The Pharisee is not a venomous villain and the publican is not generous Joe the bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker. Such portrayals belong in cheap novels. If the Pharisee is pictured as a villain and the tax collector as a hero, then each gets what he deserves, there is no surprise of grace and the parable is robbed. In Jesus’ story, what both receive is ‘in spite of’, not ‘because of’. When the two men are viewed in terms of character and community expectations, without labels or prejudice, the parable is still a shock, still carrying the power both to offend and to bless. — Fred Craddock, Luke: Interpretation series
We heard the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector today. So I have given in to the temptation of telling you this story:
Two ministers are on their knees at the front of the church, crying out to God, saying, ‘I have sinned. I am unworthy, I am unworthy’. Just then the cleaner walks in, and seeing this rare sight she also kneels with them saying: ‘I have sinned. I am not worthy, I am not worthy’. The first minister turns to the second. He sneers, ‘Now look at who thinks she’s unworthy!’
I had a conversation over coffee with a friend this week. She’s had very varied church experiences over the years, but for a number of good reasons it’s hard for her to be part of a local church right now. She told me that she had difficulties with the idea of going back to a pentecostal-type church because of the need they have to hide their vulnerabilities and present themselves as ‘victorious’ Christians. All. The. Time.
Later that day, the thought came to me: Thank God I’m not in a church like that! And I fell straight into the trap of the Pharisee in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
See how I did that? It’s so easy to do, a game anyone can play. So let’s look at this parable, and let’s have a bit of empathy for the Pharisee from the word go.
The poet proposes a two-stage philosophy of history which is crucial for the full acknowledgment of exile and the full practice of hope in the face of exile. The negative has happened; the positive is only promised. The poem places us between the destruction already accomplished in 587 B.C.E. and the homecoming only promised but keenly anticipated. The oracle places us between a death already wrought and a resurrection only anticipated. — Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming
The last couple of Sundays, we’ve been visiting the time of the Exile, which was around five hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Do you remember?—the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem were taken as exiles to Babylon, and there they stayed until Babylon itself was defeated. Then they were allowed to go ‘home’, though of course most people who had known Jerusalem as home were dead by now.
It’s impossible to overemphasise the importance of the Exile—for Israel, for us as Christians, for the whole world.
It was in the Exile that they began to write much of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament. They started to collect and put together the ancient stories of Israel were while they were in Exile.
Scribes gathered together the old traditions to write the stories of the past, stories like the Flood, or the life of Moses. At the same time, prophets such as Jeremiah spoke new words into the current age.
In Babylon, the exiles had to work out a theology that responded to a place of defeat. The old idea had been that Yahweh was Israel’s God, and the other tribes and nations had their own gods. Yahweh was just the best of the bunch. Until he wasn’t, because the Babylonian gods had defeated him and shown they were more powerful.
What could the exiles have done with this? I guess they could have decided the Babylonian gods with names like Bel, Nebo and Ishtar were the winners, so they should ditch Yahweh and pledge allegiance to them.
A weeping angel, but not from Dr Who: part of a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, showing that even the angels weep at the death of Jesus.
Thirty-odd years ago, Karen and I were living over in Granville St. An elderly Greek couple lived across the road, and we were aware that the husband was very ill.
In the early hours of the morning, while it was still dark, a great wailing began in their house. It woke us up. We looked at each other; we knew his end had come. When it was light, we went across the road to offer our condolences and were welcomed inside. The house was packed full of people. We didn’t know any of them, and none of the conversation was in English. Everyone but us seemed to know what to do. We had a drink and nibbled on something, sat there for what seemed a long time (but really wasn’t) feeling useless and uncomfortable, and then said our goodbyes.
We tend to be uncomfortable with grief, and unschooled in lament. Today’s Old Testament passages are grief-filled laments. You may feel uncomfortable. I invite you to stay the course. Don’t bail, as we did.
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