This is one of those stories where Jesus turns everything upside down but, unfortunately, two thousand years and a whole life’s listening have turned it back the wrong way up. We know that Pharisees are the baddies and we know that Jesus used to hang around with tax-collectors and all that knowing takes the sting out of the tale.
How do you put it back? Dominic Crossan tells it this way, ‘A pope and a pimp went to St. Peters to pray …’ (but, as you hear, that just makes us laugh) … I thought of telling it with Mother Teresa and Osama bin Laden … but that made me too uncomfortable.
So, back to the drawing board… Let’s set the scene. It’s the temple … not just any church but the Church, the one place of sacrifice … let’s say it’s time for the afternoon sacrifice and the special moment when the Priest enters the Holy Place to burn incense for the forgiveness of sins. The tax-collector is stuck at the back, not out of humility, but because people like him were kept back so as not to make others ritually impure. The story is all about impurity. To take part in the temple rituals that brought forgiveness and forged a people for God you had to be pure. And that’s not just morally good. All the rules and rituals of the Law, and all the extra ones followed by a Pharisee, were about making sure you didn’t become impure and in that way out of the whole ritual economy of God’s people. And the ways of becoming impure were many—like breaking a Sabbath rule or eating the wrong kind of food or food that had touched other foods or dealing with gentiles or having certain kinds of sickness or touching a menstruating woman or just being a woman. All that or just bumping into someone else who was already impure. Basically, if you were poor or just an ordinary person living from day to day you didn’t have the time or the opportunity to be ritually pure, so you were stuck at the back watching and not taking part. And if anyone was impure it was our tax-collector, who had the dirty job of sitting in his toll-booth squeezing the tax that his boss demanded, because some bigger boss said so, because the Roman governor had levied it.
Our Pharisee, on the other hand, gets to sit up front, close to the action and be so sure of its power that he doesn’t even have to ask for forgiveness—he can just stand up tall and thank God for his good fortune. Our Pharisee was not on his own. Here’s the advice of the Rabbi Judah: ‘One must utter three praises everyday: Praised (be the Lord) that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him; praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under obligation to fulfil the law; praised by He that He did not make me an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins.’ Let’s give our Pharisee the benefit of the doubt and presume that he is sincere in his praise of God for making him good and keeping him from impurity. Let’s presume too that he is honest and he really does do what he says he does and isn’t just being a hypocrite like some of the other Pharisees that get the sharp edge of Jesus’ tongue. Well, If they are both honest and both sincere what’s the difference between them? Why does Jesus say the tax-collector is the one who goes home redeemed by God?
It’s not sincerity that makes the difference. It surely can’t be what the two actually have done in their lives because the Pharisee really is good and the tax-collector really is bad—a corrupt, debt-collector, working for the occupying army. It’s not sincerity and it’s not morality and I don’t think its humility either. There’s been so much dodgy stuff taught through the years about not thinking well of yourself as if that could redeem you in God’s eyes. Half of us need to think better of ourselves not worse to be true to God’s own vision of us.
I think that all that separates the two actors in our drama is empathy. The Pharisee has had life so good, so easy, that he has no grasp of what it might be like to have life tough. He doesn’t know what life can be like on the other side of the street. And because he doesn’t have that basic empathy he can slander the debt-collector and the rest of mankind and not know what that feels like. He can’t put himself in the shoes of the grasping, unjust, adulterous of ordinary people. And because he can’t the doors of grace are shut to him. He is a door shut to grace. All God’s redeeming grace finds no opening in him.
Thank God that we who pray here today are not like that Pharisee—self-centred, hard-hearted, and unfeeling … but of course we are like him. We are human. We are all of us, each of us, capable of any heroism and any atrocity. That’s the tax-collector’s gift to us: the empathy to make us one of the crowd, just another sinner, just another human being, just someone else, like him, standing in need of mercy, in hope of redemption. Here we are God; we need you; redeem our lives or they are wasted.
1 comment October 28th, 2001