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Last Sunday after Trinity

20 October 2016

Proper 25: Ecclesiasticus 35.12-17 or Jeremiah 14.7-10, 19–end; Psalm 84.1-7; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14

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Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

LIKE the story of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18.1-8), the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18.9-14) begins with a summary of its intention. In both cases, these guides to the reader are somewhat misleading.

The widow’s encounter with the judge is not simply about prayer, but about praying single-mindedly for the coming of the Kingdom. The contrast between the Pharisee and the tax-collector might have aspects of a warning to those who are inclined to feel pious and morally superior but, in the end, it resembles other parables whose real subject is God.

Both characters in the narrative have an idea of God. The Pharisee’s self-congratulatory monologue implies a divine listener who has set the benchmarks that must be attained, and is pleased to receive reports of success. It does not suggest a relationship, or any sense that one’s life could be changed by seeking God in prayer and worship.

This is not surprising; for, as G. B. Caird observes, the Pharisee is not praying, but assuring himself of his exemplary character (Saint Luke, Penguin, 1963). The tax-collector has just one thing to say about himself: that he is a sinner (Luke 18.13). That he dares to make this confession, over and over again as he beats his breast, can be explained only by his belief that God is merciful even to sinners.

There is an obvious dramatic necessity for the audience to know what the two men were saying, but the more interesting question is whether the Gospel-writer imagined that his characters could hear each other. Writing about “silent prayer in antiquity”, Pieter van der Horst suggests that it was not frowned upon in Jewish practice, since God had heard Hannah’s silent petitions favourably (1 Samuel 1.9-18). Christians, at least until the third century, seem to have preferred audible prayer (Numen, 41, 1994), and a Christian writer describing Jewish prayer would have taken this line.

The heartfelt words of the already despised tax-collector, imploring God’s mercy, must have made him seem still more abject and unworthy in the Pharisee’s opinion, while the Pharisee’s confident claims would have made the tax-collector feel even worse. He is beyond advising God about the folly of complacency.

The conclusion to the episode is as unhelpful as the thumbnail introduction, although in a different way. There is no explanation of how the tax-collector came to be justified, while the Pharisee was not. This is a privileged insight into the mind of God, although perhaps also a cunning warning to the reader who might have arrived at this resolution not to be too certain of his or her own right judgement.

The way that the closing remark (“for all who exalt themselves will be humbled . . . “) is only generically related to the narrative may be evidence of the writer’s attempt to produce a particular lesson out of a traditional story. If it is intended to assist readers, it would be harsh to dismiss it as a literary flaw.

In showing the humble taking precedence over the pompous, the summary in Luke 18.14 takes us back to Mary’s song (Luke 1.51-52), and is fully consistent with Luke’s picture of the Kingdom as a phenomenon that will turn the world and its values upside down. In the whole scheme of the Gospel, it is something that needs to be said ever more insistently as Jesus comes close to Jerusalem.

Why do we not read the final reflections of the writer of the Second Letter to Timothy as the same sort of boastful self-righteousness portrayed in Luke’s Pharisee? After all, Christians are often accustomed to shying away from making extravagant claims, because they have been encouraged to let their lives and actions speak for themselves.

The justification for the senior evangelist’s catalogue of completed achievement is two-fold. First, it sets an example to Timothy, who must aim for the same achievements, fully aware that the cost will be hard work and self-sacrifice (2 Timothy 4.6).

Second, it is inclusive. “The crown of righteousness” is not just for the one who writes as Paul, but for all who are working selflessly for Christ’s Kingdom and longing for his final coming (2 Timothy 4.8).

Ecclesiasticus 35.12-17 offers bracingly practical advice, which serves well as a guide to an honest relationship with God. It all starts with God and God’s generosity: everything else is response (Ecclesiasticus 35.12-13). God is neither susceptible to deception and flattery, nor sentimental about the underdog (Ecclesiasticus 35.14-16).

What can be depended on is that God listens to those who are suffering adversity when they pray; and that prayer and endurance will be answered. But the timetable has always been in God’s hands, and that has been the challenge to human faithfulness through the long history of this relationship.

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