This past Sunday at “the church on the dock” we explored the parable found in Luke 18 about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (v. 9-14). Rabbi’s, including Jesus, saw parables as handles on a basket. It’s hard to grasp a basket that doesn’t have handles and parables served as handles to grasp truths. The purpose of parables were to drive home a certain truth by drawing the hearer into the story. We should always ask the question when reading or hearing a parable: where do I see myself in the story?
The ability to fully understand the weight of the parable found in Luke 18 rests on one’s perspective of the Pharisee. Our current culture shines a negative light upon the Pharisees. They’re seen as two-faced and hypocritical and I’m willing to bet that no one would like to be called a Pharisee today. But if the original hearers had a negative perspective of the Pharisee I’m not sure what the point of Jesus telling this parable would be. Yes, the Tax Collector was seen as negative because in general they were known for exploiting their own for their personal gain…kind of like a pimp exploits others. If the characters in the story were both seen as negative I suspect Jesus might have been trying to point out just how bad the Pharisees were. But that doesn’t seem to line up with what we find in the rest of the Text. Consider the following: Matthew 23:1-3 (Jesus says to do what the Pharisee say to do), Matthew 5:20 (Jesus makes reference to the Pharisees as being righteous…all though our righteousness must extend all areas of our life), Luke 13:31 (the Pharisees wanted to save Jesus from Herod), Acts 15:5 (Pharisees were among the believers) and Acts 23:6 (Paul defends himself as being a Pharisee).
Pharisees were highly respected by those in Jesus’ day. Were there some bad ones? Certainly but they were in the minority. Let’s not fall into the modern day trap of allowing a few to cast a negative light on all. It appears the most negative thing you can find about the Pharisees in ancient writings is what they wrote about themselves. That’s pretty typical, aren’t we always harsher on our own. According to the Mishnah there were seven kinds of Pharisee:
– The Shoulder Pharisee – wore his obedience on his shoulder like a badge for all to see but he was faking it and he would lay those heavy burdens upon the shoulders of others.
– The Stumbling Pharisee – exaggerated his sacrifices he made to God and would wear extra long tassels on his garments (therefore stumbling over them).
– The Bleeding Nose Pharisee – was more concerned with disobeying God than obeying Him and would go to extreme lengths to ensure he didn’t disobey. If he was walking down the street and a pretty young lady was walking towards him, he would look away so as to not lust after her. They were known for walking into poles and other objects giving them a bloody nose. The problem is they would lay these same extreme measures upon their disciples as well even if they didn’t have a problem with lust.
– Mortar and Pestle Pharisee – were sincere in their obedience but they wanted to show it off and make sure others knew what they were about to do.
– The Accountant Pharisee – he was sincere in his obedience but he kept a detailed record of all he did and in the process lost track of why he was or wasn’t doing those things.
– The Pharisee of Fear – he had great reverence and respect for God but his obedience was driven out of fear of punishment from God.
– The Pharisee of Love – he simply wanted to obey God out of genuine affection for God. It was about who God was not what he would receive from God or what God would do.
The first five were considered bad (although they generally got better) and the last two were good with the last being the better. The majority of Pharisees were considered to be “The Pharisee of Fear.”
Back to our story. What impact does the story have on the original hearers if the character they respected (the Pharisee) is cast in a negative light? And the character they despised is the one exalted? It’s a matter of the heart. One of the theological debates of the day was “kavanah”…where’s your heart? Was it good enough to simply do a good deed even if you heart wasn’t in it?
Being a follower of Jesus requires all of our heart, all of our soul and all of our might. Do you suppose if we attempt to follow Him with only half our heart, with only half of our soul, with only half of our might we will turn out to be like the Pharisee in the parable? Where’s our heart? When was the last time we beat our chests like the tax collector in anguish over our condition before God?
The tax collector asks God to have “mercy” on him, wondering if he’s covered by God’s atonement. We can take joy in knowing that we are like the tax collector and YES, God’s atonement is for each one of us.