Where do you stand? Who do you stand with?
Questions I suspect which are being asked a lot this weekend amongst Conservative politicians and party members.
But they are questions which I found coming into my mind long before yet another Tory leadership contest was announced. Questions which came into sharp focus as I re-read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible we are told that the Pharisee is standing by himself (other translations describe him as praying to himself or praying about himself) and historians tell us that the Temple was vast with some commentators explaining that the Pharisee would likely be praying in the Inner Temple with the tax collector further away outside in the Court of the Gentiles.
Yet it is clear from the text that the Pharisee sees the tax collector because he refers to him specifically when praying. I wonder… was Jesus trying to make the point that these two were not as far from each other as we might think?
The only daily services in the Temple at that time were the atonement offerings at dawn and 3pm and many pious Jews would offer private prayers elsewhere at those times of day instead - thus engaging in the worship of God whilst not actually present (rather like those of us who might pray the daily offices at home or work using the Church’s Daily Prayer app). People who lived in Galilee or other far flung parts would only have attended Temple a few times a year for major festivals or significant life events such as the arrival of their first born child and even those living in Jerusalem may not have visited daily or weekly. Over 2000 years later it’s a pattern we sometimes witness in church, with some people just attending church for weddings, funerals or baptisms like the ones we’ll witness today.
In the parable both the Pharisee and the tax collector attend the Temple to pray. Some commentators suggest the Pharisee places himself apart from others out of elitism and depict him as praying loudly to shame the tax collector, but the text itself doesn’t specify whether his prayer can be heard and he could just as well have stood apart out of a desire to commune privately with God. His prayer is one in which he compares himself favourably with others, pointing to their sins and failings and boasting in his prayer about the extent to which he goes above and beyond the requirements of the law with his fasting and tithing.
In contrast, the tax collector stands eyes down: beating his breast (an action associated with contrition as well as mourning) and seeking mercy. He makes no reference to anyone else. We might picture him standing apart from other worshippers, perhaps out of shame or for fear of being shunned (for we know that tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the Romans and despised as traitors) We’re told he is “standing far off”? But far off from what or whom? The text doesn’t actually say.
It’s important to remember how these two characters (probably better described as caricatures) will have been viewed by Jesus’ First Century audience. The Pharisee would have been a respected teacher, expected to be pious and righteous. But the tax collector’s presence in the Temple would have been unexpected. Probably rich, he would likely have been considered sinful, self-interested and lacking in mercy. The respected Professor of New Testament Studies and Orthodox Jew Amy-Jill Levine points out that Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have been surprised to hear the Pharisee depicted as someone so dismissive of others in the community and the tax collector portrayed as repentant.
Isn’t Jesus a bit harsh on the Pharisee? After all, at least he makes an effort. It’s not as if he denies God or pretends that God doesn’t exist….Levine argues that much of his prayer is perfectly acceptable but that what is wrong or surprising about it is the way in which it negatively judges the tax collector.
The tax collector’s prayer focuses on him alone. It is him, we are told, who goes home justified, and yet we know not whether he intends to abandon his sinful ways.
In First Century Judaism prayer was of three types; confession of sins; thanks for bounty received and petitions for oneself and others. I observe in passing that the prayers of neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector feature petitions for others. Both seem somewhat self-centred.
The standard reading is that it is only the tax collector who receives God’s grace, his prayer being the one which displays humility and a dependence on God, whereas that of the Pharisee, with its emphasis on his own works, leads to a despising of others who seem not to put in the same amount of effort as him. It is the tax collector who is said to demonstrate that humble yearning for God’s unearned grace which one writer describes as “an authentic aspect of genuine prayer”. The outcome is no doubt one Jesus’ audience would have been uncomfortable with, that the observant Pharisee should be denied God’s grace.
But Levine argues that the parable is open to another interpretation, based on the communitarian nature of Judaism and an argument that the Greek in the final verse can be read as “this man went down to his home justified because of the other as opposed to rather than the other”. Such an interpretation results in BOTH men being justified not just the tax collector and arguably speaks more of the generosity of God - there’s enough grace for them both!
As readers we are tempted to condemn the Pharisee’s arrogance, to distance ourselves from him and those to whom Jesus addressed the parable, namely those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” But if we do that we fall into the trap of displaying the same sense of superiority as them.
Contempt is a strong word but essentially means disregard or disrespect.
When did you last disrespect someone or disregard their views?
When was the last time you claimed the moral high ground? And when was the last time you felt aggrieved that you were having to do more whilst others were putting in less effort? Don’t we do it all the time?
I began this sermon by asking: “Where do you stand? Who do you stand with?”
Do you sympathise with the seemingly self-satisfied Pharisee who at least seems to make an effort, or the seemingly repentant tax collector who arguably does nothing for the benefit of his community?
The reality is that once we judge one as better than the other we are trapped by the parable.
Maybe both the Pharisee and the tax collector were just doing the best they could. Maybe not.
I’m attracted to Levine’s argument that both of them are justified and agree with her observation that we find the notion of God’s unlimited generosity problematic. We struggle to comprehend the unlimited nature of Divine grace. Our own sense of justice is too narrow.
Rather than dwelling on what it is that they say I prefer to imagine the Pharisee and the tax collector standing in the Temple together, shoulder to shoulder: both conscious of their Creator’s presence, both simply talking to God,
Richard Young (Rector)