By Anthony Casperson
There tend to be certain cultural storytelling conventions that get repeated over and over. When done poorly, they’re called clichés. But when done well, we name them tropes.
However sometimes, when a person wishes to speak to their audience about a specific issue in their culture, they can play a reversal on the trope. This subversion of the expected brings attention to the cultural convention and reveals some weakness of it.
But then, if the subverted trope becomes just as commonplace as the original, it becomes a trope in and of itself. Like when people began to tell stories about less altruistic heroes who also planted themselves firmly in the gray area, it was a reversal of the classic heroic paragon. A subversion that birthed the new trope of an antihero.
The problem arises that if you go back to read one of the stories that originated the reversal, you now have years of trope-building skewing your perspective. The effect of the subversion then becomes lost for you.
I bring this up because I want to write about a story that Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke where he uses a reversal of a convention prominent in his physical body’s culture. However, this particular subversion has lost its effect on us because we don’t see the pharisees in the same light as most of the Jewish people in Israel during the first century.
To the people of that era, the pharisees were the cultural and religious elite. These were the people that everyday citizens would look up to and want to emulate. They’re considered by most of their contemporaries to be the best of the best. The most learned. The role models. The hero of every story they appear in.
It might be best for us to think about the people we follow through various social media. Those we want to hear what they have to say on a topic. The people we’d like, follow, subscribe, retweet, etc. This is probably the closest we can come to understanding that culture’s view of the pharisees without Jesus’ reversal of that paradigm hindering the effect of telling the story like this.
So, with that bit of an introduction in mind, allow me to direct us to Luke 18:9-14.
Luke’s account of the events in Jesus’ life tells us the purpose of Jesus’ story before he even gives it. Verse 9 begins with the statement that Jesus’ audience were those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.
That word for “trusted” carries with it the idea of being convinced or persuaded. Thus, the target audience of Jesus were people who had convinced themselves that they were perfectly okay (even though, truthfully, they weren’t). It was everyone else around them that were wrong. They hated the mere existence of anyone not like them because truth, goodness, and righteousness ended with them. In their view, everyone else needed to get in line with their ways or be worth nothing.
These are the people to whom Jesus points this story.
Two men went to the temple to pray. One was a pharisee. The other a tax-collector. One guy the obvious hero to the story and then the disgustingly hated villain of the tale.
Not only were pharisees considered the ideal of that culture, but the tax-collectors were the worst of the worst. They were thought of as traitors who sold out their own people to work for the corrupt Roman government. And what did they gain for it? Wealth.
They’d steal money from the people who’d earned it. The tax-collector’s claim being that it was owed to the government, when the true amount fell much lower on the scale. And they pocketed the difference.
But even worse, these tax-collectors turned away from their people to work with the very government that oppressed them. The Romans, who subjugated most of the area around the Mediterranean, by enforcing their own cultural values over the conquered people.
In Jesus’ story, we have the hero and the traitor.
They walk into the temple to pray. Up first comes the prayer of the pharisee. He prays (out loud so that the tax-collector could hear, by the way) thanks to God for not making him like a number of “sinners.” People who were much less righteous than he. Those who reveled in standing against the cultural standard that this pharisee was. And especially, he thanked God for not making him like that worthless and hated tax-collector over there.
Now this could very much be the words of a prayer by an actual pharisee. As a matter of fact, there are recorded prayers of pharisees that go back to the first few centuries after Jesus walked the planet that sound very close to this prayer. They would thank God for not making the pharisee a Gentile or a woman. (Not that great, I know.)
Returning to Jesus’ story, this man then rubs the tax-collector’s nose in all of the good deeds performed by the pharisee, as he “reminds” God of his own righteousness. This first man does all of the right things according to culture. Both in his own physical body and in his spiritual life.
He fasts, like a good little pharisee should. And he gives an exact tithe of every single coin earned. The unsaid words being: “Unlike this tax-collector who feasts on the hard work of others and hordes every one of his ill-gotten gains.”
But then, the story’s camera pans far away into a darkly-lit corner of the temple. There’s the tax-collector. He doesn’t even look up to God. He knows his own sinfulness. Understands that it is only by the grace of God that he can even be this close to the one he worships. And he beats his chest, not for people to look at him, but in true grief and repentance.
This second man prays. But his words aren’t about all of the great things he’s done. He doesn’t point to proper doctrine, or to his work among the poor. No, he knows that he stands before the holy God. And he witnesses his own sinfulness. So, all he can pray is for mercy. Beg for undeserved goodness from the only truly good Being.
Jesus hits his audience with the truth in verse 14. It was that traitor to his people who was made right in the sight of God. He was the one who acted in such a way to please God. It wasn’t the one that their culture thought to be the best of the best. No, that pharisee proved his own lack of righteousness by praying his hate of the tax-collector to God.
According to Jesus’ story, humility means being convinced of your own sinfulness in the presence of God. It’s not being convinced of our own goodness while our actions lack that humility.
When we began this little story, and I mentioned that Jesus’ intended audience were those who had convinced themselves that they were okay and everyone else were worth nothing, what was your first reaction? Did another person, or group of people, come to mind right away?
Well, this story might just be for you.
And it doesn’t matter which direction the finger-pointing went. Up. Down. Left. Right. Cross-armed. With every finger pointing in a different direction, and even a few toes. We could put on a blindfold, spin around, and randomly point because we’re sure it’ll land on someone we think needs to hear this story.
But if our first reaction isn’t to see the holiness of God and our own sinfulness, and then beat our chest in humble repentance, then we are fooling ourselves about our righteousness and goodness. If we think about how wrong everyone else is before we even consider our own areas of failure, Jesus has a word us.
No one is good apart from the grace and mercy of God. Don’t believe the persuasive words of anyone else, including ourselves. There’s nothing in a person, not our cultural heritage, not our gender, not our system of belief, not even our good deeds that makes us better than anyone else. So, let’s please God and humbly understand our place before him.
Let us pray “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”