also find the word ‘justified’ and ‘just’ or ‘righteous’. The man had sorted out his relationship with God. He had entered a right relationship with God, because he was prepared to come with no bargaining chips but simply the willingness to receive God’s love. The Pharisee was not in such a right relationship, although he was convinced he was.

The story is meant to be subversive. It deals with self righteousness. It goes a little further than that in that it connects such self righteousness with an understanding of religion which serves to reinforce the self assuredness. Religion can be very dangerous. It can produce self delusion. It can lead people to do terrible things; or worse, people can use it to inspire themselves to do terrible things. But the collusion with self delusion comes in many other forms. It is there where Christians are thanking God they are not like ‘those Muslims’. It is there where individuals and communities are defining their identity by their enemies and in the process, like the Pharisee, refusing to see their own foibles and failings.

The message of Jesus is quite sharp: bolstering one’s sense of identity by disparaging others (even when they are terrible sinners) so easily leads to illusions of grandeur and a failure to see ourselves as we really are. It is a kind of goodies and baddies game. The answer is not to pretend the toll collector has done no wrong, but to accept our common humanity and to know that our real value is in loving and accepting ourselves as God loves us and not upping our value by downing others. The toll collector is also a person of worth. We can forget trying to earn credit points with God and establishing our worth on a relative scale. When we do so we will have so much more time and space and energy for compassion, both receiving and giving it. ‘Pharisees’ need it - as much as toll collectors.

Epistle: Pentecost 23: 23 October  2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18