Luke 18: 9-14
When Pat and I were first married and living in Peterborough one of our favourite days out was to go to Cambridge. We would maybe hire a punt for an hour, have a wander around the grounds of one or two of the Colleges that were open to the public and do a little window shopping. We didn’t have the money to buy very much in those days but something that I did usually manage to find the money for was one or two post cards to add to my collection. These were not picture postcards of the sites of Cambridge but a series of cards called Pot Shots, each one printed with some little gem of home-spun philosophy. I’ve still got many of them and they still bring a smile to my face as I read through them. I’ll read you one or two:
My stack of Pot Shots used to be much larger but over my years as a teacher I ended up giving many of them away to teenagers in my care whilst attempting to help them move successfully from the life of a child to the life of an adult. I remember very clearly showing one such card to a teenage boy who was making himself unpopular by constantly bragging that he knew far more than anyone else in his class. The card said: “People who think they know everything are very annoying to those of us who do.” Sadly the young man had not yet learnt about the finer points of satire for he looked me straight in the face and said very seriously: “Yes, they are very annoying aren’t they?”
Jesus understood the dangers of believing that we know it all, particularly with respect to our relationship with God. Today’s gospel is a glorious example of him using his skill as a story-teller to shock his audience into thinking hard about this problem.
To help us understand the story, let us first consider the scene. Jesus was talking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”. We are not told who they were nor the context in which Jesus was speaking to them. Were they Pharisees, members of that Jewish Sect that gets singled out in the story that follows? Jesus was bold, but he was not foolish, so probably not. Were they a group of his disciples who were getting a bit too full of their own importance? That would seem more likely, but the truth is we don’t know.
Though we know little of the audience, we do know quite a bit about the two main characters in the story, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
The Pharisees were a group of Jews who were very devout and believed in rigorous observance of the Law as laid down in scripture. They are given a hard time in many of the gospel stories but this probably reflects the conflict between them and the emerging Church at the time the gospels were written (around 70AD) rather than the way in which they were perceived at the time of Jesus. As readers of the Bible, we have picked up on that later prejudice but, to the audience that Jesus addressed, the Pharisee in our Gospel story would have been pictured as a devout Jew: the goody in the story, not the baddy.
By contrast, the Tax Collector was undoubtedly the baddy. Once again, as readers of the Bible, we have learnt that Jesus often favoured those who were marginalised so we have a tendency to cheat as we listen to the story and identify ourselves with the character we have learnt comes out on top in the end. That would not have happened when Jesus first told the story. Tax Collectors were genuinely hated.
They were hired by the Romans, the occupying force, to collect taxes on behalf of the Emperor. And, as if that were not bad enough, their usual practice was to add on a further percentage to keep for themselves as a result of which they became very wealthy. They were regarded by the people as criminal and corrupt, the clear villains in any story.
So, with these thoughts in mind, let us now try to picture the scene painted by Jesus in the way that his listeners may well have pictured it.
The two men are in the Court of Israel, the Inner Court of the Temple. The Pharisee is standing well forward in the middle of the courtyard where he can be seen with his arms held open speaking his prayer out loud. It is a confident and pious prayer of thanksgiving beginning “God, I thank you” or, in the original Greek, eucharisteo – that word Karen told us about two weeks ago. There is no petition and no confession but it is not a bad prayer.
The Tax Collector, by contrast, is sitting or kneeling somewhere near the edge of the courtyard out of public view and very probably facing the wall. His prayer is one of penitence.
There can be no doubt that those who first heard this story would have identified with the Pharisee with an expectation that Jesus would reassure them that he, the Pharisee, would be the one who was justified. But he didn’t. As a master of the story-tellers’ art, Jesus turned their expectations upside down and shocked them as he declared that it was the Tax Collector who was justified. Why did he do that? To make them think.
Before I go on to look at this story in today’s context, an aside about the word ‘justify’ as it appears in today’s Gospel. Many a book has been written about the meaning of this seemingly simple word but in this story it means the restoration of the relationship between an individual and God.
So, with these thoughts in mind, let us imagine that Jesus was here amongst us in 21st century England telling this story today. Who might he portray as the devout follower of the Law and who as the sinner? You might like to talk about that after the service but, given that nationally only about 5% of the population regularly go to church, then he might well portray “A member of the congregation of the Parish Church” as the devout follower. That’s you and me folks! And what about the penitent sinner? Who could that be? I have no doubt the popular press could give him some suggestions; a Banker perhaps or a Benefit Cheat depending upon the colour of the Masthead; but as this version of the story is entirely in your imagination you can pick your own villain! Just keep in mind the fact that in the story that follows, Jesus turns our expectations on their head and it is the penitent sinner that is justified and has his relationship with God restored.
However it is told, this parable is an invitation to us all: an invitation to reflect upon our own claims to righteousness and the extent to which we recognise and repent of our own sinfulness. It carries a clear message about the danger of becoming complacent and failing to recognise our own shortcomings. Do we understand that message and accept the fact that it applies to us or, like the boy to whom I gave my Pot Shot card all those years ago, do we think the message is just for others? Amen.