Luke 18:9-14 To whom do we look to determine our status?

I’m going to tell you about two people – person A and person B. I’ll give you a few facts about each, and let you decide who you think the ‘better’ person is, they are real people, and I’ll tell you who they are at the end. Person A – Person A was expelled from school as a child and they were accused of plagiarism while at university. Person A was closely monitored by the FBI for much of their adult life and was arrested on 29 separate occasions for things like disobeying police, disturbing public peace, and civil disobedience.

Person A at one time was regarded by some as the most hated man in America. Now person B. Person B was awarded the Iron Cross First Class medal for bravery in war, and was once named Time Magazine’s ‘Man of the Year.’

Person B was known to have championed animal welfare causes and also had childhood aspirations of becoming a Catholic Priest. Person B was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1939.

It’s obvious based on these facts who the better person is, isn’t it? There’s a clear hero and ‘bad guy’ isn’t there? Now, some of you, probably those who watch too many Midsummer Murders on TV probably suspect that there’s a plot twist coming – and you’d be right… Person A is none other than Martin Luther King Jr, the renowned American Baptist pastor and most prominent leader of the civil rights movement in the US in the 50s and 60s. That might make you wonder who the heck person B is then who, based on the facts, could sound like quite the humanitarian. Person B is Hitler. Pretty interesting right? Hopefully, your reaction to the plot twist was shock! If it was, then that’s the same reaction that those listening to Jesus tell the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector would have had.

Jesus sets up the parable as a comparison between the two central figures – the Pharisee and the tax collector. As modern-day readers of this parable, we’re conditioned from the get-go to perceive the Pharisee as the ‘bad guy.’ The gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are peppered with these encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees, often painting the Pharisees as Jesus’ enemies. They’re often described by their legalism and hypocrisy. To us, the Pharisees have come to represent the worst of religious people – judgemental, entitled, superficial, and arrogant. This parable does not disappoint, it essentially reinforces such a perspective. And because of that we rightfully automatically assume that the tax collector will end up being the good guy. And so because of our preconceived understanding, the shock factor of this parable is lost on us. We might not think it, but what Jesus was saying here, to the audience he was saying it to, was actually quite radical!

Verse 9 tells us that Jesus told this parable to those who were confident of their own righteousness, and who looked down on others – probably some Pharisees. To the Pharisees, tax collectors were the worst of society. The Jews were supposed to be God’s people, the chosen ones. The Roman Empire had taken over, oppressing and exploiting the Jewish people, God’s people. The Pharisees saw themselves as some of the last few who remained faithful as the people of God, they were intent on remaining pure in light of the waywardness around them – this meant strictly observing the rules and rituals of temple worship, and coming up with a few of their own along the way. The tax collectors on the other hand, to the Pharisees, were even worse than their Roman occupiers. They were Jews who’d sided with the Roman Empire by agreeing to collect the tax from the Jewish people, skimming a bit extra off the top for themselves. So when Jesus talks of a Pharisee and a tax collector praying at the temple, his audience of Pharisees would’ve been drawn in as they waited intently for Jesus to commend the Pharisee and put the filthy tax collector in his place. Of course, they would have been totally blindsided, shocked when they heard Jesus declare that in light of their two prayers, it was the tax collector, yes the TAX COLLECTOR, who went home justified before God, not the Pharisee – that was the plot twist.

The message of this parable is pretty clear, it’s quite easy to follow, isn’t it? Even without our conditioning to see the Pharisee in a certain light, we’d probably be able to figure out where Jesus was going with this just based on the posture of the two figures in the parable. The Pharisee from the outset is described by his sense of self-righteousness, standing apart from his unclean counterpart so as to not be associated with someone so lowly. The Pharisee proceeds to offer a prayer of thanksgiving, which really is no prayer at all. While his prayer is addressed to God, it’s really a narcissistic monologue about how much better he is than others – specifically, the tax collector. In other words, this is not a prayer, it is a ‘humblebrag.’ A humblebrag is when you make a seemingly modest statement, but for the purpose of drawing attention to yourself – “actually come to think of it, my back is a bit sore standing up here preaching – probably that half-marathon I ran before church this morning…” Compare that with the tax collector, who in every way comes to the temple in a posture of humility and remorse. Where the Pharisee is concerned with people noticing where he stands, the tax collector is off in the distance away from others. Where the Pharisee is quick to list his accomplishments, the tax collector owns his brokenness and beats his chest in anguish. Where the Pharisee places himself above others to claim his righteous status, the tax collector throws himself onto the mercy of God. Ironically, the tax collector can’t even bring himself to look heavenward as he prays, yet is profoundly more orientated towards God than the Pharisee.

Our natural reaction to this is to of course identify with the tax collector. Particularly as New Zealanders, we’re a pretty egalitarian bunch, we’re drawn to humility. We’re quick to sniff out inflated egos and give a wide berth to those, like the Pharisee, who possess them. But, if we pause for a moment and reflect, maybe we begin to see more of the Pharisee in ourselves than we first thought. I mean, is not the very fact we take pride in not being like the Pharisee in itself a bit pharisee-like? Before we know it, we might find ourselves praying prayers that are not so different from the Pharisee – “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee, self-righteous and arrogant, who thinks that his good works set him apart from the rest of us ordinary folks…”[1] Or to bring it a bit closer to home – “God, I thank you for making me an even-keeled Presbyterian, not like those happy-clappy charismatics, or those bible-bashing fundamentalists…” If we’re not careful, we can end up with a pendulum-swing reaction to the Pharisee, or self-righteous attitudes like his that are equally unhelpful. Where the Pharisee exalts himself by his pride, if we’re not careful we can exalt ourselves by our humility – and become a bunch of ‘humblebraggers’ that take pride in avoiding expressions of pride. In other words, we determine we’re better off than others because of our humility compared to their pride – it’s the classic gripe we have with Aussies.

See, I think we misinterpret this parable if we come away from it simply seeing the Pharisee as the bad guy, and the tax collector as the hero. While those caricatures might fit with the scene that Jesus describes, there’s also another figure in this parable that we need to consider. A silent figure, who’s hiding in plain sight… God. Before God, we are all equal. We all have inherent value and dignity as those who in some way bear a resemblance with our creator, and at the same time, we are all broken and given to brokenness. Like the tax collector, when we’re honest before God we can’t help but be humbled – humbled by a sense of our own true brokenness and the gap that exists between us and God, but also humbled by God’s mercy and grace, that despite our brokenness and the gap that exists God doesn’t stop drawing near and doesn’t stop offering us wholeness. So I’m sorry to say, before God none of us are better off than the Pharisee, the happy-clappies, the bible basher, or even the Aussies.

It’s not always easy to be honest before God. It takes determination and it takes courage. The world we live in tells us to avoid things that are difficult, it feeds us with busyness and distraction. At the moment in the church calendar, we find ourselves in the season of Lent. In some ways, the whole idea of Lent is that we make space in our lives to come honestly before God. Lent encourages us to pick something up, or to put something down that might help orientate us towards God. This might be like practising a new rhythm of stillness and contemplative prayer or journaling our prayers to God in light of what’s going on for us. It might be choosing to abstain from something in an attempt to counter busyness and distraction. The season of Lent takes us through to Easter, through to the cross and the resurrection – where we are confronted both by our own brokenness and by God’s mercy and grace. Lent encourages us to sit with these things, to engage with them afresh. Because it’s easy for them to pass us by or slip off our radar in the busyness of life, but these are the things – our brokenness and God’s mercy, that instill the humility of the tax collector in us. So I encourage you to consider what’s a small change during Lent that might help orientate you towards the Easter message. It doesn’t have to be a big change or even one that others know about, just something that might prompt you to sit with the message of Easter afresh this year.

[1] Cousar, Charles B., Gaventa, Beverly R., McCann, J. Clinton, Newsome, James D.Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary based on the NRSV. WJK Press, 1994. P.575.