Readings: Psalm 51: 1, 7, 10-12, 16-17, Luke 18:9-14, Secrets of Heaven 874 (see below)
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Photo credit: Ric Rodrigues
This is a parable that is going to get a little meta: Jesus cautions us against making judgements based on stereotypes and caricatures by using…you guessed it, stereotypes and caricatures.
As we consider this parable, it is really important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the story is about the characters in it. The parable really isn’t about a Pharisee and a tax collector, per se. We aren’t supposed to draw conclusions about either of those groups of people in general. The characters, and the assumptions that the original hearers would have had about them, are there to help us to come to a recognition of the ways in which our own tribalism and self-absorption can lead us to make assumptions about others that are not accurate.
So, the parable works by starting in one place, and then bringing us full circle around to interrogate the assumptions with which we began. Like many of Jesus parables, this one would definitely have shocked the original hearers, for he subverts their expectations on multiple levels.
Jerusalem was very sectarian in Jesus’ time. There were various groups and movements within Judaism that were in conversation with each other around the optimal way to practice being a Jew. Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, describes Pharisaism this way: that it was a movement that “emphasized obedience to the law as a way of making God’s benefits visible to God’s people”, and “adherence to religious ritual as a way to encounter holiness in the everyday.” (1) These topics were of great interest to Jesus and his own ministry, so it makes sense that Jesus would find himself in conversation (and to a certain extent, in competition) with the Pharisees. Like any movement though, within Pharisaism there would have had some who were practicing with integrity, and others who were not.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus delivering a multi-level critique, not only of religious practice, but about how religion becomes allied with power and commerce and politics. So, Jesus had a very complicated relationship with the Pharisees. There were some who actually agreed with him (find refs), and some who argued with him. When Jesus saw that some of them were upholding external ritual but being internally corrupt, he critiqued them and called them hypocrites. I’m sure Jesus, if speaking to us today, would have equally harsh words for any of us who would show up to church, sing hymns and take communion, and then go home and treat our loved ones badly or go to work and act dishonestly. The general point that Jesus was often making—don’t be a hypocrite, and external ritual can’t buy salvation—applies to us now just as much as to the Pharisees then. And just to be clear, it doesn’t apply more to the Pharisees then than it does to us now. They were just the ones who happened to be in conversation with Jesus about these topics in his day.
Over time, as the early Christian movement grew out of Judaism, and then found itself in conflict with Judaism, the gospel writers would often use Pharisee “as a cipher for villain.” (2) Christianity ran with this, and Pharisee became short-hand for “hypocrite” or “legalist trying to earn God’s favor.” Worse still, Christians have often assumed that the gospel depiction of Pharisees is historically accurate overall and a useful education on the nature, practice and motivation of Judaism today, which has contributed to anti-Judaism. We should be very careful not to fall into this trap, or to further this mistaken practice. Religion allied with power was the condition that was in conflict with Jesus, not Pharisaism per se, and definitely not Judaism, and we are just as vulnerable to the excesses and overreach of religion allied with power today as then.
The point that Jesus was trying to make here, is not that Pharisees would naturally be arrogant, but that the cultural understanding of the time, that learning and ritual purity would make someone more likely to receive God’s mercy, was not correct. The common person has just as much access to God’s mercy as the learned and elite and powerful.
And the reason that this was so very surprising in the context of the parable, is that Jesus heightened the contrast between the two characters. The second person coming to pray was not a figure like the beleaguered widow from last week, nor a common fisherman like the disciples, but the worst person that the hearers could imagine. A tax collector. These days, we might not much enjoy paying our taxes or doing our tax returns, but the whole process is rather automated and bureaucratic, and certainly lawful. We don’t hate the good folks at H&R Block. In Jesus day however, the Jewish people were being taxed by an occupying power, not their own monarch and certainly not a democratically elected government. So already, they were resentful, understandably so. To make matters worse, the Roman empire would usually contract with local people to collect the taxes owed, and these people would often collect more than necessary to line their own pockets. In that context, many tax collectors were turncoats and collaborators and mobsters. You can imagine how reviled they were, by ordinary people just trying to get by.
So imagine then the surprise, when it is the tax collector who is lifted up as the model in this parable. In one fell swoop, Jesus indicts the Pharisee for arrogantly assuming the internal state fo the tax collector, and indicts the hearers for assuming likewise.
The point being, that we cannot assume that we know where God’s mercy should go. That is not for us to know, nor for us to have an opinion about. And, just as the original hearers might well have thought “There is no way that God will the hear the prayers of that tax collector”, so too if any of us now are looking at the parable and saying to ourselves “typical Pharisee, how arrogant and legalistic” we are doing exactly the same thing as the character of the Pharisee is doing towards the tax collector. And we should probably stop it.
The thing is, it is not exactly wrong for the Pharisee to pray in thanksgiving for his benefits. The problem was in how the recognition of those benefits led him to look down on others. Let’s now take a look at this through a Swedenborgian lens. These characters represent our spiritual process, and the fact is that we are all in process, and God’s mercy is present to us wherever we are in that process. From our reading:
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration…, a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
So, the first step on the journey is being like the Pharisee; acting in certain external ways because we believe that we should, that it is right, that it is what God wants for us. This is totally appropriate, in fact, very necessary. The problem is that this initial step relies very much on our own selfhood, and the pleasure and gratification that our selfhood/goodness relays to us.
And if is we don’t keep moving in the process, moving towards a recognition that it is by the Lord’s power that we can do what is good and not our own, the more we will be tempted to identify with how our own selfhood and ego makes us feel. We will be more tempted towards behaviors that increase our perceived superiority.
This is why Jesus lifted up the tax collector’s prayer, an honest acknowledgement of where our ego will naturally take us given free reign. Biblical language calls that being a sinner, other traditions might call it being in delusion. The reality is though, that all goodness, power and love flows into from God; it does not originate in us. We can choose to open ourselves up to, or close ourselves off from, that inflow. And the main thing that closes us off from God’s inflow is believing that it doesn’t exist, thinking that goodness arises from ourselves. The inflow will always continue to flow toward us, but we have placed ourselves out of alignment with it. So the tax collector’s prayer was good, it acknowledged the mercy of God, and how dependent we really are on God.
But we have to realize that this prayer was not perfect either, or at least, not complete. Did the tax collector promise to change? No, actually he didn’t, though maybe it was implied. Was he afraid to? Unsure how to? Perhaps, we don’t know. All we do know, is that recognition of our sins, our habits and tendencies, and the recognition of our reliance on God is a very good and necessary precursor to change.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are both pictures of us in different places in our spiritual process, both a little stalled in their own unique ways. At every phase in our journey, there are places where we can get stuck, and we may well keep coming back to those places time and time again.
We definitely need to be able to be humble and recognize the nature of our selfhood, but we can’t let that be all we do, or let that become an impediment to change. We need to act. This is the tax collector’s work to do, what he needs to find the courage to attend to.
When we do act, it will always feel like it is from our own selfhood. This is necessary, this is good. Positive feedback and a sense of effectiveness is important. The temptation at this point though, is to think that we deserve merit for “doing it right.” We need to avoid getting caught up in our own sense of righteousness or to start thinking that we are better than someone else in some other place in the process. This is the Pharisee’s work to do.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are two sides of a coin, and we may find ourselves resonating with either one of them at different times in our life. God lets us be where we need to be in order to take our next step. But let us be sure to always try to see the wholeness of each person’s journey, and not fall into stereotyping. Caricatures can be helpful to make a point, but they are not real. People are real.
Psalm 51: 1, 7, 10-12, 16-17
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Secrets of Heaven #874
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration…a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
Still, none of the good we do and none of the truth we contemplate while holding this opinion (a mistaken one) is the kind of goodness or truth that makes a part of faith. Nothing that we produce from ourselves can be good, because it is from ourselves…we are always thinking about how deserving and righteous we are. Some people, as the Lord teaches in Luke 18:9-14, go further and despise others in comparison with themselves. Others do other things just as bad. Self-centered desires add themselves to the mixture, making the exterior look good, although the interior is filthy.
As a consequence, the good that we do at this stage is not the good that belongs to faith. It is the same with the truth that we think. Even if the idea we adopt is absolutely true and is in itself a valid religious concept, nonetheless as long as we adopt it for selfish reasons, it has no religious good within it. Any truth, in order to be theologically true, has to have the good of faith from the Lord within it. That is when it first becomes good and true.