Taking Our Part in Life’s Drama

October 27, 2019

Cate Thorn

Ordinary Sunday 30     Sirach 35:12-17     Luke 18:9-14

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Today’s parable reads a bit like a drama, as do many parables if you think of them this way. We’re directed by the opening remark – this one's going to be about self-righteousness. We’re introduced to the main characters: a Pharisee and a tax-collector. They enter, or are placed, on the stage of the Temple. Don’t forget this drama follows hot on the heels of the previous one, almost scene 2 to last week’s scene 1, last week about a judge, who feared neither God nor people and took a good while to decide to administer justice to the widow, motivated by self-preservation.

 

It’s curious to imagine a parable in this guise – an enacted drama as a teaching tool. Although in the time and place of Jesus’ telling perhaps this was closer to the hearers’ experience, for Jesus told parables within their familiar lived context. So maybe it’s just curious for us to imagine applying this to a religious text.

 

For outside of a religious context we’re more than aware of the formational influence of drama upon our society. Especially in the West we only have to think of the influence of Shakespeare, his plays have “for four hundred years captivated theatre-goers worldwide, thanks to their unforgettable characters, gripping plots and poetic verse.” What I was unaware of, until recently, while reading Kate Haworth’s book Doughnut Economics, was that “To keep his actors on their toes, Shakespeare handed each member of the troupe only their own lines and cues to learn, intentionally leaving them in the dark about the unfolding plot.” Can you imagine that, stepping onto the stage with others, only knowing your own part and your cues, but no idea what’s to unfold?

 

Apparently, “Soon after his death … over-zealous editors added in complete lists of characters and, in plays such as the Tempest, introduced many parts along with their tell-tale traits.” The effect of providing such tell-tale character traits was to influence the way characters interacted, or expected to interact with one another, it shifted the balance between character and plot. As Haworth continues, “the play [becomes] pregnant with plot and the story ahead almost self-fulfilling.” [1]

 

As Jesus unfolds the drama of today’s parable, it’s assumed we know something of the characters involved and we play our part in determining exactly the plot. We’re asked to fill in a lot of the gaps and we do so and have done so perhaps for many years. We make meaning and find significance for ourselves (and perhaps of others,) depending on our context, our level of knowledge, what we need or want to hear at any given time. Because this parable’s placed in the mouth of Jesus and because it’s embedded in a gospel in scripture, it has heightened significance. For those who believe, it’s about God, this means it matters a lot. We want to learn, to understand how to grow to be well with God, aligned, made right, “justified” in relationship with God, to quote the gospel.

 

The parable begins a bit like one of those (often racist or sexist) jokes, “one day there were two men who went into a …,” well this time the Temple. As far as we know this is something they regularly did. A bit like coming to church each week, it was their practice. As far as we can tell they don’t interact with one another. We only know what goes on inside their head because of the dialogue Jesus gives us. Look around, can you even imagine the dialogues going on in here, inside each person’s head, not to mention the ones inside your own head! Perhaps this parable’s bit of a reminder to pay attention to why we came and what we’re doing here.

 

Each character in this drama stands before God. They have each come, they are each seeking … something. Yes, we do have Jesus tell us what they’re praying, or asking. But what do we know of these characters?

 

Let’s take a quick character check: first the Pharisee. In the Gospels the Pharisees often appear as the influential arch-enemies of Jesus. The Pharisees were a lay movement who placed emphasis on the Torah, particularly the importance of the purity code for everyday holiness.

 

In their opinion holiness wasn’t only for the priests and the Temple. By observing the purity code every member of the people of God might participate in the holiness of God. Pharisees held to a liberal interpretation of Scripture, the aim of Pharisaic law was to make observance of the Torah available to all.

 

Conflicts between the Pharisees and the disciples of Jesus came to a head after the death of Jesus, when the Jesus movement began to accept Gentiles into membership without demanding that they be circumcised or that they observe the purity code. These controversies are reflected in the way the Pharisees are portrayed in the New Testament. [2]

 

And now the tax collectors: During the Herodian period, Julius Caesar made the rulers of the new Jewish state responsible for the taxes. The Herodian rulers farmed the taxes out to individual farmers or to associations. So tax collectors were seen as collaborators with the hated Romans. As the burdens of taxation became ever more intolerable, the tax collector become a more hateful and dreaded personality. At times they contrived to extract payments by torture. ... Since [tax-collectors] were classed with "robbers," talmudic law disqualified them from acting as witnesses. Neither was their money accepted for charity. [3] Despite our perhaps attraction to the tax collector character depicted in today’s parable they weren’t the most humble and simple of people.

 

Both Pharisee and tax collector come to the Temple and both of them leave. As far as we know neither of them change their jobs or their allegiances. What Jesus comments on is their changed orientation with God. As far as I can tell Jesus doesn’t pass judgement as to whether one is right or wrong, one good, one bad. Simply that one left justified, made right, in their relationship with God and one did not. What’s at stake is the alignment of each character in their relationship with God. Yes, that those who exalt themselves will be humbled while those who humble themselves will be exalted. Is this about the way they, we, are ourselves before God?

 

This parable speaks of our inner orientation toward God, yes, but also of how this outworks in our orientation toward the world. Of our tendency to think we know. And then to create a world that supports our thinking. To generate belief systems, determine practices, things to do we deem as correct practice that reflects our self-understanding. Too easily we come to defend so seal ourselves inside such self-created worlds.

 

I began suggesting today’s parable is scene 2 of a drama. In scene 1 a judge was named unjust – once he administered justice – is this because he knew how and chose not to. Scene two, today’s parable, suggests we know how to be transparent, honest before God yet most often we choose the safety of measurable, correct behaviours, right practices. We limit ourselves to safe parameters. This isn’t wrong. But potentially by this we deny ourselves the extravagance of God for us and for others. When we diminish our world, or limit it to safe self-creation, we diminish not only who we can be, but also who others can be, what the world can be. Is it sufficient to act correctly and not risk the disruption of an opened heart?

 

As they left the Temple, these two men of faith, one had opened himself to be changed; one had determined he and his ways need not be changed.

 

Where or perhaps when, do we open ourselves in honest declaration of how we are? Acknowledge our sense of incompleteness that, too often, our actions contribute toward. Not that they make us less beloved of God, but that sometimes our choices diminish us, our capacity to know and live as one’s divinely beloved. When we can be honest, we open up in us space for transformation, for being transformed, changed. When we know this, experience this, we discover we can choose to participate in change. We can choose to participate in changing ourselves so participate in the changing, transforming the world.

 

To return to Shakespeare who kept actors on their toes, he also wrote “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” Imagine if we understood ourselves this way. That each of us has a part in the play of life in the world. We know our part (or come to learn it) and work out the unfolding of life as we interact with each other player. The drama of life unfolds in the interaction between us, rather than being predetermined. It leaves a space for grace between us, for relationship to develop and evolve in the moment of meeting. That life is an unfolding with particular players who each moment are creating life within their unique context. Imagine what that might free us to create for the good of the world.

 

[1] Kate Raworth Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist Random House Business Books, London 2017 61,62

 

[2] http://www.helsinki.fi/teol/pro/_merenlah/oppimateriaalit/text/english/judaism.htm

 

[3] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/tax-gatherers

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