Minister's Sermon - 27th October 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church

Sunday 27th October 10.30am 2019

Luke 18.9-14

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke says that Jesus told a story, “to people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everybody.” Two men go up to the temple to pray. The first is a Pharisee, who “has an abundance of good deeds, [and] prays a prayer of thanksgiving.” (1) The second is a tax collector, “a self-identified sinner, [who] simply asks for mercy.” (1) One is upright. One is fallen. They’re conventional types. And because unexpected things happen in parables, we expect the sinner to turn into a saint, and the saint into a sinner. The trouble is, the moment any of us conclude that we’re like the humble tax collector, and not like the arrogant Pharisee, we’ve fallen into the parable’s trap! Debie Thomas expresses it as a prayer like this. “Lord, I thank you that I am nothing like the obnoxious caricature of a human being who is the Pharisee in your story. Thank you that I have arrived at a point in my faith journey where I am much more like the tax collector: self-aware, emotionally intelligent, mindful, teachable, humble, and…” alert to injustice. “Yikes!” (2) is her conclusion. So, if that isn’t what we’re supposed to make of this parable, what is? To help us understand that, I want to introduce you to two of my favourite commentators, when it comes to parables. The one I’ve known the longest is Ken Bailey. He lived in the Middle East for over 20 years, trying to understand the peasant culture Jesus would have been a part of, and that’s enabled him to articulate some of the cultural assumptions Jesus and his audience would have made. I came across Amy-Jill Levine more recently. She’s a Jewish New Testament scholar, who brings an understanding of how parables are used in the Jewish community to her reading of what she calls, Jesus’ short stories. She says, we’d “be better off thinking less about what they ‘mean’ and more about what they can ‘do.’” (3) And that’s provoking, disturbing, confronting and “reframing” (3) the way we see things. So, what does this parable help us to see, that we don’t initially see?

Luke’s introduction to the parable sets us up to have a negative view of the Pharisee. He tells us that Jesus told the story, “to people who were sure of their own goodness and despised everybody,” and we immediately assume he’s directing his comments towards the Pharisees. Luke’s view of the Pharisees is almost always negative. He wrote his Gospel for a group of relatively comfortable Christians, after they’d left Judaism, because of their beliefs about Jesus. Around the same time, the Pharisees became the most influential leadership group in the Jewish community, and so they become the target of Luke’s criticism. The Pharisees rejected John the Baptist’s teaching, they’re condemned for greed and for questioning Jesus about eating with tax collectors and sinners, they complain about Jesus’ disciples picking corn on the Sabbath, and they attempt to trap him. And because Luke tells us these things about the Pharisees, we assume Luke is right, so judge the Pharisee in this story.

But this isn’t what Jesus’ Jewish audience would have thought. During his time, the Pharisees were respected teachers, who Amy-Jill Levine says “walked the walk as well as talked the talk.” (1) So, when Jesus introduces his story, with the words, “Once there were two men who went up to the Temple to pray: one was a Pharisee…” they will have assumed that the Pharisee was pious and righteous. And Amy-Jill says nothing they heard will have changed their minds. That’ll sound surprising to us, because the Pharisee’s speech sounds arrogant, and self-congratulatory. But all isn’t as it seems. For those listening, the Pharisee’s prayer was first and foremost a prayer of thanksgiving, in which he acknowledges his dependence on God. Amy-Jill says that the first part of his prayer is, “another way of saying, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’” As the Pharisee continues, he boasts about his twice-weekly fast, and that he tithes one-tenth of his income. Both are excessive. So, he’s not only distinguishing himself from the tax collector, but he’s also separating himself from everyone else. And given his piety, the most extraordinary, unsettling thing about him, is that he judges the tax collector negatively. Even so, he wouldn’t have been judged harshly by Jesus’ Jewish audience, but “taken as a humorous representative of… the ‘saint.’” (3)

Ken Bailey’s interpretation is different. He doesn’t think Jesus is “portraying a caricature.” (4) And he sees the Pharisee’s prayer as an attack on the other worshippers who have gathered in the temple. Especially since they’ll all have been praying aloud. Bailey sees the Pharisee’s words as being directed at the tax collector and other like him who are “greedy, dishonest,” rogues, extortioners, thieves, robbers, evil-doers, swindlers. And he suggests, that “adulterer,” is thrown in for good measure, because the Pharisee is now in the swing of things. “It tells us nothing about the tax collector,” he says, “but does [tell us about] … the mindset of the speaker.” (4) The tax collector is completely other to him. His faults and failings are so great, that the Pharisee can’t see anything that they have in common. So, he believes he has the right to judge him. An 11th century Syrian commentator makes this rather gentle comment about the Pharisee. “Experience demonstrates that the search for faults and failures of others does the greatest harm of all to the critic…” (4)

I wonder what that sounds like to us today. Here in Britain. In the middle of the seemingly unending Brexit crisis. A crisis which has become an opportunity for us all to say what we think about others. I hear Brexiteers and Remainers who sound like this Pharisees. “I thank you, Lord,” a Remainer Pharisee might say, “that I am not like those Brexiteers, with their little-islander mentality, their xenophobia, and their illusion that we can return to the good old days of the British empire. I thank you that I don’t think Britain will be great again when everyone who is not like us – East European, black, Asian, gay, lesbian and feminists – have gone home or been silenced. And I thank you that I’m not naïve enough to think we’ll get our jobs back and the money we’ve paid to the EU will be spent on the NHS.” What of Brexiteer Pharisees? I’ve struggled more with this one. Which will tell you where my sympathies lie. But I’ll give it a go. “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like the Remainers who’ve given away our fishing rights, our self-determination, our borders. I thank you I can see the impact of foreign workers on our communities, schools and hospitals, and the impact of EU law on our competitiveness. And I thank you that I really understand free market economics and how they’ll lead us back to greatness!” Is that all a bit close to the bone? If it is, I meant it to be, because I want to remind us how easily we can succumb to stereotypes and caricatures. And when that happens, how quickly, we retreat into our own corners and refuse to talk to those who might challenge our views. I know what it feels like. Like many families, mine is divided over Brexit, and we’ve found it hard to talk about it. And because we don’t talk, we assume what the others think, and why they think it. So, we attribute beliefs to them that may or may, not be true. Giving ourselves good reasons for not talking with each other. And even believing there is no good in the other. How different are we from the Pharisee in Ken Bailey’s eyes? And if that is so, we need to hear these words, again. “Experience demonstrates that the search for faults and failures of others does the greatest harm of all to the critic.”

While Luke sees Pharisees in a negative light, he almost always sees tax collectors, as “sinners on their way to becoming righteous.” (3) They go to John the Baptist for baptism and they eat with Jesus. Levi the tax collector becomes one of his disciples. And the tax collector called Zacchaeus seeks him out and becomes his host. Luke wanted tie community he was writing for to identify with the tax collector. But most of us do not. In the 21st century, tax collectors are those who are treated and considered, to be outsiders, as second-class citizens. Like foreigners, people who are homeless, and maybe teenage mums, divorced or gay people, and people who are disabled, too. Anyone who is marginalised. Amy-Jill says, “first century Jews would beg to differ. The tax collector is the agent of Rome… assumed to be corrupt… [and] dishonest.” He overcharges. He’s a collaborator and traitor. He’s “rich, well-connected, and ostentatious enough to host banquets.” So, his presence in the temple is completely unexpected, and the idea of a tax collector praying in the temple would have unsettled Jesus’ audience.

Just as most commentators have a negative view of the Pharisees, they see everything the tax collector does, positively. So, much so, that his words and his actions are seen as the epitope of humility, words and actions that those who want to be humble should emulate. So, he stands “at a distance, and would not… raise his face to heaven, but beat on his breast and said, ‘God, have pity on me, a sinner!” There isn’t really any reason to make this more significant than it says. I suspect we’re tempted to, because we see them as unusual actions, evidence of a special humility. But they were not. Standing at a distance, head lowered and beating his breast, were simply the physical expressions of his words. “God, have pity on me, a sinner!” He’d come to the Temple, because he sees it as the place he can find atonement, peace with God and he is sincere and brave, given that the other worshippers will see him as a traitor, a collaborator, or a rogue. And his presence will have felt unsettling. Because “they will have been forced to allow for the possibility that the tax collector could be righteous,” (3) and that God would forgive him.

That will have been challenging for the people listening to Jesus and for Luke’s community. The Jewish community has their negative stereotype of the tax collector challenged. While Luke’s community – living comfortably 40 or 50 years after Jesus’ death – were being challenged to take their own sin seriously. Debie Thomas invites us to “Note that the tax collector in the parable doesn’t name specific sins. He goes much deeper — he names a brokenness that is cellular, a brokenness that is central to his very being… Sin is a problem because it kills. It kills me. Sin is a refusal to become fully human. It’s anything that interferes with the opening up of my whole heart to God, to others, to creation, to myself. Sin is estrangement, disconnection… disharmony… Sin is the opposite of creativity, the opposite of abundance, the opposite of coherence, the opposite of flourishing. It is a walking death. My life, precious to God, dying.” (2) The tax collector’s sin is clear. And he comes to the temple because he wants to change.

One of the most significant challenges of the way the Brexit debate has developed, is that it has cemented stereotypes, that were being broken down but will not take years to unpick. Shazia Mirza - an English stand-up comic whose parents are Muslims from Pakistan - wrote this in yesterday’s Guardian. “Since 2016, we know for sure that everyone [in this country], hates each other. It’s out in the open… The Archbishop of Canterbury said after the referendum. ‘The privilege of democracy is to vote… To have a robust and firm discussion. It is not a privilege to express hatred, to use division as an excuse for prejudice and for hate-filled attacks.’ … But since the referendum we have used democracy as an excuse to express our hatred and we’ve all lost… 21% of schoolchildren think Muslims are taking over England, while 37% of Britons… said they would support a political party that would reduce the number of Muslims in the UK. Meanwhile, Home Office figures show hate crimes… rising over the past 5 years – with a big increase… since 2016. A few days after the vote for Brexit a friend of mine was abused on the street. She was wearing Asian clothes. A woman came up to her and said, ‘Haven’t you left yet?’... My friends said, ‘I was born here,’ and this woman said, ‘well change your stupid clothes then.’ And this woman was wearing a pink, terry-towelling tracksuit.” (5) It’s not necessary for us to go into the pros and cons of Asian clothes, or pink terry-towelling tracksuits, to see the damage stereotypes do, to our country. And these stereotypes are perhaps the greatest sin that accompanies Brexit, sins that both Brexiteers and Remainers have committed. The stereotypes emerge out of people’s real issues, but stoked by politicians and the media, they’ve cemented divisions among people who didn’t feel them as strongly before we voted. And they’re deeply damaging our country. Not only because of all the other things we need to be making decisions about. And not only because we’re talking about each other in ways that we would have considered rude before. But because of the “estrangement, disconnection, disharmony” which Debie Thomas describes as sin. Sin which “is the opposite of creativity, abundance, coherence, flourishing… sin which is a walking death.” Our life, “precious to God, dying.”

Is that too dramatic? I don’t think so. And it’s entirely consistent with this parable. For if we see ourselves as the humble tax collector, and the Pharisee as the arrogant bad guy, whatever they are in Brexit terms for us, we fall into the parable’s trap. As soon as we judge one character negatively, and promote the other, the parable traps us. And it makes no difference whether the other is a Brexiteer or Remainer or whether they wear Asian clothes or a pink track-suit. We’re been caught out by our stereotypes and prejudice. Yet this isn’t the way we have to live. And Amy-Jill argues that the parable is, in fact inviting us into, something different. Jesus last words in the translation we heard are these. “‘I tell you,’ said Jesus, ‘the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, was in the right with God when he went home.” She says that the word translated here as “not the” – not the Pharisee – doesn’t have to be translated like this. That there are alternative, equally valid, translations that make more sense. And the one I think is most helpful, for or time, is “alongside.” So, rather than the tax collector being made right with God instead of the Pharisee, he’s made right with God alongside the Pharisee. Amy-Jill says this would make the best sense of the parable when Jesus told it. Because “Judaism is a communitarian movement in which people pray in the plural…[Father hear us… bless us… forgive us…] and in which each member of the community is responsible for the other.” (3)

Given the many different ways this parable can be read, and because we don’t identify fully with either the Pharisee or the tax collector, I find the idea of them both being held together – alongside each other - really helpful if we’re to avoid falling into the parable’s trap. And seeing ourselves in both characters seems to me to be the best interpretation of it. So, it invites us first of all, to pay attention to the things we can give thanks for. Because thanksgiving affirms our dependence on God. It enables those of us who are members of the comfortable majority, because we’ve been able to choose how and where we live and what to do with our lives, to recognise that “There but for the grace of God go I.” But that doesn’t make us better, so it doesn’t give us an excuse for judging, or denigrating others (in any context). Nor does it give us licence to judge the Pharisee which is why, I think, he was seen as a humorous caricature. And maybe that’s a reminder that it also gives us the responsibility to ensure that we do not tip from recognising differences (which are positive), to using them to create divisions, to cementing them in hatred. So, if that’s what I think we’re being invited to see in the different interpretations of the Pharisee, what of the tax collector.

We need to remember that the tax collector’s presence in the temple was unsettling. And that through him God was up to something unexpected. This builds on what I’ve already said. If the two characters were alongside each other, the first unexpected thing, is that both of them needed to accept that they were equally capable of sin and judgement that can tip into denigration and hatred. And yet, the second unexpected thing, is that God’s mercy and God’s justice is not limited to those who obey the law, who fast and tithe. Neither is it limited to those who acknowledge their sin and failure. God’s generosity is completely unconfined by our human expectations. And the invitation of this parable, is to see others and treat others, with the same justice and mercy that God does. Whatever they think. Whoever they are. So, that we also, might be treated with the same generosity. Whatever we think. Whoever we are. For that’s the only way we’ll avoid falling into the parable’s trap. I wish the Labour Party hadn’t cornered the market in the slogan “better together.” But we are! Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

26th October 2019

(1) Amy-Jill Levine “Short Stories by Jesus” 2014, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector pp183-212

(2) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2412

(3) Amy-Jill Levine “Short Stories by Jesus” 2014, Introduction pp2-26

(4) Kenneth E Bailey “Through Peasant Eyes” 1990, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, pp142-156

(5) Sharzia Mirza, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/26/brexit-bear-grylls-island-fake-hate-society p4

References

(1) Amy-Jill Levine “Short Stories by Jesus” 2014, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector pp183-212

(2) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2412

(3) Amy-Jill Levine “Short Stories by Jesus” 2014, Introduction pp2-26

(4) Kenneth E Bailey “Through Peasant Eyes” 1990, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, pp142-156

(5) Sharzia Mirza, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/26/brexit-bear-grylls-island-fake-hate-society p4