Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 St.Luke 18:9-14
The Pharisees were dedicated to the preservation of Jewish culture in terms of the Mosaic law and its traditions relating to life and worship. They were jealous for the sacred history of God’s people; God’s unique provisions for the Jewish people. Israel as God’s people, made to be who they are as distinct from the rest of humanity by God’s gracious call of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who is renamed Israel. This call took the form of a covenant- including the gift of the Law, the ten commandments. The unique identifier of the Jewish people and religion through their entire history to the present day. The Pharisees were the guardians of this tradition and the understanding of its significance for the survival of Israel as the people of God. Their description as Pharisees comes from the Hebrew word פרושים prushim from פרוש parush, meaning “separated,” that is, one who is separated for a life of dedication to law and purity.
When this story was told by Jesus, we very often overlook the fact that the original hearers far from being offended by the self-conscious righteousness of the Pharisee would find it wrong indeed, obnoxious, that a Pharisee should be unfavourably compared to a Publican. The publicans were the “tax collectors” for the Romans in the state of Israel. The word came from the Roman word “publicani.” Because the publicans were representatives of the pagan Roman conqueror, their work was detested. A Jew who chose to become a “publican” was viewed as a betrayer and a servant of the occupying power of Rome. He was about as far opposite to a Pharisee as one could be.
The publicans were also hated for stealing from their own people more than what was required by the Roman’s tax laws. They took advantage of their official position to coerce and cheat people. They were people looked down upon, as amongst the lowest of the low in that society, people who were despised, whose company one would not want to cultivate.
In fact, we too generally believe that like the Pharisees for Jewish people who upheld Israel’s tradition there are groups in our own community who sustain the threads which hold the fabric and continuity of our community together. The farmers who farm, the teachers who teach, the parents who sacrifice their self-interest to the interests of their family and we could go on and name the numerous groups of people in the community who by their dedication to their calling are the ones that make a civilised society possible, who sustain the lasting essential structures that make life possible in a civil society.
The Pharisee in the text before us today with his pious faithfulness and predictability intends to serve God. He does in fact give thanks to God for His being who he is, for having made him such in his difference from the Publican. He does not make out that it is he who has made something of himself. He acknowledges that it all depends upon God as to who he is as a Pharisee.
Indeed, it is not the point of Jesus’s comparison to disparage or deny the piety of the Pharisee, in another place (St Matthew 5:10) Jesus says unless his disciple’s righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, they shall not enter the Kingdom of God. But what Jesus indicates is that the kind of obedience the Pharisee offers God vitiates, destroys, the goodness of the Pharisee’s whole life’s meaning.
In comparing himself to the Publican in the very act of thanking God for making him who he is; the pious Pharisee shows that he himself is not in the doing of his good work. His doing of good works, his keeping of the Law of God is done not for the sake of the goodness of the action itself, but with one eye on God, whose judgment he recognises as the highest court. He has one eye on God recognising his action and one eye on the action itself. His vision of being and doing good according to God’s Law is divided. In St Matthew 6:22-23 Jesus says of such a human situation,
“ The light of the body is the eye: if therefore your eye is single, your whole body shall be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you be darkness, how great is that darkness!”
It is the divided nature of the Pharisee’s action that destroys its value in terms of obedience to God’s will expressed in the Law . His action is not unselfconscious but very self-conscious. His eye is not single but divided as he lives before and with God.
The Publican, on the other hand, turns away from who he is in what he does, and remember what he does is betray his people by working in support of the pagan Roman regime: whilst defrauding his fellow citizens. As distinct from the Pharisee he does not look at his works, his deeds, whether they be good or bad; he looks only to God’s mercy as that which is the basis of his life before God and before his contemporaries. He looks only to God’s mercy as that which makes Him who he is, the only basis of his future hope. He looks neither to the right nor the left but only to God’s mercy as the truth of His life before God and other people. He pays no attention as to whether his conscience accuses or condemns him. In other words, in contrast to the Pharisee he trusts alone in God’s mercy. He looks at himself and his deeds, not with a divided eye but a single eye on God’s promised forgiveness; he seeks his righteousness outside of his work, in God alone, His mercy, now made visible in the One who is speaking. The Person of Jesus Himself is the manifestation of God’s mercy on his way to the Cross.
So, the difference between the pharisee and the publican is not to be considered on moral grounds. On moral grounds the Pharisee is regarded as a far worthier citizen than the Publican. The difference is the question which confronts us all in the One in whom the mercy of God ceases to be an abstract category. In the person of His Son, God confronts us as the crucified One, whose life is determined by absolute trust in God. It is the law of the cross, God’s incomparable mercy. This is revealed in Christ’s absolute obedience, for our sake, to the Father’s purpose for His life fulfilled in the cross. It is this that establishes the Publican as righteous and condemns the Pharisee. This action divides and judges not on the basis of what we can see or feel, but on the basis of God’s grace and His grace alone.
But who are the Pharisees today. We live is a quite different society/community than that which is depicted in the New Testament. I mentioned before, we may look to those who, like the Pharisees, hold the community together and express their vocations by serving in the structures of society that keep it functioning as a liveable civil society. The health care workers, the farmers who farm, the teachers who teach, the parents who sacrifice their self-interest to the interests of their family and we could go on and name the numerous groups of people in the community who by their dedication to their calling are the ones that make a civilised society possible, who sustain the essential structures that make life possible as a civil society. But these people do not function in our society as the Pharisees once did for Israel, being the source of guidance as to living life before God as God’s people.
The Pharisees today are those self-appointed individuals and groups that seek to control and to manipulate peoples’ thought and behaviour with their post-modern critical theories as the source of all insight and wisdom to which we must not only pay attention but obey.
(The Australian 070922) ‘The teacher at a Church of Ireland school was jailed for an indeterminate time after refusing to address a transitioning student as ‘they’. Enoch Burke was arrested yesterday morning for breaching a court order.
After Judge Michael Quinn made his ruling, Mr Burke said: “It is insanity that I will be led from this courtroom to a place of incarceration, but I will not give up my Christian beliefs.” He now lives in Mountjoy prison.’
Or the widely reported dismissal of the recently appointed CEO of the VFL club Essendon. The former CEO of the National Australia Bank he held his new position for 30 hours and then he resigned at the request of the Board because they came to the knowledge that he belonged to a Christian Church whose doctrine banned Abortion and was against Same Sex Marriage.
In recent times the Archbishop of Hobart was dragged before a court because he published for use in the education of students in Catholic schools a small book containing the Catholic doctrine of marriage as between a man and a woman. Someone who read it was offended by what it says about Christian marriage but also what Christian marriage excludes.
Whether it is in the UK, Europe, Australia or New Zealand not a week goes by without yet another example of a book being banned, ideas being censored, the past being rewritten, statues being demolished and authors being vilified and held up to ridicule. Political correctness, represents a threat to the existence of society as we know it. Including such basic ideas as rationality and the public expression of religious belief.
In schools and universities as a result of post-modern literary and post-colonial theory students are taught that our society is inherently racist, there is nothing beneficial about the Western Christian tradition, and, if they are white, they are told they must atone for the crimes committed against people of colour. Our culture is plunged into ethical chaos where intolerance masquerades as tolerance, and individual liberty is crushed by group think. The post-modern world is the world of double think as described by George Orwell in his books like Animal Farm, and 1984, and others. In them the Orwellian world is the world where Big Brother controls citizens thought and anyone, particularly Christians, who question the thought police is victimised, punished and silenced. In totalitarian societies like China and present-day Russia we actually see what Orwell so remarkably predicted would happen once human ideologies replaces the open and free societies of the Western democratic kind. The ideologies which inhabit the politically correct guardians of our community, who censor and victimise anyone who trespasses over the boundaries of their ideology, whether it be militant feminism, Marxist interpretation of history, the black arm band view of Australian history and race relations, or secular humanism which denies any rational narrative or purpose to the human story, they all lead us in the same direction as those already established in communist or fascist states.
As Christians in this context, we have the responsibility to tell the truth about the human condition on the basis of God’s action toward us in Christ. That human beings are not an accidental conglomeration of atoms thrown together by a cosmic accident, beholden to a blind fate that only has the meaning that I or my group give to the human condition. That there is a purpose in life derives its meaning not from us but for us in Christ. This purpose invites us to trust ourselves to One who in the cross dignifies our humanity by actually bearing our brokenness in himself and thus giving us freedom to live truly human lives, serving each other as we have been served in Christ, and in that service to find the true basis of human freedom.
Dr. Gordon Watson.