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23rd October 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
21 October 2016

Readings

Joel 2: 23-32

This reading from the book of Joel speaks of a transformation that has no limits of gender and class.  God will pour out the divine spirit on all flesh and this outpouring is evident in the most unlikely people.  One writer takes from this passage the image of a tornado on a Pacific island where all life seems to end but in fact life is still in the soil waiting for the sun to follow the storm.  It is also interesting that the original name for Te Kooti’s warriors Nga Moreau, ‘the survivors’ came from this passage. [1]

Luke 18:9-14

Fred Craddock notes that theologically this reading presents the doctrine of God’s justification of sinners and the ultimate failure of self-righteousness, a doctrine we have seen in a number of our readings from Luke’s Gospel.  Like many of Jesus’ parables this episode would have been a shock to its first listeners.  The expectation of the time would have been that if anybody went home from the temple not justified it would be a tax collector.  He worked for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people and was a traitorous participant in a cruel and corrupt system.

The Pharisee on the other hand is shown exceeding the law’s demands.  We may see him as arrogant but he is adhering to the moral and ethical code of his faith and like so much of Jesus’ teaching we are left with questions about our own faith and life to wrestle with.[2]

Bill Loader’s concluding paragraph notes that the message of Jesus is quite sharp: bolstering one’s sense of identity by disparaging others so easily leads to illusions of grandeur and a failure to see ourselves as we really are.  We need to accept our common humanity and to know that our real value is in loving and accepting ourselves as God loves us.

We must forget trying to earn credit points with God. When we do that we will have so much more time, space and energy for compassion, both receiving and giving compassion. ‘Pharisees’ need such compassion as much as toll collectors.

Sermon

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr was an associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932 who famously said ‘I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization’  He was later re-quoted and slightly reworded in a 1936 address by Franklin D. Roosevelt who said ‘Mr. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: ‘Taxes are the price we pay for civilized society.’

Clearly that was not the opinion of those first listeners of Jesus’ parable although the Roman Empire is certainly regarded by history as civilised.  Even the tax-collector regarded himself as a sinner and we can assume that Jesus’ audience would agree with him. 

Taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society and Rome could easily justify the taxes it collected by the amenities it provided. 

However they often collected the bulk of their tax from the least able to pay which is a system that is not unheard of in our world.  Furthermore although roads and water reticulation can be seen as a common good, palaces and sports stadiums are not always viewed as a priority by those asked to pay for them. 

I could well imagine that a network of roads spread across the empire was a great advantage to the Romans but their subject people would think it far more cost effective if their oppressors just stayed in Rome. 

The other issue was that the tax-collectors mentioned in the Bible were local people employed by Rome and therefore were regarded as collaborators and traitors—major sinners in any culture.

I understand there was a small flat tax that every household paid and flat taxes are always a bigger imposition on the poor than the wealthy.  But most of the tax was tolls on the transport of goods.  Therefore peasant farmers and Galilean fishermen could not get there fish and produce to market without paying the toll.  We now have cameras that recognise car number plates and debit the owners account every time they use a new motorway and in the wonderful world of privatisation that pays for the road.  However unlike the Littleton Road Tunnel, once the motorway is paid for the construction company will likely carry on collecting the tolls.

That’s a bit how it worked in Jesus’ time because the empire stated the amount of tax it expected and the tax collector’s wages came from what extra he could collect.  Territories are tendered for and given to the best offer and both the Mafia and the Roman army supply soldiers to deal with reluctant payers.

So we can understand why the Pharisee felt so self-righteous when he compared himself to the tax collector.  Furthermore most of Jesus’ audience would agree with him.  But this is a Jesus parable and as usual expectations are reversed.  The tax collector is redeemed for his contrition and the Pharisee is chastised for his self-righteousness. 

First century Palestine was a feudal society which meant that those farming families that could retain their inherited right to farm a particular piece of land could feed their families even though a significant amount of their production went on rent.  Likewise a family with an inherited fishing boat could survive even though transporting and processing their catch would attract tolls.  People who didn’t have, or had lost an inherited business, were reduced to selling their labour on a day to day basis, begging or some form of crime.  But the corrections minister of the time would not bother to blame their parents, because there was always slavery, gladiatorial spectacles and crucifixion to deal with unwanted vagabonds.

In such circumstances being able to win a tender to collect tolls from other marginalised people gave security for the individual and their family.  Such security would not always overcome the guilt of causing hardship to others or make them immune to the sort of derision they received from fellow Jews.

That loathing is expressed in the parable by the Pharisee and we can make some assumptions about their position in society.  The Pharisees are referred to as a religious party. They had a particular view about what it was to be a loyal religious Jew.  Their religion was law-based.  They had a vision that God would restore Israel as rightful world leaders if only everyone would keep the law, even for just one day.  To help this process they supported a whole host of extra laws so that people would not break the law by accident.  The extra laws were bit like somebody who always drives on the open road at ninety so they don’t go over one hundred by accident.  If someone gets so frustrated in the following queue that they cause an accident then in the mind of the self righteous Pharisee that’s not their fault. 

The other point worth mentioning is that although historians tell us there was no middle class in the Roman Empire the Pharisees must have had a certain freedom from want to be involved in the activity of a religious party.  In his letters Paul, who was a Pharisee, talks about working as a tent maker.  So perhaps Pharisees had successful family businesses or inherited wealth that gave enough spare time for religious politics.  That would also give the Pharisee reason to gloat.  It would also be quite rational to give thanks for the fact that he was not in the situation where he was forced to take on a job that compromised his patriotism and political belief.

Nevertheless we can understand why Jesus and the Pharisees did not always get along.  But the real question for us in this parable lies in what it says to us.

How do we see ourselves in relation to others in our community.  A recent Garrick Tremain cartoon depicted three different economic situations in New Zealand.  Furthermore the Rev Dr David Clark wrote that ‘This cartoon isn't just good social commentary; this view is supported by research’.  

Can we picture Tremain’s three characters relating to each other in Jesus’ parable?  The poor man might well beat his breast and repent the bad decisions he made, the upbringing he had or the inability to find work after being made redundant in middle age.  However I suspect the rich man is too envious of obscenely rich to blame the poor man’s parents for his poverty.  I can certainly see the obscenely rich giving thanks that he is not either of the other two.  He has always worked hard and been rewarded for his diligence and faithfulness to the great idol of neoliberal economics.

After reflection on the relevance of the contrast and reversals of assumptions in the parable we can assume that Luke included this parable as much as a teaching for the church as well as individuals. 

So we not only have to ask what this parable says to us, we also need to ask ourselves if we are part of a church of the Pharisee or the tax collector.  

I am sure we can all think of churches where following the rules is important.  We have also observed people in some churches whose members are inclined to look at those outside the church and be thankful that they are not like them.  When such churches deal with readings like our passage from Joel they focus on the apocalyptic prose at the end of this morning’s passage.  That prose section affirms their belief that, as righteous Pharisees, they will be rewarded and the tax collectors and other sinners will get what they deserve.

There is also a feeling among some churches that some occupations are callings and others are just jobs.  As a much younger person I experienced the feeling among church folk that some occupations were more ‘Christian’ than others.  Doctors and clergy were doing God’s work but photographers and sales people needed to take on as much voluntary church work as possible to guarantee salvation. 

When I was a JC we all affirmed that ‘service to other was the best work of life’ but that was mostly understood in terms of building children’s playgrounds and selling Christmas trees to get money for worthy causes.  But we also unthinkingly forgave the tax inspector in our midst because we knew him and he was a good bloke.

Most of us would like to think that we belong to churches that don’t criticize others.  Churches that offer reconciliation and hope to people whose economic circumstances drag them into occupations that seem less than ideal.  We can even work through the social and economic necessity of the Spirit calling some people to be tax inspectors.   After all taxes are the price we pay for civilized society and we can’t all be heart surgeons and missionaries.

However most churches contain a cross section of the sanctimonious and the sinners and acknowledge that we are all on a journey together. 

More importantly the poetry section of the Joel reading stresses that our God is a God of new beginnings.  Calamities like swarms of insects happen but the seeds of new beginnings are already in the ground.  All of us can be both the sanctimonious Pharisees and depressed with our place in life.  But all have the Christ seeds within us and all of us are called to new beginnings.

Both these readings recognise triumph and disaster in our lives and in our world.  Both these readings affirm the divine possibility of new growth and new beginnings.

As a church and as God’s people we are called to nurture the seeds of renewal and offer new beginnings to ourselves and to our world.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 552,553.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), pp. 210, 211.

 

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