Sunday 23 October 2022: Last Sunday after Trinity, Thirtieth in Ordinary time, Proper 25
Welcome, dear thieves, rogues and adulterers
Context: Sunday morning service in a town centre URC in the North of England, with approximately 50 adults in the congregation
Aim: to suggest to the congregation that by adopting the strengths of both prayers in the parable, and avoiding the weaknesses of both, our own life of prayer and action will be strengthened
I hope that none of you here today is a thief, rogue or adulterer, but if you are, you’re in the right place. In fact, we even welcome tax collectors.
The Pharisee in Jesus’s parable often comes in for a lot of stick. He does so for thanking God that he’s not like other people – thieves, rogues, and adulterers. But why all the criticism? After all, if you are not a thief, rogue, or adulterer why not be as grateful as any Pharisee or other person would be? What’s the problem with expressing gratitude to God?
In Jesus’s time, Pharisees embodied righteousness, not only teaching it, but practising it. In his prayer, the Pharisee tells God (and us) that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income. Goodness, if you all came to church twice a week and contributed a tenth of your income, neither I nor the church treasure would criticise you for it! Granted, this Pharisee exceeded any of the laid-down requirements of his day for fasting and giving, but that’s hardly the worst thing in the world.
In any case, what’s wrong with his prayer? ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers …’ Appropriately, he addresses his prayer to God. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving, which is quite acceptable. Also, it’s truthful; without false modesty. None of us wants to end up as a thief, rogue or adulterer, so why not thank God if we’re not? If we are, we can always pray the prayer of the tax collector: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’
Of course, not being thieves, rogues and adulterers does not mean we are perfect; that we are without sin. But then, nowhere in his prayer does this Pharisee claim to be perfect. I wonder if we too often read this parable from one traditional perspective, which demands that people see themselves as unworthy and sinful and fail to appreciate that this Pharisee prays from another traditional perspective, where you give thanks to God for your good fortune in life.
And yet, there’s a problem somewhere. If there wasn’t a problem then Jesus would not have said that it was the tax collector who ‘went down to his home justified,’ rather than the Pharisee. Was it that the tax collector prayed a better prayer? I think not. Like the prayer of the Pharisee, the tax collector’s prayer is directed correctly: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ In this, the two prayers are equal and identical. But as for the content, you could as well try to equate apples and oranges. One is a prayer of thanksgiving, the other a prayer for God’s mercy.
Certainly, the tax collector was under no illusions about his character and actions. If he had been, fellow Jews could have enlightened him. Those who made their living collecting taxes for Roman occupiers were regarded as traitors, and despised. His prayer then is heartfelt, though it lacks any expression of remorse, or statement of intent to change his ways. This is no Zacchaeus, who later in Luke’s Gospel declares he will give away half his possessions and recompense fourfold anyone he has defrauded (19:8). Unless, of course, this unnamed tax collector in the temple was Zacchaeus, but that’s a thought for another day.
If there’s too little in the tax collector’s prayer, there is too much the Pharisee’s. I think it goes wrong when he gets personal about someone else: ‘thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.’ It’s one thing to be glad that you don’t fall into the category of thief, rogue, adulterer, or agent of the occupying military power. It’s another to regard yourself as superior to an individual who can be labelled in those ways. And the Pharisee cannot see into the tax collector’s heart, cannot know the content of his neighbour’s prayer.
The tax collector went home justified, says Jesus, but once home, sanctified action would be expected; wealth shared and restitution for wrongdoing made. The Pharisee’s prayer was good as far as it went, but next time he prayed a prayer of confession, I hope he included sorrow about being mean concerning his fellow worshiper. As for us, let’s pray to God with both thanks and contrition; then follow up our prayers with righteous action.
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