Sunday, October 27, 2019

One of these things is not like the other


Today we are hearing more about prayer. Last week we learned of the widow and her persistence and how that maybe more about God’s relationship to us than the Judges’ action to the widow.  Today, as the cover suggests, is about how things in God’s Kindom can be reverse from how they appear. Well maybe

“It begins with two comments about the addressees. Jesus tells this parable to some who (1) trust in themselves that they are righteous and (2) regard others with contempt. The first verb is used elsewhere in Luke at 11:22 with reference to the armor of the strong man, in which he trusts but which is taken away from him by the stronger man; to trust in one’s own righteousness is to rely on a flimsy defense”[1]

One commentator points out that this parable is deceptively simple. I find myself in strong agreement with that statement after reading several commentaries that stand in opposition to each other.

So, let’s see who are the players in this story? First, we have the pharisee

“The Pharisees of the first century were not “legalists” who were trying to earn God’s favor. They were a Jewish movement that emphasized the importance of obedience to the law of Moses. Living in accordance with Torah was a way of making God’s benefits visible and accessible in all aspects of life for all who were Jewish.

The Pharisees’ attention to things like rituals for cleansing one’s body or one’s cookware was part of a larger effort to encounter God’s holiness in everyday life. Pharisaic priorities aligned with the notion of Israel as a holy (“set apart”) nation, even while in the first century Jews lived in subjection to Roman rule and were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world.

Pharisees’ emphasis on interpreting the law and developing “oral torah” as practical guidelines for law observance helps explain why Jesus has so much interaction with Pharisees in the gospels. The similarities he shared with them led to dialogue, which made some Pharisees sympathetic to Jesus’ movement (Luke 13:33; 19:39; Acts 15:5; 23:6). The similarities also exacerbated the differences, as Jesus and the Pharisees participated in critical intra-Jewish debates about how exactly Jewish values should express themselves in a changing cultural landscape.”[2]

Then we have the tax Collector

“The Roman Empire’s taxation system repeatedly offended many residents of first-century Galilee. It is difficult to determine how severe the taxation demands were on individuals and their families, but the tax-gathering system was notoriously corrupt. To collect taxes in places like neighborhoods, highways, markets, and docks, Roman officials enlisted members of the population to bid for contracts. Tax collectors could line their own pockets with whatever they could collect over and above their contractual obligations.

The gospels operate with an understanding that tax collectors were generally viewed as dishonest and greedy. The reasons are obvious. They were slimy opportunists and collaborators, willing to victimize their own neighbors while assisting the occupiers. They upheld Roman interests at the expense of the people of God. It would have been dangerous to oppose such men who appeared to have traded their social consciences and religious self-worth for financial gain.

Jesus’ willingness to associate with tax collectors compounds the scandal of his ministry in the eyes of others (Luke 5:27-32; 7:33-35; 15:1-2). Why would someone so interested in holiness and liberation spend his time in the company of mobsters? Why would he extend mercy to those who made a living off of denying mercy to others? Jesus deliberately reaches out to scoundrels. He does not cast off those who enrich themselves by enabling the empire.”[3]

So, the scene is set and the drama is about to play out

Both men head up to pray” The 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

 All I can think is wow he said that out loud!

I mean we all have thoughts and maybe even prayers sometime that go something along those lines…I am glad I am not him, thank you for all you given me, I am happy to be a contemporary Christian and not like those who preach hate and division…

At the same time 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!”.

Broken, humbled, knowing that tomorrow he must go back to tax collecting otherwise Rome would come looking for him, he would lose his income, his family would end up destitute.  Feeling he has no control over anything he throws his life on the mercy of God.

The contrast between the two seem clear and easy and is summarized nice and neat “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“It all seems rather straightforward really. The addressees hear what we expect them to hear; the Pharisee and tax collector play their parts.

One challenge for us, perhaps, is to notice that we rather like being exalted. We might think of it as the satisfaction of a job well done or a duty fulfilled. And we might begin to believe that things we do (giving money to the church, doing religious or charitable activities, being upstanding members of society, making a well-deserved salary) or don’t do (being thieves, rogues, or adulterers) really might justify us, at least a little, might make us a bit better than those who fail where we succeed.”[4]

Paul Tillich, commenting on the Apostle Paul's assertion that the gospel is a stumbling block, once said that the danger is stumbling over the wrong thing.

This is one of those parables you see we all too easily make the assumptions that I have laid out for you.  It is easy to Judge the Pharisee.  We know who they are and how they are viewed…
But if you heard my fopah earlier you would see how easy it is to become the pharisee even in reflection of the gospel.

“’Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self-righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.’

In order to avoid the kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable that the parable itself would seem to condemn, it may help to note that, in fact, everything the Pharisee says is true.

He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous (see Luke 15:7). So, before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves.

Maybe we haven't said, "Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people...", but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, "There but for the grace of God go I"? It isn't that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing.”[5]

The issue is the pharisee is trusting in his own actions he is self-justifying his own righteousness and his prayer, his conversation with God, is all about, well himself.

“The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason, he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.”[6]

The tax collector is relying on God.  One commentator says he is not so much as humble but desperate…” He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.

I don't think it's an accident that this exchange takes place at the Temple. On the grounds of the Temple, you were always intimately aware of who you were, of what status you had, of what you could expect from God. There were, at the Temple, "insiders" and "outsiders," and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood. But when Jesus dies all this changes. As the gospels report, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two (Luke 23:45), symbolically erasing all divisions of humanity before God. That act is prefigured here, as God justifies not the one favored by Temple law, but rather the one standing outside the Temple gate, and aware only of his utter need.”[7]

This parable is a tricky one for as soon as we feel contempt for the Pharisee in his truthful prayer we divide.  As soon as we are confused by the tax collector who goes home, justified, to go on with his life. We divide! And as soon as we fall into the trap of dividing humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned with the pharisee.

“Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as with Luke, we are doomed. Anytime you draw a line between who's "in" and who's "out," this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side.”[8]

Once we read the parable this way the parable breaks forth from its traditional interpretation…This is not about being self righteous, this is not about being humble, this is not about a tax collector nor a pharisee.  This is about God.

Wait a parable about God? God who alone can Judge, God alone who knows what lies upon the human heart, God alone who is loving and forgiving. God who can grant justice even unto the unjust.  In the end “the Pharisee will leave the Temple and return to his home righteous. This hasn't changed; he was righteous when he came up and righteous as he goes back down. The tax collector, however, will leave the Temple and go back down to his home justified, that is, accounted righteous by the Holy One of Israel. How has this happened? The tax collector makes neither sacrifice nor restitution. On what basis, then, is he named as righteous? On the basis of God's divine fiat and ordinance!”[9]

In biblical terms because God has deemed it so.  Just because.  In theological terms as we proclaim an all loving God so stands a lowly tax collector Righteous in God’s sight.

“For you who have loved Jesus—perhaps with great passion and protectiveness—do you recognize that any God worthy of the name must transcend creeds and denominations, time and place, nations and ethnicities, and all the vagaries of gender and sexual orientation, extending to the limits of all we can see, suffer, and enjoy? You are not your gender, your nationality, your ethnicity, your skin color, or your social class. These are not the qualities of your True Self in God!  Why, oh why, do Christians allow temporary costumes, or what Thomas Merton called the “false self,” to pass for the substantial self, which is always “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)? It seems that we really do not know our own Gospel.
You are a child of God, and always will be, even when you don’t believe it.
And so is everyone else! God created us all. We are all God’s children.”[10]

As we stand in this revelation of our true selves and the extravagant love of God “we forget if only for a moment our human-constructed divisions and stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, are justified by the God of Jesus and invited to return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude”[11]

[3] Ditto
[6] Ditto
[7] Ditto
[8] Ditto
[9] ditto
[10] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation: true self false self, 10/24/19
[11] ditto

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