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The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

October 24, 2004

Glynn Cardy

Ordinary Sunday 30     Luke 18:9-15


Prayer is individual and corporate, structured and unstructured, said and unsaid, thought and un-thought.


A working definition: There is only one reason to pray, and it is not to petition or to please. It is, as it was in the beginning, to get a grip on our existence. Or to flag it down for a moment as it flies past. If we also win a little harmony from the human bedlam, that is serendipity. [1]


The mother is in the kitchen, adorned in dressing gown and slippers, stirring the porridge, as the little ones upstairs stir awake. As she gently turns the porridge over with the wooden spoon, she gently turns her soul. It is a contemplative moment. Words aren't necessary. She is stirring that part of her which feels God-like. She is at prayer.


The child runs, jumps into the double bed, and cries "I love you Daddy." The warmth of uninhibited love floods his soul. This is food for the spirit, nourishment for the day ahead, a gift from God. As he lies in that love he is lying in God. He is at prayer.


Walking around the rocks, rod in one hand, as the day kisses the night adieu. It is a magic time. The lure of the fish is only one of the lures that hook her heart. The sea, rolling and giggling beside her splashes her soul. The gods of the dawn, the sea, and the rocks hold her. She is at prayer. You can see it on her face when comes home.


The earnest believer opens his Bible, reads the prescribed text, and talks at God. He is sitting on his bed, doing what he has been taught. He feels better for it. In another year the same, earnest believer will tire of talking at God, and stop to listen. In another year the words 'stopping' and 'praying' will become almost synonymous.


Some Bible stories are complex, often with more than one author. If the kernel of the story originated with Jesus, for example, in the years between his telling and the writing of the text as we have it today other editors/interpreters could have added their spin. I suspect the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector is one such story.


The parable is a story about prayer. Not so much about the said prayers recorded in the Lukan text, but where prayer begins and ends. Holiness, God's realm, prayer, is not the exclusive preserve of the religious, although we have often tried to make it so. We have often defined prayer in order to suit our needs, and to keep control of God.


The Pharisees were by and large good, ordinary people, sincere in their desire to serve God and neighbour. The Pharisaic movement sought to bring religion down to earth and into every aspect of life. Instead of travelling up to the Temple to pray, for example, one could pray locally in a synagogue, or even one's own home. Of all the religious groups in 1st century Judaism it is the Pharisaic movement that was most formative in Jesus' life.


We need to be careful to read past the inherited anti-Semitism that pervades Christian thought. The origins of the arguments with Pharisees in the gospels need to be heard as 'in house' debates. By the time these arguments were committed to the gospel texts as we know them today, that is some 40 to 90 years after Jesus died, Christian anti-Semitism was beginning to take hold.


This parable seemingly offers us two ends of the moral spectrum. "A Pope and a pimp went up to St. Peter's to pray" [2] has the same effect. One is an insider, and one is an outsider. Yet some would say it is a story that has been largely misinterpreted. [3] It is not about a stuck-up religious zealot and a repentant self-effacing tax collector. The interpretative key is their prayers.


The Pharisee's prayer, while obnoxious to our ears, would not have considered self-congratulatory and arrogant by Jesus' audience. It was of a 'prayerbook' form giving thanks to God that he was chosen while others were not. [4] The recounting of his fasting and tithing was declaring his obedience to God, rather than pious zeal. His prayer was expected, standard, everyday piety.


Judging people, then or now, by their prayers is fraught. Like the National Business Review learnt following their criticism of Mayor Dick Hubbard's wife, Diana, in the recent election.


The tax collector stands away from those gathered for prayer, as one would expect of an outsider. He beats his breast, a sign of mourning and even despair. He acknowledges he is a sinner. This too conforms to Jesus' audience's expectation. The tax collector knows his place in the religious scene, and is simply acknowledging what they knew to be true.


Then there's punch line. Jesus declares the tax collector righteous. "Huh?" "What do you mean?" "Where's the evidence?" "What sign of repentance has he shown?" "Has he repaid those he's cheated? [like Zaccheus will do in the next chapter].


The problem is that nothing in this parable tells us that the Pharisee is bad and the tax collector is good. There is no lesson to learn. No behaviour to emulate. The later addition of "whoever exalts himself will be humbled" is an editor's attempt to rectify that.


The story of the Pharisee and the tax collector invites us to reconsider our boundaries. The Temple was considered holy and God's realm. Things not associated with the Temple were considered unholy and outside God's realm. The parable tells us that there is holiness outside the religious realm, and unholiness within the religious realm. The old boundaries are gone. Like in the earlier story of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10] we are challenged to reassess what and whom we consider holy. But this time there is no good deed or bad deed to judge anyone by.


I like the notion that prayer is essentially not about petitioning God or trying to please God. Rather it is about trying to get a grip on our existence. Prayer is not the preserve of the religious. It is not constrained to our boundaries. The old boundaries that kept prayer defined by, and confined to, the religious faithful need to be dismantled so that prayer can belong to all.


In a former life I would meet at six for breakfast every workday morn. It was a big breakfast, for big men, who laid big slabs of concrete for cars to park upon. The jovial camaraderie filled the café. "Your face hurt?" "Sure hurts me. Ha, ha, ha." The atmosphere spilled over to the staff and other customers. It was very powerful. I realised as time went on that this spirit nurtured and sustained these men throughout the day. It was soul food. Prayer.


On another continent we would meet before breakfast. Social workers, priests, and locals. Gathering in the front room, morphed into a chapel, we would use a liturgy full of old words written by others about others. It didn't make sense. Just like the Church. But we would gather anyway and leave feeling spiritually held.


The dog sniffs at nearly everything. It is curiousity incarnate. It is very sociable, indiscriminately greeting each and every early riser on the city streets. The woman enjoys being lead by the dog into the day, and into her soul.


In darkness and in light, in trouble and in joy, in season and out, knowingly and unknowingly, for our selves and despite our selves, we do it. Prayer.


God, deliver us from the temptation to define and control prayer in order to make it the preserve of the faithful, and thus rob others of a language that might encourage their recognition of you. Amen.


1. I have taken license with Maurice Shadbolt's "reason to write" in One Of Ben's.

2. Crossan, J.D. Raid on the Articulate, p.108.

3. In particular I'm referring to Bernard Brandon Scott's work Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus.

4. Consider, for example, this Talmudic prayer: "I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [the house of study] and Thou has not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners…"

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