The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2019 – Cycle C
Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
We get it Jesus: Pharisee – bad, tax collector – good; self-righteousness – bad, humble repentance – good. The end. But as Gilbert and Sullivan posed in their operetta, “The Mikado”, “Things are seldom what they seem…”
Parables are not simply nice stories Jesus told about everyday life to teach us some aspect of spirituality we should live. Understood properly parables should surprise and challenge us. Often they are unresolved. The evangelists were not always comfortable with that lack of resolution. Most of us like things neat and tidy as well.
Thus we are caught off guard as Luke introduces this parable with a comment of his own: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else”. Luke has stacked the deck. He sets up a scenario that Jesus didn’t and is controlling how we hear the parable. He does the same at the conclusion with his quote about who is exalted and who is humbled.
Were some people in Luke’s community convinced of their own righteousness while despising others? How many of us are convinced of our own righteousness and look down on others? What did Jesus mean by this parable and how did his first century Jewish disciples hear this parable when Jesus told it without Luke’s intro and conclusion?
As I stated, Pharisees are perceived as bad. So much so that being a Pharisee has become even down to our day identified with being a “hypocrite”. Yet first century Jews would beg to differ with us. Even the Gospels portray Pharisees as inviting Jesus to dinner, asking him valid theological questions and warning him against the plottings of Herod. For the majority of Jews the Pharisees were respected teachers. So, Pharisee – bad? Our neat black and white perceptions are beginning to turn grey.
What do you think of the Pharisee’s prayer?
“‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’” How would you characterize that prayer? …arrogant? …self-satisfied? …filled with pride?
Are we judging the prayer this way by comparison to how we supposedly pray?
Listen to a Jewish prayer from about the year 300 CE.
“Blessed be You, God, who did not make me a gentile…who did not make me uneducated…who did not make me a woman”.
The prayer of the Pharisee is in line with Jewish prayer by giving thanks to God because everything was believed to be determined by God which allowed a person to be a faithful worshiper. In regard to fasting and tithing, the Pharisee is going beyond what God commanded his people in the Book of Deuteronomy. He is as good as Abraham. So, what are we to make of this Pharisee? “Things are seldom what they seem…”
Then what about the tax collector? Given the example of a repentant tax collector like Zacchaeus or that Matthew, one of Jesus’ apostles was a tax collector, first century Jews would again beg to differ with our perceptions of tax collectors as being good. Tax collectors were agents of Rome, an oppressive and militaristic occupying force, and not the agents of God. They would have been presumed to be dishonest, corrupt, rich and likely to show no mercy to others. The presence of the tax collector in the Temple is, at best, unexpected?
Is the Pharisee praising God or praising himself? Is the tax collector trusting in the divine and preparing to make restitution to those whom he has cheated or will he keep his day job and continue to sin? With whom are you and I to identify with, the Pharisee who does what God has commanded and more or the tax collector who, as far as we know, has done nothing to benefit the community, but who at least seems sincere in his request?
The parable, as it should, upends common and comfortable ideas and perceptions. We are in a land of “grey”. Who is good and who is bad is not as apparent any more, is it?
After portraying the betrayals, revenge and deaths that occur when ten Grimm’s fairy tales collide in Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods”, the Broadway show concludes with a song entitled, “No One Is Alone”. Cinderella who now has no family and the Baker whose wife committed adultery with a prince and is later accidently killed sing:
People make mistakes,
Holding to their own,
Thinking they’re alone.
Honor their mistakes,
Fight for their mistakes…
Witches can be right,
Giants can be good.
Someone is on your side.
No one is alone.
And maybe that’s a possible point of this sticky parable of a grey Pharisee and a grey tax collector who each stand separately and alone in the Temple one day, no one is truly alone.
God is always on our side, self – satisfied as we may be sometimes and sinners that we are all the time…we are not alone.
[Ideas, phrases, passages taken from short stories by jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine, HarperOne, 2014.]