We don't have a prayer!

Week of Sunday October 27 - Pentecost 23 See also Who will save me? Luke 18:9-14 (2019)
: 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.’

The tax collector didn't have a prayer. Compared to the Pharisee he was an utter sinner. When it came to praying he could only manage seven words. "God be merciful to me a sinner." (There are only six in the Greek!)

Pharisees were good people in the main. Indeed, many of the first listeners to the story would have been disappointed by the behaviour of this Pharisee, if not shocked. The Pharisees' grasp of God, and their deep faith, is how Judaism survived the holocaust of Jerusalem in 70AD; the Pharisees maintained the faith.

They get a terrible representation in the New Testament. I use the word terrible in its original sense; something arousing terror. Our prejudice based on the Pharisees' representation in the New Testament is a major excuse for the sin of anti-Semitism, and all the murder and oppression that has followed. Since the parable is scathing about disparaging others, and building oneself up at the expense of others, our behaviour as a church and as individuals is... unspeakable.

The Pharisees get bad press for two reasons. Firstly, they are the Jews from whom early Christianity parted company. Relationships were not good. Secondly, they were Jesus' natural competitors!

The church was always going to remember the sayings of Jesus which helped it distinguish itself from the Pharisees. Everyone except the rich hated the Sadducees. Pharisees were the good people maintaining the faith in the presence of the Romans. They were the exemplars of a gentle and sensible faith compared to the Zealots and the Survivalists like the Essenes and others.

As a rule of thumb, trying to counteract all our bias, I read the text again and substitute "good Christian" and "good church member," wherever they are mentioned. It is often unpleasantly illuminating, and so powerful in the insights it brings into my own self, that I suspect the gospel writers often intend us to do this.

The Pharisees were good people.

Tax collectors screwed the system for every cent they could get. They claimed rich friends' weddings on their parliamentary expenses. They were very powerful people with strong connections to the Roman overlords, and had the protection that afforded.

So Jesus' listeners expect that the Pharisee will "go down to his home justified," and that the tax collector will not be right with God. Pharisaical—  our word—  did not exist.

We need to read this parable carefully if we are not to lose the force of its upturning of our understanding of our relationship with God. Crossan says it might be read as "A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter's to pray."

I think that is still too comfortably distant for me as a Protestant. I think of my shock if some gentle, godly, generous backbone of the church, whom I greatly admired, went in to pray, and said similar words. It is not only the issue of their self pride, but also of their attitude to others. The parable addresses both; it is not a proof text for some formulaic exposition of grace.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

"We describe this commonly as self righteousness," says Bill Loader. And then he describes the way self-righteousness almost always works.

... it follows a common tendency to define oneself by defining others. ...  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. ...

Here we have piety which despises other human beings.

Teresa Lockhart Stricklen says, "Self justification has no need of God." In fact, it sets itself as God! When we disparage others whom God loves; we say we have no need of God. The "piety which despises other human beings," becomes idolatry. We "exalt ourselves." (Luke 18:14)

The tax collector knows he is in trouble. He does not stand "by himself," knowing his goodness. He stands "far off." He can manage only six words. He doesn't have a prayer. Yet he goes down to his house justified.

In our time, hearing this story for the fiftieth time, we approve. His attitude is correct. Except...

... 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?

You were thinking that this story is fine as a start, but, in the future, we expect some amendment of behavior on the part of the tax collector.  In other words, while the pharisee is clearly going overboard, we want the tax collector to start acting like one anyway.

Some commentators wonder exactly where the tax collector repented.  Fact is, he didn't, and it wouldn't have mattered a bit even if he did.  The story is not about our righteousness after all, not about our piddly attempts at self-improvement, not about our crying our eyes out or feeling suitably bad about ourselves. 

Quite the contrary.  Our situation is always hopeless. (John Petty)

How does this work for you and me? Let's look at a Pharisee in detail.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has instructed departmental and detention centre staff to publicly refer to asylum seekers as ‘‘illegal’’ arrivals and as ‘‘detainees’’, rather than as clients. The directive has been criticised as a ‘‘profound’’ shift by a leading asylum seeker agency, which says the new terminology is designed to dehumanise people. In an email to detention centre staff, obtained by Fairfax Media, a department official writes: ‘‘The department has received correspondence from the minister clarifying his expectations about the department’s use of terminology. Accordingly we as [sic] that our service providers also adhere to the below instructions.’’ (The Age)

 As a friend and colleague writes, "This is so wrong... So...so...wrong! So wrong!"

It is worse than that. Morrison was a dedicated member of the Uniting Church, who witnessed to his faith in his maiden speech. His website said

I have also been highly active in church life from a young age. My Christian faith remains the driving force for my family, beliefs and values. My family and I are members of ShireLive Church, at Sutherland. (His website as per the Wayback Machine. The current site is down for rebuilding.)

He is known for his hardline, unsympathetic approach. He attacked the government for paying for some refugees being flown to Sydney for the funeral of family members who drowned off Christmas Island. This sparked

an acid shower of criticism from [even his own] party elders. John Hewson called his comments “inhumane”. Malcolm Fraser was scornful: “I hope Scott Morrison is just a fringe element in the party.” More woundingly, Bruce Baird also slapped down his one-time protégé: “I’m very disappointed that Scott would make those comments. It is lacking in compassion at the very time when these people have been through such a traumatic event.”  (The Monthly - SO WHO THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU?)

It's bad enough politics in Australia has demonised refugees and denies at least three articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (5, 6, 7, and 14) But a Christian is supporting all this; aiding all this; even leading the charge!?

I am sickened, ashamed, enraged, and horrified. How can he do this?

But in the light of this parable, he is me... and I am him.

I have begun to despise him, Pharisee that I am. I have not yet written to him as a Christian brother, (Matthew 18) and politely pointed out the problems I have with his actions, perhaps even pointing him to Matthew 25. I am a Minister of the Word; this is even arguably my duty under the regulations! (Constitution & Regulations 2008 – Duties of a Minister 2.2.2-2.2.4) My piety is lacking!

And consider the Universal Declaration:

Article 4.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 6.
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
Article 7.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Article 23.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Article 24.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Article 25.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Let us say, for a moment, I am not responsible for the government's appalling inhumanity to refugees, and ignore my limited protests.

I am writing to you on a computer, wearing cheap jeans, enjoying the luxury of a country built upon exploitation. The manufacture of my belongings contravenes Article 23 (and most likely 4,5,6 7) in large measure. The merest familiarity with sweat shops— clothing or hi-tech— knows this. My country is stolen land. I used to live in a fibro house working with and for the dispossessed. Now I live in my own comfortable house in suburbia. I reap the benefits of Scott Morrison's Australia.

God can ask the same question of me as The Monthly asked of Scott Morrison: So who the bloody hell are you?

We are all compromised. We do not have a prayer. Each week we— I—  come back to church with whiskey breath and a laptop in my arms. This is before I fail my parishioners, or am short with my family, or parsimonious with my offering.

I cannot trust anyone but God. I can only thank God that I have not gotten into Scott Morrison's mess when I realise and accept that my own mess is as bad.

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  (18:13)

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!

Online resources I found helpful for this study are:
Bill LoaderFirst Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary Pentecost 23
Brian Stoffregen: Luke 18.9-14 Proper 25 - Year C
Teresa Lockwood Stricklen: Preaching Luke 18:9-14
John Petty: Lectionary Blogging Luke 18:81-4

I have previously covered this text in Luke 18:9-14 - The Levelling Love of God and in Luke 18:9-14 - Thank God I am not like other oeople!  Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!



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