In last weeks blog I talked about the tumultuous times that the people who were reading Luke were living through. Luke, or more correctly Luke-Acts, chronicles the transition of worship that was conducted in the temple, to worship conducted in the home. This was not some ideal theological progression, but rather a transition brought about by necessity – their temple lay in ruins at the hands of the Romans. Their only recourse was to find new meaningful ways of worshipping God, and the rise of home-based ‘churches’ filled that void. A single temple was no longer necessary. This was not necessarily a comfortable transition for Jewish people, so Luke throughout his two great works, emphasises the temple as increasingly the centre of conflict and the home increasingly as the centre of harmony, peace and salvation. Our reading this week takes place in the place of conflict, the temple.
The two characters in this parable are caricature opposites- one is a Pharisee, a religious leader, the other a lowly tax collector. Firstly we deal with the Pharisee.
In the time of Luke’s gospel there were two major religious parties- Sadducees and Pharisees. Saducees were the elite in society, a part of the old-guard and very conservative. The believed in the written law of Moses and little else. Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife or the existence of angels or spirits. They were also the major political force at the time, representing the priestly aristocracy and the power structure of Israel. Their life centred around the temple.
Pharisees, on the other hand were a lay group and more a part of the common people. In addition to the laws of Moses, Pharisees saw value in the rest of the old testament. Pharisees saw temple observance as only a part of proper Judaic observance.
With the destruction of the temple, the Sadducees’ days were numbered. It is from the Pharisaic tradition that modern Judaism finds its roots.
Jesus seems to be equally scornful of both groups. The Pharisee in this story is very devout, not only maintaining all mandatory rules, he also tithes and ritually fasts, each week. He obviously feels that these actions put him above mere mortals like the tax collector character in the story.
The tax collector on the other hand is very aware of his wretchedness, beating his chest and crying out loudly. Such actions were reserved for extreme events such as the untimely death of a family member. Males were supposed to be more controlled than this public display of grief. Jesus message is simple- it is the tax collector, in his penitence and remorse that has found favour with God, and not the Pharisee.
What actually was the problem with the Pharisee? In following the laws of his religion he was without fault. And yet something was missing. What was the core of the issue- the Pharisee had broken the link in the core message of love for God- it requires us to love others, to reflect back out to others the love we have received. In his adherence to the rules of his religion he had forgotten the heart of it. Being more religious than others, with more knowledge or more ritual does not make us better than anyone else. God is love, and to follow God is to love all of God’s creation. Tribalism stands at the core of the message of this parable- The Pharisee saw ‘his’ group as the ‘right’ group, and in doing so excluded all others. You can’t be ‘right’ unless someone else is deemed to be ‘wrong.’ This tribalism is hard-coded into our DNA- to support our own tribe, ethnic group, country, at the expense of others. We aren’t perfect, but at least we don’t beat or murder people like… We aren’t perfect, but at least we treat women with respect and educate our children, not like… These statements could be used as modern day parallels to what the Pharisee said. You cannot make such statements without labelling a group of people as all believing and behaving in the same abhorrent way. Once people are labelled they can be dismissed. Instead, Jesus encourages us to ‘look to the log in our own eye first’ and be like the tax collector.
I am reminded of Sting’s song ‘Russians’, where he laments the violent and dangerously escalating rhetoric of the American and Russia leaders during the Cold War. Sting saw that the only hope for humanity lay in the love we all have for our children, irrespective of nationality or ideology – “I hope the Russians love their children too.” Sting saw what the Pharisee couldn’t- that we are all just people, all equal and fundamentally all the same- people of faith would say we are all equally cherished by a loving God.
We need to see other people as fundamentally the same as us- capable of love and affection, broken, and struggling to make their lives and the lives of their families and those around them better. When we make the effort to reach in and see the humanity of other people, we are called by that common humanity to reach out with hands of friendship and love, not with fists of condemnation and rejection.