Weekly Bible Devotional
“Godspell: The Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee”
January 19, 2020
Scripture for Sunday: Luke 18:9-14
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Notes on the Text:
This week we look at another parable Jesus told to shift people’s expectations and norms. The first one from last week was about the persistent widow and the shock of having the lowest of the low in society as the example of faith. The same is true of the parable for this week. The example of faith that is lifted up is that of an unexpected hero, a tax collector who would have been seen as an example of lack of faith. This parable highlights the importance of openness and humility which are often hard for people who feel self-righteous.
Jesus gave this parable about the publican (or tax collector) and the pharisee to help his followers break the cycles of suffering in their time. We still need the same good news today because we struggle with the same issues. Jesus was challenging his disciples and followers to practice genuine humility and openness to God. The parable is about a contrast between the attitudes of two men in prayer. The shock of the parable is that the person who is supposedly a terrible person is the one who is truly open to God’s guidance and revelation. The first man, a pharisee, is portrayed as someone who is self-righteous. This would have been shocking to the people at the time because pharisees were seen as the good religious leaders in Jesus’ time. Unlike the stereotypes we tend to have of them, pharisees, like Jesus, had a passion for the renewal of Israel and getting away from the exploitation and domination systems of the Roman Empire and the religious leadership of the temple. They were “the good guys” in those times. The tax collector in the story represented those who were resented by the people of Israel at the time. The actual translation for the Greek word telones is actually toll collector and not just a tax collector. Toll collectors in those times were in a way worse than tax collectors. Tolls were collected for a variety of things such as using certain roads, selling your produce in the market, fishing, and exchanging money for Temple coins. The people who collected the tolls were paid very little, but it was legal for them to extort and swindle money from poor peasants by overcharging for tolls. This would have been a “legal graft.” Toll collectors were the worst-case scenario of tax collectors!
The parable shocks us by showing us how the unexpected happens in the kingdom of God. The normally “bad” person, the toll collector, is the person who is truly humble and open to God, while the normally “good” person, the Pharisee, is the one who is arrogant and closed to God. This parable was supposed to shock people to realize that it is not enough for the kingdom of God to have acts of devotion. What is truly important is the openness of our hearts to the love of God with humility knowing that the unexpected does happen in the kingdom of God. The transformation which Jesus talked about was something that would transform our whole lives to being open to grace and new ways of love and life. It turns our worlds upside down. Faith is not about having a good set of beliefs and some moral actions and values to go with it. Faith is not about ensuring that we have a good spot in heaven. It does not make us better than others. It does not put us above making mistakes. It does not even make us more special. Faith is about the continual opening of our lives to God’s loving presence. It is about living each moment as an opportunity for love and growth.
Openness and humility are the great lessons of the parable for today. When faith grows in our hearts, God’s transformation leads us to be more open to others. This does not mean that we accept whatever people do or say to us. It means being open to seeing others as children of God even when we disagree with them. In his book, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel Heart, Thomas Keating writes, “Practice unconditional acceptance of others. This practice is especially powerful in quieting the emotions of the utility appetite: fear, anger, courage, hope, and despair. By accepting other people unconditionally, you discipline the emotions that want to get even with others or to get away from them. You allow people to be who they are with all their idiosyncrasies and with the particular behavior that is disturbing you. The situation gets more complicated when you feel an obligation to correct someone. If you correct someone when you are upset, you are certain to get nowhere. This arouses the defenses of others and gives them a handle for blaming the situation on you. Wait until you have calmed down and then offer correction out of genuine concern for them.”
Genuine humility and openness to God and to others are not about having a low self-esteem where we think whatever we know and say is not worthwhile. This kind of humility is not about being weak or having no strong convictions or commitments. True humility is about the ability to be open to new ways of seeing and doing without feeling threatened in the process. It is about trusting that God speaks to us in new ways all the time and we must be open to receive these new gifts so as to not be stuck.
The parable of the Pharisee and toll collector challenges us today to see that according to our faith in Christ the values of our world of power and righteous need to be turned upside down. Those who are truly righteous are the ones who are truly humble and open to God and to others. May we always live by the upside-down values of the kingdom of God!
God of the Great Gaze,
We humans prefer satisfying un-truth
to the Truth that is usually unsatisfying.
Truth is always too big for us,
And we are so small and afraid.
So you send us prophets and truth speakers
to open our eyes and ears to your Big Picture.
Show us how to hear them, how to support them,
and how to interpret their wisdom.
Help us to trust that your prophetic voice
may also be communicated through our words and actions.
May we practice a spirit of discernment
and a stance of humility,
so that your Truth be spoken, not our own.
We ask this in the name of Jesus the Prophet,
for we desire to share in your Great Gaze. Amen.