The parable I’m focusing on is from Luke 18 and involves two main characters. They both come up to the temple—literally, because they had to walk up a hill.
The Greek infers that the Pharisee knows his way around; he sort of strides right in. He’s been here before; he knows where his place is: up front.
He makes his way forward, and he begins to pray. Now, in temple worship, almost everybody prayed out loud, so the courtesy was that everybody would speak rather softly. It is a new thing, in essence, to think, “Prayer is all inside my head and I don’t say anything out loud.” That’s not typically Hebraic.
Instead, in this tradition, if you’re going to pray, you might quietly ponder, but when you actually step up to talk to God, you’re standing and speaking out loud. But because you know that God surrounds everything and is everywhere, you don’t need to yell to get his attention.
So the Pharisee is probably speaking a little more loudly than he should and he’s calling a great deal of attention to himself. And everybody already knows who he is because of his dress, and they defer to him. People move out of the way a little bit, he takes his place, he gets up front and he begins to pray.
But here’s what happens. If he’s a Pharisee, we know he’s in great standing at the temple. He’s not a man of questionable character—at least that’s what the listeners would assume. So far, as Jesus is telling the story, they’re tracking. The Pharisee is doing exactly what he would normally do.
But when Jesus indicates that maybe this man is raising his voice a little higher than he should—that’s unusual. And then you’ll notice he actually refers to himself five times within the course of his very small prayer. Now, no Pharisee would do that.
You see, if you’re standing up to pray, you’re talking to God. You’re not talking about yourself. And, if you’re following the Hebraic pattern, the content of at least the first five minutes of your prayer is about God: his character, who he is, the blessings he pours out, who he is as magnificent and holy, Creator of the universe, all those things.
That’s why, when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, the first phrase is not about me. It’s “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name.” In other words, it’s about him—his kingdom come. And so when the Pharisee jumps in with, “God, I fast twice a week, etc., etc.” (Luke 18:12), people are thinking, “What’s he doing? Who let him in?” Because it’s entirely out of character with how a Pharisee would pray.
Now, of course, all the things he mentions are good things. He fasts, he gives his money away. Those are admirable. The description indicates he’s so devout he goes above and beyond what the law requires. So at least in terms of what he’s saying aloud, he’s exemplary, a model.
But he has an attitude, and we don’t understand what’s going on. That’s why it’s complicated: On one hand, he’s an exemplary figure. But why is he calling attention to himself, saying, “Look at me, I’m great”? What’s that about? And, of all things, saying that to God.
The Tax Collector
On the other hand, here’s the other character: a tax collector. Now, by the nature of his profession, he’s in cahoots with occupational government authority. He’s not a good guy. Nothing about his job indicates he’s worthy of any kind of personal praise. Jesus’ hearers would have known he wasn’t their kind of person.
But something unusual happens with the tax collector, and it has everything to do with his own self-awareness. Does he stride up front? No, he’s actually hanging out in what would probably be called the Court of the Gentiles. Every indication points to him being a Jew, so he would have been welcome up front, but he was out there with the Gentiles, who were considered unclean.
And what does he do? Does he raise his voice? No, just the opposite. He and the Pharisee have something in common: They both focus on their own condition. But in contrast to the Pharisee, what’s he doing? He’s bowing, he’s beating his chest. And what are his words? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:14).
The word “sinner” is a confession. It means “I know I am not right with God. I know there are things I’m doing that do not in any way have God’s approval.” In other words, my sense is—where I belong is out with the Gentiles, not up front. So his story is complicated, too.
So neither of these men would be people we would make the hero in some sort of simplistic Christian movie plot. Now that you’ve met them, take this week to consider their complicated story. We’ll return next week to learn about the message Jesus used them to teach in “It’s Complicated, Part 2.”
Have you met Pharisees and tax collectors at church? Have you been either or both? Share this blog and your response on Twitter. Please include my username, @revgregbrewer.
Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.