Scripture for this Sunday: Joel 2.23-32; Psalm 65.1-7; 2 Timothy 4.6-8,16-18; Luke 18.9-14 (the parable of the Pharisee & the tax collector)
In some of the stories that Jesus tells as parables, it can be very easy to become so caught up in the detail of the story that we lose track of the overall point. The story that Jesus tells about a pompously pious Pharisee and a wretchedly humble tax collector is an example.
Although Luke, in his gospel, has already made his opinion of Pharisees quite clear, this one is a caricature. Although Luke has already shown us several tax collectors, this one is far from flawless. It is a parable – a story with a meaning – and both the characters narrated by Jesus would have taken his listeners by surprise. The point of the parable, directed at Jesus’ disciples (including us!) is to beware of the human trait of judging others negatively.
It is all very well to point a finger of judgement at the Pharisee and his self-righteous prayer – but although Luke steers us throughout his gospel to dislike the Pharisees, they were in many ways respected for the way in which they lived their lives. A Pharisee who proclaimed a prayer of self-righteousness would have been rather surprising, since that is not, generally, what they did. But then we need to remember that this is a story, and this is a parable, and it is meant to make a point, not necessarily about all Pharisees.
It is all very well to join the tax collector in sinful self-awareness – but it is not enough. The remorse of the tax collector is all very well, but it cannot be the end of his story, nor can self-deprecating inaction be a spiritual practice to be recommended for the rest of us. Admitting our unworthiness is a good step on a spiritual journey – but only the first step. It needs to be accompanied by the active part of repentance: turning around.
Humility before God and honesty about self should drive us to new horizons of compassion, justice, and love. Remember that verse from the prophet Micah (6.8): God wants us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. There are three parts to that, not just the last one.
In any case, in his parable Jesus was primarily focusing on the question of judging others negatively (which is to stray into God’s domain of responsibility), and then using that judgement to exclude people from the community. Instead of pointing a finger at those whom we are glad not to be like, we might try in humility recognising those who are worth emulating.
Perhaps this week Gary Lineker would be worth emulating. He has been vilified in some of the media for speaking up for youths moved from the migrant camp known as The Jungle in Calais to be with family in Britain. Sadly, his critics seem intent on using stories that inflame hostility to those in need. People outside the USA seem to be enjoying pointing fingers of horror at Donald Trump and his campaign that is largely based upon inflaming and exploiting xenophobia and bigotry, but in the UK many don’t seem to notice that certain newspapers seem to thrive on inflating sales through stories that similarly inflame and exploit xenophobia and bigotry. This is exactly what Jesus was pinpointing in his parable: judging others negatively and presuming to exclude them on the basis of that judgement.
Perhaps the best insight that we can take away from this passage, as with many other stories that Jesus told, is that we do not need to be like either of the caricatured characters. We do not have to be pompously self-righteous, but we can, for example, tithe and adopt spiritual disciplines. Neither do we have to stand in the corner and whine about our imperfections; we can put our trust in God, accept God’s trust in us, and seek to respond actively to God’s call.
Then we can be both honest recipients of God’s justice and grace and willing proponents of them.