The Senior Tutor, Ian Boxall, preached at the Mass on 24th October 2010, the Last After Trinity. Readings: Ecclus 35:12-17; Ps 84:1-7; 2 Tim 4:6-8; 16-18 and Luke 18:9-14
There aren’t many groups more in need of a public relations adviser than the Pharisees. The Pharisees are regularly vilified for their hypocrisy, or their self-importance, or their obsessive legalism which damages the consciences of others and drives them far from God. So the Pharisees become easy targets for that human, but ultimately lazy and distorting tendency to caricature and label, rather than that much harder learning to speak about other human beings in a careful, precise, and ultimately more truthful way.
Even in the New Testament, with a few notable exceptions, the Pharisees play to type, almost always the antagonists, rarely doing the right thing. Which makes it all the more difficult to listen to today’s gospel and not fall into easy caricature. We seem to be presented with a stereotypical Pharisee, and, for added measure a stereotypical tax-collector as well. It isn’t helped by the fact that neither of these two characters in Jesus’parable is given a name, because, although we still do it, it is harder to caricature and pigeonhole when people are named, when they have a name and a face and a family and a history.
But what if today’s parable is less about caricature than about turning caricature on its head, so that we are forced to re-evaluate both how we view Pharisees and how we view tax-collectors, and ultimately how we view each other?
First, the Pharisee. We might be tempted to think that he is a typical Pharisee, self-important, carried away by his own piety, despising the ‘people of the land’. After all, he seems to fit perfectly the definition of a Pharisee in the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘self-righteous person, formalist, hypocrite’! But I want you for the moment to throw away your copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (it may be helpful for your prose style, but may prove disastrous as a tool for New Testament exegesis). I want you to reach instead for your copies of the Jewish historian Josephus, or your English translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. If we spend a bit more time with the first century sources, we might come to the conclusion that the Pharisee in the parable is in fact a quite untypical Pharisee. The Pharisees, Josephus tells us, were the pin-up boys of first century Judaism, highly popular among the people (of course, he was a Pharisee himself, which always helps). If we are to believe other accounts, the Pharisees were the modernisers, those attempting to re-interpret archaic laws for modern times, which is why they often provoked the ire of the Sadducees. As for their supposed obsession with the minutiae of legal interpretation, let’s not forget that the community at Qumran called the Pharisees ‘the smoothies’, the ‘seekers after smooth things’, criticizing them not for being too strict, but for being far too lax in their following of the Law.
So the Pharisee in the parable may not be a typical Pharisee at all: rather, he is a caricature of a Pharisee gone-wrong, of what even a popular, liberal, pious, God’s law-loving Pharisee might become. Jesus’ parable shockingly turns on its head the usual expectation of the Pharisee, replacing one caricature with its polar opposite, just as it does precisely the same thing with the caricature of the swindling, disreputable, ungodly tax-collector. It is meant to shock. It is meant to force us to re-evaluate the caricatures with which we ordinarily operate.
But the real point of today’s parable is less about different kinds of people – caricatures or not – than about different kinds of prayer. The pious Pharisee prays a prayer which on a superficial level sounds like a eucharistic prayer: ‘God, I thank you …’ Yet as his prayer unfolds, it comes clear that it is a highly distorted eucharistic prayer. First of all, although the prayer is addressed to God, the Pharisee stands ‘praying to himself’, so self-absorbed that no real conversation, certainly no real thanksgiving, is possible. Second, his prayer doesn’t give thanks to God for what God has done, but rather gives thanks to himself for what he has done for God: ‘I thank you that I am not like other people … I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ Nor can he resist his own attempt at caricature, dividing humanity into manageable groups with their own neat labels: ‘thieves, rogues, adulterers’ … and then ‘this tax-collector’, who belongs to a group which might be even worse than those groups already mentioned!
On the other hand, there is the prayer of the tax-collector. It is not that what the tax-collector says is any more true than what the Pharisee prays. The Pharisee probably did go beyond what was required by fasting twice a week and tithing the whole of his income. And the tax-collector may well have been the disreputable rogue that the Pharisee implies him to be. But unlike the prayer of the Pharisee, his prayer is utterly focused on the mercy of God. And his is prayer which is acceptable to God. He stands far off, beating his breast in a sign of repentance, thoroughly aware of his own unworthiness. Luke make be hinting here of another scene – not in the Temple but outside the walls of Jerusalem – where others stand far off and beat their breasts. Ironically, the disreputable tax-collector is closer to those crowds who repented as they saw the crucified Jesus than the Pharisee who sees no need for repentance.
There is a second Pharisee in today’s readings, and he does have a name: Paul of Tarsus. This Pharisee has certainly been subject to more than his fair share of caricature and pigeon-holing. Yet the glimpses which the New Testament gives us of Paul’s prayer is of a Pharisee who is both utterly aware of his own unworthiness, and of the limitless mercy of God. It is not what he has done for God, so much as what Christ has done living in him, which permeates his prayer. So, on the verge of death, the Paul of 2 Timothy prayerfully reviews his life. Yes, he has fought the good fight; he has finished the race; he has kept the faith. But only by the grace of God working in him. It is the Lord who stood by him in his defence. It is the Lord who gave him strength. It is the Lord who rescued him from the lion’s mouth, and who will save him for his heavenly kingdom. That is the invitation today, for our prayer and for our Christian vocation: to glimpse what God has done, and is doing for Paul the Pharisee; what God has done for the unnamed tax-collector; what God has done, and is doing in us.