Lectionary Readings for Oct. 27. Psalm 84, Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22, 2 Tim 4:6-8, Luke 18:9-14
The story Jesus tells about the Pharisee and the tax collector is short and simple. Our thinking about it should not be. It's tempting to say this is easy to understand and that it clearly divides people into "be like this" and "don't be like this." The message, however, is much more challenging if we let it soak in to our hearts and minds.
In Jesus' day, the Pharisees were looked up to as examples of how to live. Everything the Pharisee says in his prayer is true. He does fast and pray, he is a good person, he is fortunate not to be in a position where he is pushed into desperate living, such as the thieves and rogues he mentions. What is offensive, is that he thinks this makes him more worthy of God's love, than anyone else.
The tax collector held a job that left him despised by the populace. He took their money for the government, and even if he did this honestly, he would not be liked. (Tax collectors had a reputation for padding their incomes by overcharging, which certainly did not endear them to society.) When he prays, he doesn't compare himself to anyone else, he simply asks God for mercy.
(I wonder what comparable vocations would be used to tell this story today? Maybe Bible bookstore owner or pastor and a used car salesperson? We certainly are not free of stereotyping people according to their jobs!)
As a kid, I always thought the Pharisee was bragging loudly and the tax collector was quiet. Nope. The Pharisee may have been loud, but verse 11 states that he was standing by himself. He wasn't doing anything very unusual. The tax collector was further away, but was certainly not quiet at all and was not acting normally. He was "beating his breast"-an action that would draw attention. (One commentator even says this action was more common to grieving women than it was to men. The tax collector certainly wasn't trying to hide! He was a bit of a spectacle!)
At our Bible study/preparation meeting for the Oct. 27 service, the leader handed out a bit of commentary about this parable. I'm going to quote it here-it's good stuff. Sorry, I don't have the author's name. (if anyone needs that information, let me know and I'll track it down)
"Two basic truths underlie the meaning of this story.: God loves us and we are all sinners. The Pharisee understands only one of them-God loves me. He sees only his strengths and good deeds and tells God all about them. It is a one sided conversation. The tax-collector however understands both of them. He is well aware of his weaknesses and sins. (Lots of people point them out to him regularly.) If that was all he knew, he wouldn't be at the Temple at all. But he also knows that God loves him in spite of this sins. So he comes to God to confess and leaves OK with God."
This is a simple parable,but it's challenges are significant. We are challenged to accept that God loves us, no matter how we compare to others. (Hard for those with low opinions of themselves.) We are challenged to be humble and not think of ourselves as better than others, even when society gives us that message. (Hard for those with high opinions of themselves.) We are challenged to openly confess. (Difficult for everyone.) There is some of the Pharisee and tax-collector in each of us, and we are encouraged to bring ourselves to God.
In 2 Timothy, Paul believes he has done the best he can. He doesn't fault others for their lack of support when he is brought to the judgement of the authorities. He relies on God for true judgement and says; "to him be the glory forever and ever." Today's scriptures encourage and challenge us to find that place of feeling good about ourselves, not condemning others, and surrendering control and judgement into God's hands.