Sermon Oct 23, 2022 ~ Luke 18:9-14                       Rev. Betsy Hogan

Have you ever been surprised by the insight and wisdom of a child? Far beyond years and with a depth of understanding that stopped you in your tracks?

This parable that we heard just now from the gospel of Luke – the Pharisee and the Tax Collector – it will ever and always be for me the parable that was changed in my head forever by a little boy in this congregation who is now a grown man.

Because when I asked the children one time who they felt sorry for in the parable – all prepared for them to feel sorry for the poor Tax Collector – 

He immediately said ‘the Pharisee’. Which surprised me so much, it was SO not what I was expecting, that I think I just kind of blurted out “Why???” Really, it was a glorious pastoral moment.

But fortunately he was undeterred. Because he said, ‘It’s like he’s desperate, the Pharisee. Like he’s trying to prove himself or something.’ And I swear – maybe I was the only one that noticed them at the time – but I swear that choirs of angels burst into song.

Because it was such an insight. So far beyond the easy caricatures of boastfulness and humility that the parable so obviously crystallizes for us when we think about how we approach God in prayer – 

And suddenly the Pharisee is more than just this campy cardboard cut-out of a blustering self-satisfied buffoon – his essential brokenness and self-doubt and fear are laid bare. And there is desperation there. ‘See how good I am?’ he says to God. ‘Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Are you listening to me? Are you there?’

It’s possible to overdraw it, of course. Because is the point of the parable to recognize that the Pharisee is in his own way just as broken as the Tax Collector? No, it really doesn’t seem like it is. It really does seem as though we’re meant to focus on the Tax Collector and his essential humility, and his capacity to articulate to God his essential need. For mercy, for healing, for God. 

That IS identified by Jesus in his closing words as the point and purpose and message of this parable. That it’s the Tax Collector in his humility who goes away having truly connected with God.

But at the same time, not so fast – in relation to the Pharisee and the apparently obvious message that we’re meant to discard him as a caricature.

Because in fact, this is one of those parables that if we’re actually going to get what Jesus wants us to get, out of this parable, we really have to try to hear it as though we’re back there with the first listeners who heard it.

For whom, in fact, the way the Pharisee prays in this parable would have seemed entirely appropriate and reasonable and right. Just as entirely appropriate and reasonable and right, in fact, as the way the Tax Collector prays in this parable.

Two men, whose prayers as Jesus describes them would in fact have made perfect sense to his followers at the time. 

Because of COURSE the Pharisee would express his gratitude to God for having made him as truly faithful as he is – sure, it sounds kind of self-satisfied, but it’s crucial to note that he doesn’t take the credit himself. He knows that all that’s good about him is because of God, and that’s what he says in his prayer. So that would have made perfect sense to Jesus’ disciples at the time. They would have heard it as, really, a very good prayer. A prayer of deep and sincere gratitude for many blessings.

And in the same way, the Tax Collector’s shame and his begging for mercy would be exactly what they might have expected. Really, a very good prayer. Because if there’s one thing that Tax Collector’s going to need, working for the Romans, getting rich off the bribes he’s terrorized out of his neighbours? It’s gonna be mercy. A whole lot of mercy for a whole lot of wrong. So his prayer too would have made perfect sense to Jesus’ disciples at the time. Just as much sense as the Pharisee’s did.

And so those first listeners would actually have been quite surprised when Jesus finished up the parable by clearly choosing one over the other. By clearly identifying the Tax Collector as the one who goes away having connected with God, while the Pharisee doesn’t.

Because… what did the Pharisee do wrong? the disciples would have wondered. He gives all the credit to God for his many blessings, and he speaks words of deep gratitude! And no, he doesn’t beg for mercy like the Tax Collector does, but maybe that’s because he doesn’t need to! He’s an all-around good fellow and he’s grateful to God for making him so! How is that wrong? It seems entirely appropriate. 

The disciples really would have been surprised. But maybe, in fact, what Jesus is trying to show them here is that it’s not what the Pharisee does in his praying that’s what’s wrong – but in fact what he doesn’t do.

It may be even what he can’t do, at this point, when we meet him in this parable. And that’s to acknowledge, as the Tax Collector can and does, to acknowledge his need for God. That little desperate broken self-doubting fearful place inside him that needs reassurance. Or needs comfort. Or needs care. Or just needs. 

That’s the essential difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector that Jesus seems to be lifting up here.
And it IS an essential difference. There IS an essential difference between thinking about and thanking God as Creator and Purveyor of Blessings – and thinking about and approaching God as Sustainer. Helper. Strengthener. Comforter. Whatever.

And if it was that essential difference that Jesus wanted his first disciples to recognize, in his telling of this parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector all those two millennia ago – it’s still that essential difference that he lifts up for us, now, and wants us to be aware of.

Particularly, I like to imagine, when in the United Church at present there’s such a lot of conversation about the nature of God, what God is like, what Godness is like, that always seems to return to debates over a definition essentially based in the twin characteristics of supernatural and interventionist. 

The supernatural interventionist God. Which seems always in said debates to be used as fancy shorthand for God as almost what we might now think of as a caricature: a sort of Bearded Gentleman in the Sky who Waves a Magic Wand – or doesn’t – in response to all our prayers. 

It’s SUCH a sadly limited way of thinking about God. It makes me sad for the Pharisee just thinking about it. 

Because it seems like it’s what the Pharisee thinks Godness means, in this parable – but the actual point in this parable is that it is not the totality of what Godness means, what God is like, how God is, or why we might find ourselves drawn in faith to reach out to God.

Because that supernatural interventionist God with a magic wand that can so easily be tossed out like a cardboard cut-out caricature, like a baby with the bathwater -- that’s who the Pharisee addresses overtly in this parable. On the surface, standing there in the synagogue praying his entirely appropriate prayer:

Thank you, God, for making me awesome. Thank you for giving me lots of blessings as the divinely-ordained and correctly-calculated recompense for my awesomeness. Thank you, supernatural interventionist God, for having waved your magic wand from afar in accordance with all my requests and commensurate with what I deserve. It’s all because of you, O God, that I have been so super-lucky and super-deserving and good things have happened to me.

And Amen, the Pharisee concludes. And off he goes. And is there anything inherently wrong with that? There isn’t. He’s grateful, and he gives credit where it’s due.

But it’s just so limited. Which is the heartbreak of it. Because what happens to that Pharisee when he’s confronted by a tragedy? When his so-called luck runs out? What happens to him when it suddenly occurs to him that thinking about God as an apparently whimsical wielder of a magic wand is actually quite horrifying, considering the suffering so many sustain -- and also not really that different from the kind of “idol worshipping” that made the ancients offer God a dead pigeon, say, in the hopes that’s what God felt like having for supper that day?

What happens, when that’s the limited understanding of God, is that there’s a point past which it becomes unbearable. Untenable. Appalling. And so it needs to go. Lock, stock, and barrel, it needs to go.

How can we possibly believe in a supernatural interventionist God? Well, if that’s what that looks like, how can we indeed?

Except that it’s not. It is not so limited. And the Tax Collector in this parable, he shows us that it’s not so limited. Because look again at the Tax Collector in his prayer.

Supernatural? That doesn’t need to mean far away and disconnected and simply waving a magic wand at whim – the Tax Collector clearly understands that God is more than what can be seen and heard and touched, that God is beyond the natural: bigger, around, within, present even if unseeable.

And interventionist? That doesn’t need to mean God as Vending Machine, Occasional Purveyor of Blessings for the right price – the Tax Collector clearly understands that God does intervene, act, in relation to the world and God’s people, in a way that can be connected with in prayer because it’s constant and ongoing and about sustaining and strengthening and healing and helping.

There is, in other words, an essential difference between thinking about and thanking God as a supernatural interventionist Creator and Purveyor of Blessings, as the Pharisee does – and thinking about and praying to God as a supernatural interventionist Sustainer, Helper, Strengthener, Comforter, Whatever. 

The Pharisee’s error – and it’ll be his tragedy if he ever becomes self-aware enough to recognize that little desperate broken self-doubting fearful place inside him that needs – is his limited capacity to stretch ‘supernatural interventionist’ to encompass all that Jesus wants to show us in this parable God actually is.

To paraphrase the wisdom of the mystic nun Julian of Norwich – NOT one who promises in some sort of magical way that if we’re nicely behaved we’ll never face trial or difficulty or suffering, but one who DOES promise that we will never be overcome. That we are not alone, that we’re never alone, that we’re never left alone to live through whatever this is without help, without comfort, without whatever mercy we need.

It’s so easy to stay on the surface, jump quickly to the obvious conclusion, identify with a finger-snap the obvious ‘right answer’. ‘Supernatural interventionist’ – oh yes, that’s such an outdated image of God. But only in a world that doesn’t include a little boy who rightly recognizes that the one to really feel sorry for in this parable is the Pharisee. Thanks be to God.