Who is The Villain?

23 Oct
Luke 18:9-14
One of the criticisms the teenagers in my chapel would make is that all Christians are hypocrites; that is they say one thing and do another; that they make demands on others they are unable to keep themselves. They got a shock when I agreed with them and stated very clearly that I too was a hypocrite.
At my peak I am very ordinary, and I am not at my peak at the moment. This is something I remind myself of daily. I am a work in progress and like all works in progress I am not complete and I am working toward that day when I will be as close as possible to average as I can be.
In todays Gospel we are given another insight into prayer which is too easily trivialised as the distinction between the righteous and the sinner here represented by the Pharisee and the tax collector. We always seem to come down on the side of the tax collector and disparage the Pharisee as the villain of the story.
The Pharisees are always the villains, not necessarily in the parables as Jesus tells them but in the retelling of the parables by Christians after the birth of the church. We always need villains, some one to blame and in our modern society this has become an art form. We have replaced Pharisees with “them” who ever we wish them to be. They are always the reason everything is going to custard. It is never our fault.
John Meier suggests an interesting insight:  “Jesus would have interacted more with them than with any other Jewish movement or party (because) both Jesus and the Pharisees shared a consuming desire to bring all Israel, not just an esoteric sect or a privileged elite, to the complete doing of God’s will as laid out in the Law and the prophets. Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on many basic points: God’s free election of Israel, his gift of the Law, the need to respond wholeheartedly to the Law’s demands in one’s everyday life, God’s faithful guidance of Israel through history to a future consummation involving the restoration of Israel, a final judgment, the resurrection of the dead, and perhaps some sort of eschatological or messianic figure as God’s agent in the end time. At the same time, disagreements were inevitable”. They were not the villains but became so because of how the stereotype of the Pharisee (and the adjective, “Pharisaic”) has played out in Christian history. This can be seen in the way that Jewish faith has been represented by Christians as legalistic and hypocritical, in contrast to the heartfelt and authentic faith of Christians.”
What is the Pharisees sin as portrayed in this story? William Loader suggests “The message of Jesus is quite sharp: bolstering one’s sense of identity by disparaging others (even when they are terrible sinners) so easily leads to illusions of grandeur and a failure to see ourselves as we really are.” Are the Pharisees alone in this or is there a sense that the story, as retold by the Gospel writer or editors joins in such a sin? Are they not disparaging the Pharisees to make a point? That point being that one should see oneself for who one is – a sinner, a hypocrite as my students would say, for we are all in the same leaky boat.
The difference here is that the real villain in the story is the tax collector. According to Kathleen Corley, “ tax collectors are connected in Greco-Roman literature with those who trafficked in prostitution and slavery, particularly to brothel keepers and pimps, those responsible for supplying women and slaves for banquets”. This particular tax collector is self aware and honest, at this point any way, about his situation. The challenge for him and his cohort is what happens next. Do they remain part of the problem or become part of the solution to the systemic injustice they are a key part of? Our eagerness to condemn the Pharisees gets in the way of a realistic response to the entrenched behaviour of the tax collector and his acquaintances.
Neither of the protagonists get off easy. Both have some work to do. Both have to have a realistic look at their behaviour towards others and neither can claim the moral or spiritual high ground.  
Yes, the Pharisees and those of us who see ourselves as privileged and entitled need to get it into perspective – at our peak we are very ordinary and we are rarely at our peak and therefore can not claim to be better than others. The tax collector reminds us that we have indeed behaved badly, more than we often wish to see, in ways that have diminished others and need to admit such before both God and others.
  • Prayer is about honesty – about being honest with ourselves and with God – but with ourselves first. Then and only then can we take the steps to put right what we put wrong and continue to strive for the best.
  • Prayer is about enough – in this case about the fact that our ordinary efforts to live out the way of Christ is enough. We do not have to disparage others to bolster our own standing. We are enough, even with all our faults we have many positive moments where we do get it right.
  • Prayer is about being ok – I’m  O.K – You’re O.K. despite the fact we are conflicted with passions and wounds, loss and  grief and a history that speaks into our life today. The Pharisee was O.K. and didn’t need to disparage another; the tax collector was O.K. but he had some more work to do.
  • Prayer is about humility, but it must be an honest humility. The Pharisee and those like him are challenged to be humble and the tax collector is challenged to prove his humility is real. It is not enough to say I am a sinner, one must take steps to conversion, the complete change in behaviour required as part of such humility. 
  • Prayer is about God’s grace – God knows and understands us, and although God seeks us to be the best we can be, is able to work with our humanity. That is the great truth of the incarnation. God so trusted the human form that God became one with it in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.
This parable is another difficult story and is as relevant to the church today as it was to the religious of Jesus time. The church, you and I, is being asked to stand where the tax collector stood, moving away from the position of the privileged and the powerful as we were in the past, and to admit that our arrogance has been responsible for great sin.

Like the tax collector we are to recognise this and be transformed into the body of Christ, the disciples of the way. Amen.

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