A Sunday School teacher was once teaching her class this Bible story, and she explained how wrong the Pharisee in the story was when he said "Thank you God that I am not like other men, especially this tax collector" Then she ended the lesson by asking the children to say a prayer with her: "Thank you God that we are not like that Pharisee"! To pray in this way is of course to walk straight into the trap set by Jesus. We could do the same by praying "Thank you God that we are not like that Sunday School teacher"!
It is one of those simple but potentially explosive parables told by Jesus and recorded by Luke to redeem people from the devastating human tendency to consider ourselves morally superior to others. But how can we avoid the temptation to identify ourselves with the character in the story who is right and accepted by God, and to identify some other type or group of people as wrong and as rejected by God? One way might be to break the parable down into what it teaches about healthy attitudes to the self, to others and to God.
Jesus told this parable, says Luke, "to people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everybody else" (Luke 18:9). Elsewhere he famously called his followers to "Love your neighbour as you love yourself" (Matthew 22:39) and taught that this rule, together with the requirement to love God wholeheartedly, was the principle from which all other moral laws followed automatically (Matthew 22:40). This is a wonderful rule of life, but it does presuppose a healthy self esteem. If we have a very low sense of our own value, then loving others only that much will not help. One of the great contributions of religions, including Christianity, to society is to give people a sense of belonging and self worth. The trouble starts when the religion in question sets rules of conduct, which immediately exclude some people. Compliance with these rules also tend to take the place of real virtue and progress to healthy maturity. So the Pharisee in the parable is convinced of his own goodness because he follows the rules - fasting two days a week, giving a tenth of his income to God, and so on. But rather than making him a better, more godly person, his self image has become skewed and he is blind to his faults and weaknesses. We can probably identify some of this rule based self esteem in ourselves and accept that there is an unhealthy aspect to it.
But surely the sinful tax collector's self image seems equally unhealthy. He's the archetypal 'miserable sinner' with no self esteem at all, cowering under the gaze of a harsh, judgmental God whose pity he can only beg for, but which is unlikely to be forthcoming. Or maybe we are misunderstanding what is going on here, because we are influenced by a faulty understanding of sin which has dominated church doctrine since the Middle Ages. Perhaps sin is better understood not as a crime to be punished for or, if you are lucky, acquitted of, but as a sickness to be healed of. The old 1662 prayer book's general confession reflects this idea in the powerful phrase "... and there is no health in us". Salvation, in this sense, is about being healed, being restored to health - as individuals and as communities. The more I read and reflect on the psalms, the prophets and especially the gospels, the clearer this understanding of sin and salvation becomes, and the more alien the idea of sin as something to be guilty about and punished for appears.
On this reading, the tax collector stands in the house of healing, humbly acknowledging his sickness and trusting in God to begin making him well, taking away his dis-ease. And Jesus figuratively stands with him in his sickness, as the herald and the agent of healing for all who have this fictional character's attitude.
Having a wrong self image is not the only danger for religious insiders. The parable shows us that they/we are also likely to see unenlightened outsiders as inferior, to despise them and see them as a corrupting influence to be avoided or as canon fodder for conversion raids. You don't have to be a raving fundamentalist to fall into this trap either. Even the most liberal or progressive christian may privately or publicly despise those who don't see things her way. We are all 'like' that Pharisee, just as the Pharisee was 'like' the tax collector. The gospel call to love not only our likeable and amenable neighbours but also our enemies is radical and challenging - and almost invariably ignored. If the deep divisions within the Anglican Church itself are ever to be healed, I believe christians of all shades of conviction are going to have to take this challenge far more seriously and actually start loving the people we find most difficult and unappealing.
For example... (now I'm going to risk making myself unpopular, as I'm leaving you in a few days!) let me ask a question about the billboards for which St Matthew's has been famous/notorious in recent years. I know the intention was to be provocative and promote discussion amongst non religious people who would not usually give a thought to God or church. Fair enough, it succeeded. But we also knowingly caused deep offence to many religious people, Catholics, Evangelicals and others - provoking them to be more hostile than they might be towards St Matts and Progressive Christianity in general, instead of seeing it as a valid expression of gospel faith. So you could argue the Church became even more polarised. Strategically, these offended people may be seen as inevitable casualties in a war worth fighting, but "Where is the love in that?" (That's my question!) I may be wrong but I think we all need to get off our soapboxes and find ways of loving our opponents, especially our opponents within the church; loving them in a way which allows God to bring challenge and transformation and healing to us all. Rather than alienating people, we may be more effective through gentle, loving persuasion. So why not "Encourage an Evangelical" or even "Hug a Fundamentalist", the next time you encounter one?
My final point concerns the understanding of God which lies behind this parable of the proud Pharisee and the humble tax collector and which is a refrain running through the Old Testament: a God who is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; a God who is love; a God of restorative justice, not retribution; a God who is biased in favour of the poor and oppressed, the widow, the orphan and the alien; a God who seeks the lost sheep and carries them home: who heals the sick, sets prisoners free and wipes away the tears from every eye. This is the God I believe in and serve and I have learned to appreciate this God in new ways through the beautiful worship at St Matthew's and through the warmth and depth of fellowship Billie and I have experienced here. As our ways part, may God strengthen the bond between us and continue to lead all of us on in faith, hope and love.