Island Lagoon, SA 2016

The Levelling Love of God

Sunday 24 October (Pentecost 22)
Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

I first remember this parable as a sixteen year old with a new driver's license! The Lutheran Youth of South Australia were having their annual convention in our part of the country, and my parents generously billeted a couple of delegates. With my new license I went to some of the sessions, and saw the drama of this parable acted out at the front of a church. What an impression! The gospel was powerfully proclaimed.

However, I also took away a semi-conscious impression of exclusion; one of those half formed thoughts and puzzlements that something was not quite right. The ones where, sometimes years later, you finally see what was happening and realise why you have remembered an incident all this time. I understand now what was happening. I was a Methodist. They did not pray, “Thank God I am not Methodist.” Indeed, my new friends had sought to make me welcome. They would probably have been appalled at my experience. But the message was given to me anyway.

I am under no illusion. If the Methodist Youth Fellowship had been having a State Conference, we would have managed to exclude the Lutheran visitors... or someone else. It is the human condition. The greatest tragedy that can happen is if we leave this reading thinking, “Thank God I am not like the Pharisee.”

How scary to think that I remember this slight from 40 years ago! It was minor, and trivial, compared to some of what we do as church. God help us, and especially those around us, if we depend on our own righteousness. The delusional damage self righteousness inflicts on us, is only exceeded by the damage it does to others.

The toll-collector goes home justified with no sign of active repentance. He does not “do a Zacchaeus” and dedicate his ill gotten riches to the poor, or some such. (Brian Stoffregen) In fact, Petty asks

But what about next week?  Let's say that the same two guys show up in the temple.  The cleanly-attired and clean-minded pharisee reminds God (again) of how devout he is, while, this week, the tax collector shows up (again) with his whisky-breath and a blonde on each arm, and intones the same "I'm a jerk/let me off the hook anyway" prayer.

Guess what?  The pharisee would (again) not be justified, and the tax collector (again) would.  Week after that, same thing.  Week after that, same thing.  How heartwarming is this story now?

Perhaps the story is not about us at all. Perhaps it is about God, and God's scandalous love and forgiveness for us all.

We must not soften the story and its offensiveness. Craddock says in Luke pp211

The Pharisee is not a venomous villain and the publican is not generous Joe the bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker. Such portrayals belong in cheap novels. If the Pharisee is pictured as a villain and the tax collector as a hero, then each gets what he deserves, there is no surprise of grace and the parable is robbed. In Jesus' story, what both receive is "in spite of," not "because of."

The story is not about us. It is about God,and God's scandalous love and forgiveness for us all.

We all come praying compromised. Will we even pray? Is our prayer genuine, or is it “staged” for some purpose; to make ourselves feel good, or to instruct the congregation, or rebuke some listener?

There is an even deeper issue which this story highlights. It is a disease in our congregations and in our culture. The story of the Pharisee is the manifestation of the disease. I quote Bill Loader:

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. (I have added the emphases.)

Let us consider our own congregation- and ourselves- in light of this. Who are the spiritual ones, and who are the “lesser” Christians in our midst? Who are the solid and dependable people, and who are the “flaky” or unstable people? How did we arrive at this opinion?

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.

This approach to life is antithetical to the gospel. It is the exact opposite of the message of Jesus. It is a deep seated insecurity which places us firmly alongside the Pharisee in the story. It judges and destroys.

As a child who was bullied and excluded at school, I once had a glorious school holidays with my grandparents. Back home, after Sunday church, I spotted David McXXX... a nasty, cruel, and smelly kid, walking down the street across from church. My whole consciousness lurched in grief and pain. I felt it physically in my chest. For a wonderful three weeks, I had forgotten such people existed.

In my wonderful home and family, I think I thanked God I was not like David. It was my mother who taught me compassion for that kid; a lesson that took a long time to be learned. She showed me that whatever else we were, we were both in the position of the toll-collector. Yes, I was aware of his shortcomings as a person, ground-in by poverty, and perhaps abuse. But this awareness made me not one iota better in the eye of God. I was simply one more person God loved along with David.

Compassion might even allow me to see that the unlikeable pharisee in Jesus' story is telling the full truth about his religious observance. (Loader) It might even allow me to imagine that Luke, telling the story of Jesus, told the story of Zaccheus praying in the temple next to the Pharisee. And then thought, (Lk 19:1ff) “Actually, the whole story of how Zaccheus came to be praying, at last, in the temple, is also worth putting in this gospel!”

What would make a newly “converted” or repentant Zacchaeus go down to his house justified? It was not what he had done in giving so much to the poor, and becoming just in his taking the tolls. It was his attitude in prayer.

In the end, there is something that made my Lutheran experience all those years ago a puzzlement rather than a scar, and that means I remember it with a wry smile as I reflect on my own youthful endeavours in the church, rather than feeling it as pain. Those young people, despite their failing, did have their heart in the right place. They did recongise their own failing and poverty before God. They were seeking the attitude of the tax collector, and truly seeking God. This made them Good News for me.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

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