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.