Pentecost 22C, 2010
A Liturgy is also available
LIVE LIFE BEYOND THE NARROW SPACES, IN ALL ITS FULLNESS...
Luke’s story of the Pharisee and a Toll Collector requires sensitive listening.
Why? Because this parable, or more correct - the interpretation often given to this parable -
has given rise to stereotyping of Pharisees.
So the term ‘pharisee’ or ‘pharisaic’
has come to have a very negative dictionary meaning:
pretentious, hypocritical, ‘holier than thou’.
This is not only unfortunate, it is also unfair to Pharisees.
As West Australian theologian Bill Loader reminds us:
“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” (Loader Web site 2010).
So this morning let us see if we can ‘come close’ with sensitive listening.
And to do that I want to explore this Lukan-only story via three related cameos:
(i) what was happening in Luke’s community for him to reshape a Jesus story this way;
(ii) what was the Jesus story about;
(iii) how might we reconstruct this story for our context.
And if we can get a couple of hints about some of these
then I hope we will have done well.
But more so if it spikes your curiosity to explore parables a bit more!
Luke sets up this story right at the beginning.
It is being told ...’to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous
and despised everyone else’.
That is, one story character is set up to be rejected even before the story begins.
• So, cameo No. 1 - what was happening in Luke’s community
for him to reverse this Jesus story the way it has been?
Perhaps we can only speculate.
But I reckon it had something to do with the differences between
those who were followers of the Galilean with a Judean world view, and
those who were followers of the Galilean with a Gentile or Hellenistic world view.
They viewed matters differently. Perhaps profoundly so.
Now that’s OK in itself.
But problems begin to set in when one group wants to claim
that the other group are ‘theological prostitutes’,
(to use a now infamous phrase which was bandied around the
Sydney Anglican synod and in the media a few years ago).
So, as a response to whatever is happening in his community,
Luke takes a Jesus story, a parable,
and turns it into another story, an example story.
And in that example story a theological life-style model
is offered the people of the community to adopt.
Be passionate about what gives meaning to your life.
Especially your prayer life.
And even about those matters which you believe others may have
a misunderstanding of religious experience.
But be careful about claiming a superior righteousness.
And that’s the part of the Jesus story that I reckon
Luke is happy to emphasise within his particular context.
Do as the toll collector. Not the Pharisee.
Eduard Schweizer, one of my New Testament professors
during my days at theological college, suggests:
“What is pernicious is what takes place between (Luke’s) Pharisee’s ‘going up’ and his ‘going down’, the turning point at which he tries
in his prayer to commit God to condemning the tax collector” (Schweizer 1984: 283).
Let me now move to cameo No. 2.
• What was the Jesus story about?
Allowing for the literary and historical fact we can only get the gist of Jesus’ story
rather than all the actual words of Jesus,
perhaps we can say this...
The Jesus story was about two different or contrasting groups of people:
those deemed to be pious, religious and acceptable,
those deemed to be rogues, outsiders and unacceptable.
Jesus’ listeners would readily agree: that’s the way the world is!
The Jesus story was set within a religious institutional context:
within the Temple and temple worship in particular.
The Jesus story conformed to the ordinary people’s expectations.
“The pharisee’s prayer marks him as the ideal of the pious, and the tax collector’s acknowledgement that he is a sinner acknowledges what all know to be true” (Scott 1989: 97).
All are playing by the rules of the game, if you like.
The twist in the tail, because the Jesus story
is a parable and not an example story, comes when we
consider the comments at the end of the story.
“This one, I tell you, went home again at rights with God; the other did not.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but those who humble themselves will be exalted”.
Without sounding too pedantic about things
I happen to reckon that only the fist phrase - ‘going home at rights with God’ -
sounds more like a Jesus comment, than the second bit.
Because the first phrase sounds like many of the other Jesus comments,
where the ‘twist in the tail’ of his stories
turns our perceived world views upside down.
Samaritans, not Judeans, offer help.
Leaven, the unholy, is a symbol for the kingdom or realm of God.
Toll collectors are ‘in’ while Pharisees are ‘out’.
No wonder Jesus’ contemporaries were puzzled
by his vision of the population of the realm of God!
It went against the stream!
Now, to cameo No. 3.
• How might we reconstruct this story for our context?
Well, a reconstruction that I reckon is needed today concerns what is commonly called 'repentance'.
Now when I preached on this theme some years ago,
several - no, many - people in one country congregation where I was minister,
lined up afterwards in the car park to point out
where I was very, very wrong.
Repentance, they said, was
required prior to forgiveness. Period.
And how dare I preach something different!
At the risk of
experiencing that same fate today I want to continue to suggest...
There is something more important than getting people to repent (if that is ever needed).
A much more fundamental thing is valuing them as persons.
And this is
what I reckon Matthew's Jesus was on about.
Jesus takes people seriously - as people.
He values them as persons and meets them on their own terms.
He is not prepared to write some of them off, as his critics did.
So listening to a suggestion by Professor of Religion and Humanities, John D. Caputo,
might it be that Jesus always offered forgiveness
"to sinners who were still sinning and this in advance of their having repented?" (Caputo 2006:219).
Some ways then we might hear or reconstruct this story today is by:
- accepting our common, shared humanity, with those around us;
- to live life beyond the narrow spaces, in all its fullness, and
- whenever we reckon we have to talk about repentance,
it must always be offered graciously and unconditionally.
All these responses are expressing a belief in people and their future.
They are about saying ‘yes’ to each other.
Everyone of us can do that.
It is one of the core acts of behaviour
when we are freed to go on the journey that Jesus chartered.
Caputo, J. D. 2006. The Weakness of God. A Theology of the Event. Bloomington. Indiana University Press.
Schweizer, E. 1984. The Good News According to Luke. London. SPCK.
Scott, B. B. 1989. Hear Then The Parable. A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.