27 October 2013
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 25C (RCL)
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
On the heels of the parable about the persistent widow, we now have the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, and their prayers. Luke intends both to tell us something about the nature of our relationship to God. In the parable of the widow, God will justify the righteous who call to God day and night. We are to be like the widow and never forget the justice of our case. Even though the world has no reason to pay us any attention, we must stand firm.
The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector qualifies our relationship to the world. While God’s justice may be with us (with the poor and persecuted), and the world is unjust, we may not simply opt out of the world. The Pharisee is reasonably well off — he can afford to tithe on everything he earns. We don’t learn much about the tax collector’s status. But, as seems likely, because he is in the temple, he is one of those poor small-holders who had been taxed off his own land, and turned to collecting taxes from his own neighbors as a way of keeping food on the table. It is unlikely that someone much higher up the food chain (who had paid a handsome sum for the right to collect taxes — as far as Rome was concerned what the “tax farmers” paid covered the liability; if they could collect more, it was theirs) would feel any sense of compunction as displayed by the man in this story.
It is tempting, when the systems of the world seem so hopelessly broken, to try to extract ourselves from them. It seems like Paul’s community in Corinth (or at least some portion of it) had tried to do that, and Paul had to point out the impossibility of the gambit. The Pharisees (at least as the New Testament caricatures them) tried to keep their hands clean of the world. Withdrawal into a gnostic purity is of no use in working justice in the world. It leaves the graspers, rogues and adulterers — and especially tax collectors — to run the show, or as the case may be, to fend for themselves.
The prayer of the tax collector is really quite shocking in its boldness. The NRSV translates it, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” What he says in the Greek reads more like, “God, be reconciled to me, a sinner.” We can understand a sinner asking for mercy, and then we would expect him to repent, to change direction. But this man asks God to be reconciled to him, a sinner. He’s saying, in essence, “Here’s the situation, and I can’t change it. Life’s a mess, and I’m doing the best I can. You’ll have to accept me as I am.”
Luke has Jesus end this parable with the statement, “This man went down to his house justified (or vindicated).” God has accepted and declared the justice of his cause, just as did the judge with the widow’s cause. Remember back to the preaching of John the Baptist in Luke’s gospel — even the soldiers are able to do what is necessary for justice. Even though we can’t change the powers that be, and we can’t get out of the system, we must do our best to witness for justice and work within the messy system.