Readings: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Psalm 65; Luke 18:9-14
A little humour to start us off this morning: A sinking ship’s captain: “Does anyone know how to pray?” A priest says he can pray.
Captain: “Ok priest, you pray. Everyone else will wear a life jacket. We are short of one.”
Let’s talk a little about prayer. Today’s gospel contains a parable that is starkly simple. Jesus is challenging those who believe they are righteous, a word we might loosely translate as ‘good in God’s eyes.’ The Pharisee boasts of his religious and moral observance. He is one of the faithful ones, keeping God’s commands. The tax collector, on the other hand, is so ashamed of his sinfulness that he stays at the back of the Temple and prays for mercy and forgiveness. We may not be comfortable with the word ‘sinner,’ but perhaps we can think of this man as coming to realize all the ways he has become complicit with the systems of injustice of his day (like collecting taxes for the Romans) and for all the ways he has fallen short in loving God and loving neighbour. His weakness and vulnerability humble him, and he becomes the model for how we ought to approach God through unpretentious prayer.
Concerns Arising from the Parable
That is the basic reading of the story. But this parable can be troublesome in at least two ways. Firstly, it can lead us to commit the same kind of offense the parable is teaching against. It might make us thank God that we’re not like that Pharisee. Jesus’ ends his teaching stating that it is those who humble themselves that are exalted – but what does one do when one is exalted? It can be very easy to look down on others from our privileged position. So, we must be on the watch about our attitudes and cultivate a disposition of humility whenever possible.
But secondly, and of more concern, it is pointed out by commentator Francisco Garcia that this parable can lead us to inadvertently perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the Jewish community. Many of us don’t make distinctions between the Pharisees and “all Jews” as depicted in the New Testament. We might recall how in the gospel of John, the term, “the Jews” are called “children of the devil” (John 8:44) and how the passion narrative uses the terms “chief priests” and “the Jews” interchangeably as those demanding Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:1-16).
Historical critical scholars attribute passages like these to the tensions the early Church felt between themselves and the Jewish community that did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. They might encourage us to ‘bracket out’ references like these that might be due to a context different than our own. Even if we recognize the complex relationship between the Jewish-Christians and mainstream Judaism in those days, we still must own up the fact that passages today’s contribute to characterizing Judaism as legalistic, elitist, and out of touch with the ‘true’ God. It may even lead to the kind of anti-Jewish hatred that has infected Christianity since its beginning days and continues to do harm today.
Inter-Faith Learning & White Privilege
In my program of study at Emmanuel College, folks from different faith traditions are brought together as we study psycho-spiritual care. In one of my small groups there are three of us Christians (two Protestant, one Catholic), two Buddhists, one Islamic young woman, and one observant Jewish person. It’s been inspiring and humbling to be in such a group. I am the only white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male in the bunch, and I’ve never been more aware of this identity as I have been in this class. A point of emphasis in our studies is to become more aware of our intersectional identity and how that impacts how we might give care to another, and how another’s identity gives shape to how they might be able to receive that care.
I’ve been forced to take a hard look at my place of white privilege and how intricately bound up Christianity has been with colonialism. My small group is very gracious, for it would be easy to feel under attack or ganged up on because of my privileged status. But they do not make me feel that way. We are learning to listen to each other, and I’m finding a new lens through which to view the world, and my own faith. This week we talked about a case study that was based on the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg in 2018 that killed eleven people and wounded six. The Jewish person in our group, a beautiful soul who identifies as non-binary, let’s call them Neta, shared how even just talking about this assault is felt deeply in their body. Neta told us how the rabbi of this synagogue is the father of a friend of theirs and how it continues to inflict pain upon this religious group that has always, sadly, lived the motto ‘Never Forget.’
Jesus the Jew & Maybe the Pharisees Weren’t so Bad?
In the wake of such an emotion-filled discussion, how could I not read today’s gospel with mixed feelings? And I think that’s the point. On the one hand, I’m learning how important it is to find things in common with other faiths. In relation to Jewish-Christian relations, we should always remember that Jesus himself was a Jew. He grew up learning the commandments, including the great commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and love our neighbour as ourselves. In one of his teachings, he says he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. We might come to interpret that teaching as saying that Jesus came to embody the law – to show us what it looks like to live out the law of love.
On the other hand, it might behoove us to develop a more nuanced view of the Pharisee religious group. The ancient Jewish historian and priest Josephus described the actual Pharisees as living modest lives, shunning excess. Within the broader scope of Jewish tradition, the Pharisees are not understood as being legalistic, rigid, and elitist. On the contrary, because of their attention to oral tradition and interpreting the spirit of the Torah, they are seen to have played an essential role in ensuring the theological and spiritual continuity of Judaism, and rabbinical Judaism in particular, to this day.
Reflections for Today
So where does that leave us today? Well, keeping all this mind, I think we need to be careful about falling into the either/or situation of the tax collector versus the Pharisee. I think we need to take an honest look at the complexity of the human situation and look for common ground with ‘the other.’ We might relate to the tax collector who is presumably wracked with guilt over some wrongdoing. Perhaps his repentance is due to a sense of his participation in the taxing system that put him in league with the oppressive Romans. Or maybe his act of contrition was due to a personal moral failing or a hurt inflicted upon a loved one? We can’t know for sure, but the lesson we take from him might be that we all have our shortcomings and failures. Will we allow our mistakes to open our hearts to God where we find healing and wholeness? Will we recognize the complexities in our own lives and extend the grace we need to those who differ from us?
Will we use the commandment to love neighbour as the lens through which to view all those who differ from us due to religion, race, gender, sexuality, or economic standing? Can we see that by owning up to our complicity in oppressive systems we are taking steps on the path towards love and reconciliation? I’ll close with some further thoughts from Garcia, whom I referenced earlier:
“Pope Francis, in addressing how to move forward with the legacy of anti-Jewish portrayals and actions, says this: “Love of neighbor, then, represents a significant indicator for recognizing affinities between Jesus and his Pharisee interlocutors. It certainly constitutes an important basis for any dialogue, especially among Jews and Christians, even today.”7 By being honest about the legacy of Christian biblical interpretation, uncovering the harmful and violent impact on the Jewish community, and grounding our preaching in truth-telling and love of neighbor, we can find a way for the life-giving essence of God for all to emerge.” (workingpreacher.org)