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Reflection on the Gospel, Week before October 27, 2013

Luke 18:9 -14

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.”

What I Am Learning:

I am going to look at this story from a different lens than is typically used. It is not intended to discount other ways of seeing this story, but to add to the debate.

It is possible to see this story as about

  1. our attitude toward God
  2. our awareness of our sin
  3. that all, including those who are of low status, are welcome into God’s family

In addition, I will explore it as a story about privilege.

In this story, Jesus contrasts not just two people with two different attitudes, but two people with very different social locations. Jesus wasn’t just picking two random professions, like a plumber and a barista or a stockbroker and a doctor. He is picking one person from a group with high status, and another with the lowest status.

Pharisees were a reforming movement within Judaism. They were among the very small middle class in Palestine, with about 6,000 of them in the country. They believed that the reason why God allowed the Roman occupation was the moral and ritual unfaithfulness of most people. They set out on a project to whip the people into shape with regard to obeying the 613 laws deemed necessary to faithfulness.

This Pharisee thanks God. Notice that he gives God the credit for his position in society.

The problem is that a key reason why he was able to live out the 613 laws was that he was in a somewhat privileged position in society. In effect he is thanking God not just for his religious purity, but for his economic status that made that purity possible. In the Gospels the word “sinner” was regularly used to describe the 85% of people who lacked the economic means to obey the 613 laws. The Pharisees blamed them for their position.

Just as the Pharisees thought that God was punishing the people of Israel for their lack of religious purity, he thought his economic status was God’s doing. I think that the God of Jesus would not be pleased to be accused of using the Roman economic system to distribute God’s blessings!

This text is not about how terrible Pharisees are. Jesus and the Pharisees had a lot in common.

We tend to think that Jesus critique of the Pharisee is about this particular Pharisee: that this particular individual had an arrogance problem. And indeed he did! But I think Jesus point is bigger than that. It could be that Jesus is saying that those who are economically privileged tend to attribute their position to God as a reward for their faithfulness. Their theology blessed them in their blaming the poor for being poor. Their theology allowed them to ignore that fact that their wealth came from how they participated with the Romans in the occupation of Israel.

So it’s not really about the Pharisees at all, but about those with privilege.

It was impossible to have wealth in Palestine without taking part in the consciously unjust economic system imposed by Rome.

If you play, you get the pay.

But most of us would prefer to ignore such things and feel better about ourselves.

Tax collectors like the one in the story, were mostly low-level toll-booth attendants. They were crushed by the Romans, their land was taken from them, and then they were branded as traitors for taking the only jobs available. They lost their farms and then lost their reputation and community.

This tax collector recognizes his role, albeit small, in the unjust economic system of Rome. And he grieves it.

Jesus is not asking us to come to God with an exaggerated sense of our own unworth. He is not encouraging a self-hatred here. I think what he may be suggesting is consciousness about how we participate in and benefit from economic and political systems that disadvantage others.

The tax collector goes away justified – that is forgiven and reconciled with God – because he does not blame God for the economic system of the Romans.

He realizes that God is working to actively change and transform this system to one that provides just treatment to all and that God invites us to withdraw our support from systems that oppress others.

This is a very different take than these two blog posts, both of which I like as well:

But I think it fits well within Luke’s gospel, one that began with this:

Luke 1: 46-55

46 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Is it possible that this interpretation is at least worth consideration?