This is the last in the series, “Are You Sitting Comfortably….?” In this series so far we have looked at four parables that Jesus told, and which remain very relevant to us today. The idea is that many, if not all of these stories, have become so familiar to us that we have become complacent; we “sit back comfortably” when we hear them. We know them so well, that we miss the things that Jesus has to say which often make us feel uncomfortable and which should cause us to reassess ourselves.
When I was thinking about today’s parable, which I will get to in a moment, it struck me that my 21st century “filters” cause me to immediately take a view as soon as I hear the characters named by Jesus. I already know who the “good guy” is and who the “bad guy” is. I make a judgment based on my 21st century experiences. However, this is not how Jesus’ original audience would have heard this parable.
Let me give you an example from 11th April, 2009. That evening, on television, the ITV program, “Britain’s Got Talent” was screened. You will remember it if you saw it because Susan Boyle was one of the performers. When she walked on to the stage, even before she began to sing, "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Misérables, judgements were made. Everyone in the building and watching on television thought they knew what Susan Boyle’s performance was going to be like. They had already made up their minds because of their prejudice. In fact they were expecting to be embarrassed, and they were! Not because their judgment of her, based on what she looked like and what she said was right, but because their judgment was so wrong!
If we’re honest, we often do that. We make judgments about people, based on very little information. Worse still, either consciously or sub-consciously, we make comparisons with ourselves, and that leads to pride and prejudice.
Today’s story is from Luke’s account of Jesus’ life; the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
What do you think of when you here the word, Pharisee? If you know the story, or have come across Pharisees in other stories, you probably have a negative feeling towards them, because we have come to hear “Pharisee” as synonymous with self-righteousness. That’s our prejudice. However, that’s not how Jesus’ first audience would have felt when they heard the word Pharisee. The listeners of Jesus' day would have expected the Pharisee to be a careful observer of the Law, in keeping with their generally high view of the Pharisaic movement. Most Pharisees were highly respected members of the community, so Jesus first listens would have had positive feelings when they heard him say Pharisee.
How about, “tax collector”? Now, you may know that their fellow Jews did not like them, but from other accounts that you may have read, you will know that they were not all bad, so you may feel neutral, and if you know this particular story, then you may even feel positive. However, Jesus first audience would have had no doubts about how they felt. They considered them to be unscrupulous traitors, and they hated and detested them! Like we may feel when we hear about a person that has detonated a bomb in a busy city slaughtering many innocent men, women and children.
In addition, a “praying tax collector” would be completely out of character! Jesus’ listeners would have found that very hard to believe, once again due to their prejudice.
It’s really important for us to understand how Jesus listeners would have been feeling when they heard the words, Pharisee and tax collector. In fact, they would have been sitting comfortably, knowing what was going to come next. Just like the audience did when Susan Boyle walked on to the stage………
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
What Jesus says in verse 14 would have absolutely shocked his listeners! They would have been totally bewildered by his comment, and would have certainly felt uncomfortable. This is the upside down world of the Kingdom of God, which challenges traditional beliefs and perceptions.
All stories invite us to identify with the characters in them. Human nature being what it is, we like to identify with the positive characters. Who do you identify with in this story? Well, I’m guessing not the Pharisee, who was arrogant, smug, self-centered and full of pride. That would never be you, would it? Looking down on others, surely not! Only you can answer that of course, but it is oh-so-easy to make judgments about others through our own pride & prejudice.
Perhaps you would relate more to the tax collector? You recognize that you are in no way perfect, and can never be by your own efforts alone. Jesus makes it clear, that God’s mercy is for those who recognize their sin and are truly sorry. Of course, this undercuts the conventional understanding of the Kingdom of God. However, even here you must be careful because if this were the only sort of prayer that the tax collector ever recited, and his sense of un-worthiness dominated all his thoughts and self perception, then perhaps you wouldn’t want to identify with him?
There comes a time when you have to trust that you are forgiven and you fully accept God’s divine grace. You can’t do that if you’re “looking down on others”, neither can you do it if you’re mired in sense of unworthiness.
The gospel of Jesus should divest us of both arrogance and shame. Why?
As followers of Jesus we accept that when Jesus died on the cross, he did all that was necessary for us to be forgiven and to be made right with God. How can we be arrogant when he did it all? We can add nothing to it; nothing.
Equally, when Jesus paid the ultimate price with his life, if we accept his sacrifice, and change our life (repent) then we are totally forgiven and there is no shame.
It’s knowing, sensing, feeling, and experiencing this truth that makes us humble in the real sense of the word.
In this series we have now looked at five parables, and the intention has been exactly the same as the one that Jesus had when he first told them: to make us uncomfortable and to reassess our attitudes and the way that we live our life. Are you humble enough to do that, or will pride and prejudice stop you?
Questions and Reflections (for you to think about on your own or to discuss in your Life Group)
1. Do you agree that we all have some pride and prejudice in our life? Can you think a few examples that you have seen over the past week – with friends, family, in the newspapers or on TV?
2. Can you identify pride and prejudice in your own life?
3. Do you ever compare yourself to others? If so, in what way – positively or negatively? (Be honest!)
4. Which of the two characters in the parable do you most identify with, and why?
5. Do you fully accept that what Jesus did on the cross has set you free from both arrogance and shame? Can you explain why you feel as you do?
6. Has this series made you feel uncomfortable? Has it caused you to reassess your attitude, the way you view others, and the way that you live your life?