Thank you for this time together.
We gather so we may learn from you,
so that we may practice what you teach.
Help us to hear your words, and hear each other.
Lead us to put your words into action. AMEN
What is a parable?
- Greek parabolē, meaning set aside, parallel with or compare with one another (Young, Jesus and His Jewish Parables)
- Stories and sayings of Jesus, whether they are allegories, anecdotes or riddles
- A sort of code language for speaking of divine matters in terms that the unenlightened may not always comprehend (Powell, Introducing the New Testament, Powell, p. 87)
- Jesus calls our attention to details of human life and behavior that we often overlook.
- Jesus’ teachings were not recorded. They were passed on by telling and re-telling until they were finally put into written collections (see the chart on “Parables in the Gospels”). Oral transmission of stories characteristically adapts the story to the changing circumstances of the audience. Important to keep in mind!
- Guidelines for our own attempts to live out Jesus’ vision (Perkins, Hearing the Parables of Jesus, p. 2-3)
- They are often incomplete, allowing us to fill in the blanks and live out the story.
- They can apply to everyone.
- Most of his stories reflected himself, his character, his life and work. He uses pastoral and rural imagery because that’s what he saw and knew. Parables are word-pictures (Fichter, Many Things in Parables, IX-X).
How do we approach a parable?
- HISTORICALLY: What is behind a parable? How does it fit into the teaching of Jesus and later into the teaching of the early church?
- LITERARY: How is the story put together? Where does it focus our attention? How does it compare to other stories in Jesus’ time?
- AESTHETICALLY: How do we respond to it personally? Does it evoke conversion in me?
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18: 10 – 14)
Tax collectors were contemptible at the time. As they collaborated with the authorities of the Roman Empire, they were considered disloyal traitors. They often extorted more than was legally due (O’Collins, Following the Way, p. 139). Who might be an appropriate replacement today? The setting is the temple, the common place of worship. Perhaps Jesus himself came upon a similar situation and is using it to tell this story. A Pharisee is a prominent position and prays in a stance of eyes and hands toward heaven. His practice is to pray at mid-morning and mid-afternoon. The Hebraic law orders a fast only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, but, supposedly for the conversion of sinners, the Pharisee fasts twice a week, customarily on Mondays and Thursdays. His fast is rather strict, from food and drink (Fichtner, Many Things in Parables, p. 127-128).
Notice the parallelism:
|Posture||Standing before him||Standing at a distance, would not lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast|
|Prayer||God, I give you thanks that I am not like the rest of men, thieves, unjust, adulterers, or like this tax-collector. I sat twice a week, and pay tithes on all that I own.||God, Have mercy on me, a sinner.|
Jesus is friends to all. At first glance, it may seem Jesus is always “hanging out” with sinners and tax collectors (i.e. Zacchaeus). But Jesus also hangs with Pharisees (i.e. Simon). Perhaps we can see ourselves in both of these men? Let’s look at each of them:
The Pharisee has vested interests in the inferiority of others. He stands, not with others but by himself to pray. He never gets around to admitting that he needs anything – even from God. He has tight control over everything.
The Tax Collector implores for divine mercy and finds acceptance from God. His stance assumes that he feels he barely has a right to be there. He hopes God will hear his prayer despite his sins. He is an illustration of humility (We will come back to this word!).
Some questions to reflect upon…
Is the Pharisee harsh and lacking in compassion, or is he a product of what society has taught him?
The Pharisee says he is grateful to God…is he? Is the Tax Collector? How might gratitude be a factor in this parable?
If someone were to listen in to your prayer, what would they hear?
What might this parable teach us about God’s judgment?
What might this parable teach us about labels?
Being right with God is a matter of justification in this parable. Is the Tax Collector justified simply because he puts faith in prayer? What about the restitution to all the tax payers he defrauded?
Is it true, as is often said, that God answers all prayers, though not always in the way we hope for? (Perhaps we ARE our prayer. Prayer before God, in the house of God, is revealing of our true selves. Whatever there is of fakery, hypocrisy, pride of life, self-reliance, it emerges in prayer. Every true prayer requires something of the Tax Collector spirit, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” (p. 130).
**Here is what Joan Chittister has to say about humility (Illuminated Life, p. 55 – 58):
Humility enables me to stand before the world in awe, to receive its gifts and to learn from its lessons. But to be humble is not to be diminished. Indeed, humility and humiliations are not the same thing. Humiliations degrade me as a human being. Humility is the ability to recognize my right place in the universe…I am not everything I could be. I am not the fullness of myself…I am only me. I am weak often, struggling always, arrogant sometimes, hiding from myself most of the time, an always in some kind of need. I cover my limitations with flourish, of course, but down deep, where the soul is forced to confront itself, I know who I really am and what, on the other hand, however fine the image, I really am not. Then, the Rule of Benedict says, we are ready for union with God. The Rule of Benedict has 4 dimensions of humility:
- Recognize the presence of God in our lives.
- Recognize the presence of God in others.
- Let go of false expectations in daily life.
- Receive others kindly.
Once realistic about the self, the mind is free to become full of God.
O merciful God,
Take from us all self-serving vanity
and self-congratulatory pride.
Give us the courage to face our sins and our daily need
for your compassion.
Make us cry our constantly,
“Be merciful to me, a sinner.” AMEN