Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Luke 18:9-14

In ‘Witness’, a series of radio plays on Luke’s Gospel by Mark Warburton, the character of Jesus is cast with a Northern accent, and he tells the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee with such gentle humour. I think we often miss the passages in the Bible that would have raised a smile for the first hearers of these well-known stories.

We come to these stories with some inevitable preconceptions and their familiarity can mean we miss the challenge of the story. Several elements in this parable need a little unpacking. Two men go up to the Temple to pray. For Luke’s hearers mention of the Temple would bring to mind a place of very particular focus. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says of the Temple:

‘The temple was, in Jesus’ day, the central symbol of Judaism, the location of Israel’s most characteristic praxis, the topic of her most vital stories, the answer to her deepest questions, the subject of some of her most beautiful songs.’

Both men know that the Temple is a place where God can be found, and reconciliation can be sought. Both men go to the Temple expecting God to hear their prayer. The two men prayer very different prayers. For Luke’s hearers their sympathy would lie with the Pharisee. Pharisees were respected teachers who followed Torah. The community looked to them to make the ancient teachings relevant to the specific circumstances of their lives. Interestingly Pharisees were not directly associated with the Temple as they were largely village based. They appealed to ordinary people who were trying their best to be faithful to the Torah. Of course, Luke has cast them in a fairly poor light in his Gospel, so we are unlikely to come to this prayer with an open mind. The Pharisee lays out his credentials, which isn’t itself objectionable. There is a school of thought that focuses on his gratitude as well as his self-satisfied tone. Where things do turn is his judgment of the Tax Collector.

By contrast the Tax Collector has no such credentials. His occupation firmly places him under the influence of Rome and not of God’s Kingdom. Luke’s hearers would presume his dishonesty and for this he would be considered sinful. And yet, he still comes to pray. He asks for mercy. The shocking part of the parable comes in the next line: ‘This man, I tell you, went home at rights with God; the other did not.’ God’s mercy cannot be fitted into our categories, no matter how noble and theologically watertight we think they might be.

This parable leaves me with the unsettling feeling that I am capable of being both Pharisee and Tax Collector. Both prayers have something to teach me about how I come before God and what I ask of him.

What would your prayer to God be?