Based on Luke 18:9-14
The parable form enables us to arrive at an interpretation based on where we are in our culture and in our own time and place in history. One commentator says that some parables “break up the soil of previous teaching and prepare for a new perspective.” Much of the meaning in a parable depends on us. Having said that, we also want to pursue what Luke was trying to tell us.
Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous,” to people who regarded others with contempt. At the end of chapter 17, Jesus is talking to the disciples about the coming of the Son of Man and then, immediately before today’s reading, he tells them the story of the persistent widow. So we know that at least the disciples are present. Pharisees and scribes always seem to be lurking about too, along with the ever-present crowd that follows Jesus around. And then there’s us, the audience. So Jesus is telling this parable as a warning to anyone for whom giving thanks has turned into self-praise.
This is God's judgement: that we need purging 'with hyssop;' we need wisdom; we need to acknowledge our iniquities, our transgressions. Only then can God create in us a clean heart. Only then can reconciliation and forgiveness with our neighbors occur.
Imagine how difficult it must be to continually dodge the truth that we have sinned before the Lord; how much physical and emotional energy that must take. Do you think Bashar Hafez al-Assad thinks at all about the toll the civil war must be having on Syria's citizens? Or is the enormity of his sin so great that he can't even speak about his people and what he's doing to them? Do we ever wonder about the toll exacted upon our homeless population by the policies we impose that only seem to be helpful when actually all they do is frustrate and make the problem worse? At what point do we lose our compassion and fall into sin?
How often are we thankful that we’re not like other people? “There but for the grace of God go I.” Is there a difference between the Pharisee just doing his duty and the person who gives to charity only to reduce their taxable income at year end? How often do we admit that we’ve missed the mark? Like the tax collector, do we recognize our sinfulness? Does that knowledge bring us sorrow?
We know what God expects, through the prophet Amos:
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:22-24)
When we re-orient to what God expects – justice, righteousness – when we look at every situation from God’s point of view, then we begin to see the world differently. The situation in Syria then looks more like tragedy, and the campaign trail, like comedy.
Jesus opens the door for us to discuss the public façade of any system of oppression. He exposes those who would destroy the village in order to save it. He tears the veil hanging between our reality and God’s. He helps us reorient to what God expects versus what we have become used to. We are free to stand far off by ourselves in our own private prayer time and lay it all out to God. That’s humbling. It frees us from our past and from the weight of what we’ve done – or not done. The good news tells us that all who humble themselves and confess to God what God already knows will be exalted.
Re-orientation leads to self-knowledge, re-evaluation, and transformation. What we take away from this parable is not that who we once thought was a good guy is now a bad guy, and vice-versa, but that we need to look within and reflect on our own relationship with God – is it honest and direct or are we trying to maintain a façade for others? Are we self-aware when we seek out the God who made us?
No one has to tell me I’m a sinner. God knows I know that. What’s important is how we talk to God about it. The true confession of our weakness will get us acquitted. But since we’re not sure this is so, it’s better if we re-orient to what we know God wants from us: justice and righteousness in all that we do. We must all break up the soil of what we “know” and prepare for a new perspective, through Jesus Christ.