He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 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!’ 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.”
Once again I am reminded how disadvantaged we moderns are when coming to the ancient texts. We live in such a vastly different world with such different worldviews, that our entire third millennium consciousness finds the biblical consciousness almost inaccessible. The disadvantage with this week’s gospel is a challenge for the meeting of the two geographic consciousnesses.
As I have said so often on this blog, we who have seen our planet from the outer limits of our solar system in the image beamed back by the Voyager spacecraft as it left the system in 2003 (see Voyager image here). In Jesus day there wasn’t even the notion of planets! The world was flat, there was a dome of water overhead, held back by God’s providence, and the stars were hung Christmas tree like, from that dome. (See the world in Jesus’ day).
The highest altitude a human could experience at that time was the top of a mountain, which is why most temples were located on mountains or hills. From these vantage points one could find perspective of the world below as well as gaze into the heavens without obstruction.
Having established these challenges for our insights as moderns trying to understand this Lucan narrative, we can now proceed into the text.
Immediately we are struck by the attitude-altitude of the hearers to whom Jesus addresses the parable. “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” To these elevated judgers Jesus speaks a parable. As we listen to the parable I invite you to notice the altitude changes in the story. ( I have used the more literal translations of certain Greek words to emphasise the altitude references in the original roots)
“Two men stepped upwards into the sacred place to pray.
The Pharisee, standing towards himself (self focussed and preoccupied with himself?) thanks God that he is not like any other people. He is better than them all.
The tribute collector on the other hand stood far away (from the holy hot spot) and from the shadows did not even look into the heavens, but beat his breast and acknowledged that he had missed the target and pleaded for reconciliation with God.”
“I tell you” says Jesus, “this one stepped down, back home, having been made right with God rather than the other. The one who elevates himself will be made like the lowlands, and the lowlanders will be elevated.”
Having noticed the altitudinal and attitudinal location of the two characters of the parable, the question has to be asked., “Why?”
Why this threat of humiliation for the lofty living Pharisee and the reverse for the tribute collector?
I don’t think Jesus is commending a toady-obsequiousness in our approach to God, rather what is being addressed here is the naiveté of the Pharisee, who really believes that he is better than everybody else. That is a very dangerous blind spot to have. If my life journey has taught me anything it is the hard lesson that I usually fall and fail not from my weaknesses, but in my strengths. It is a simple law of strategy. We do not guard our strengths and in the shadow of our glittering self-images, the dark threats gather.
I have long been disturbed at the tabloids’ rapacious appetites for feasting on fallen icons. Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, the list stretches far back down the Yellow Brick Road. When will we question whether creating such celebrity doesn’t in fact set these poor stars up to collapse into their own, ignored, stellar shadows?
Similarly priests and politicians now have to face more discerning communities who will no longer tolerate inauthenticity be it dressed in Vestments or Louis Vuitton.
To modernise the parable: Who would you rather listen to: “Good morning my name is Joe and I am a regular struggling human being” or “Good morning I am your latest glittering paragon and idol.“?
Despite the Nielsen ratings, Jesus seems pretty clear which one God prefers to hear and help.
Mercy is found at ground level.