Is the Pharisee’s prayer that bad? On the surface he sounds like a good and righteous man who does more than most. He observes the evils of the world around him and doesn’t get involved. He gives thanks to God that he is not like the rest of humanity: greedy dishonest, adulterous….” He is a good man. He goes beyond his fellow Jewish brothers and sisters.
His prayer sounds perfectly formed. He thanks God for his good behaviour. What’s the issue here? We know there is a problem because Jesus is obviously telling this parable with a critical eye towards the good Pharisee. And as we can see from the conclusion it’s not about obedience but how we are made right with God. He wasn’t evil, but he wasn’t right in his relationship with God.
We might think that the 2 things are one and the same. Being obedient and being right with God. Doesn’t God demand obedience? Doesn’t James say “for whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it”? (James 2:10). And didn’t Jesus say: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17,18).
The Pharisee went to the Temple, but why? It didn’t seem to be to seek God’s help. He doesn’t seem to need God at all. No, he’s doing alright all by himself. And maybe that’s the problem. Just like Adam and Eve he is finding a way through life without the need for God. Don’t we fall into that trap at times? Only coming to God when we need something? It was how Satan tempted Jesus when he tempted him to use his own power to turn rocks into bread rather than relying on God’s provision.
God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ I think what this example shows is that no matter how much he did to please God, he never felt right with God.
And even with the long list of accomplishments that he has done for God he still feels the need to go one step further and put down someone else. It wasn’t enough that he was going over and above what the law demanded. He had to point out to God how much better he was than that tax collector over there in order to feel right with God!
Sadly what we see in the Pharisee extends into the church and society. We label people in a way that downgrades them in order to upgrade ourselves. People are labelled in various ways. They are labelled by their occupation, just like the tax collector in our reading. I’m just a housewife was a classic example where housewives were made to feel they weren’t a valuable contributor to society. And today if a person is unemployed they are deemed lazy. Today people are labelled by their nationality and religion with the feeling by many that all Muslims are terrorists. Or if they’re not terrorists then they certainly sympathise with them.
Many with Germanic backgrounds will remember the feeling when during World War 2 and after Germans were looked upon with suspicion. Town names were changed – surnames were changed to avoid suspicion – even our Seminary in North Adelaide was taken over by the air force for fear it could be used to train German soldiers.
Many look at single mothers in a way that makes them feel like they should be thankful for us tax payers. Or we make a judgment against their way of life. Even in the church we can without realising it make people feel of less worth. And one area I often feel sad about is how we categorise our senior members. How many times don’t we look at churches that are ageing as churches and say that they are dying? How does that make our seniors feel? And yet if it wasn’t for ageing members we would not have a church today.
How many times don’t we see young families leave ageing congregations rather than enjoying the richness of the heritage and mentors of cross generations that are available and probably not found in other places. Where else do we find such a diversity of ages mingling with each other? But when we look at statistics of churches we look with negativity and concern with those churches with an average age over 60 – why? Where else can a young person learn about life and hear about the joys and challenges of growing up in the various stages of life?
Life is made up of diversity. All people are loved and valued by God irrespective of any labels or values assigned to them by society. As St Paul so elegantly put it: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul could probably have added there were no young or old. When it comes to who we are before God there is no value classification. Any value classification that is made comes from us not from God. The Pharisee enjoyed highlighting other people’s failings. I’m not a rogue. I’m not an adulterer. I’m not a thief. I’m not a tax collector.
As we near the end of Senior’s Month it’s sad that so many think of Seniors in the church as a sign of a church in decline. Our children can learn so much about life from its senior members. Our church can benefit so much from the blessings that our seniors bring with them. Every person is a gift to the church and we should never think of a church negatively for any reason.
As St Paul reminds us the church is the body of Christ made up of many members – male and female, old and young. From before we were born God has planned our lives. And God’s plan doesn’t stop when we reach a certain age. As St Paul reminds us: we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10).
Those good works don’t expire when we reach a certain age but often come to their perfection and therefore we should value each and every person as God does as his handiwork. We should never look down on anyone but value each and every person as God does as his precious handiwork created in his own image and for whom Jesus Christ died.
And the peace of God that surpasses all our understanding keep your hearts and minds forever in Christ Jesus. Amen.