The point of this parable, as everyone already knows, is that you should strive to be humble. Agreed? All right. Let’s say the benediction and go home.
Pretty simple, really. You’ve got a mean, nasty Pharisee, who’s so full of himself that he can’t see the shape he’s really in; and then there’s the nice, self-effacing publican, the sort of person to which all right thinking people ought to aspire.
Rotten Pharisee? Or modest publican? That’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?
Is that what Jesus is after—for us to be more like the publican and less like the Pharisee? That’d work out nice for us, wouldn’t it? Especially, given the fact that most of us have a pretty difficult time seeing ourselves as the black hat. We’d much prefer to view ourselves as the underdog, down on our luck, but struggling to get it right. We may not be everything God intended, but at least we know we’re not arrogant hypocrites.
But the problem is: we’re always in danger of leaving this text, saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.”
There are two things wrong with any interpretation that winds up prompting us only to be a bit more humble. Number one, it sucks all the juice right out of the parable. When Jesus told this parable, it was shocking. We might better re-title it “The Parable of the beloved Sunday School teacher and the Child Molester,” to get the effect Jesus got by telling this parable.
To make the publican the good guy in the story wasn’t in the ancient Near-Eastern edition of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Publican’s were the collaborators, the stoolies, Roman boot-lickers. They were the sorts of folks who’d sell crack backstage at an elementary school Christmas pageant, then go home kick the dog and take money from Grandma’s Social Security to buy cigarettes and a half gallon of Manischewitz Concord Grape.
And the Pharisees, on the other hand, wore the white hats. They were the ones who planned the Christmas pageant. They wore a lot of beige and maroon, subscribed to Readers’ Digest, drank Folgers and drove Buicks. These were nice, church-going folks, who volunteered down at the soup kitchen. They read the Wall Street Journal and chaperoned on Youth Trips. The Pharisees were the ones on the board, who gave 10% to right off the top … before taxes. They were the kinds of folks we tend to go looking for when we we’re looking for somebody to direct Vacation Bible School, or when go membership hunting.
See, what I mean? We’re forever in danger of misreading this parable—just to the extent that we read ourselves into the wrong part in the script. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re much more apt to live in the same subdivision as the Pharisee. We wouldn’t even be caught dead after dark in the same neighborhood as the publican. Which, of course, leads us to the second problem we face in reading this parable—or most other parables for that matter—it’s not about us! Parables, by and large, are about God and the world God envisions. This one’s no exception. The point of this parable isn’t to try to get us to be more humble. As Will Willimon has pointed out, “Have you ever tried to be humble? Either you are or you aren’t.”
No. This parable is meant to expand our notion of who God is, not who we might be if we tried really hard. This is a parable about how God operates in the world, not about how we’d run things if we were finally given control of the joystick.
If you’ll notice in your Bibles, this parable immediately follows Jesus’ telling of the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge, about which we read last week. Jesus told that parable so that his followers would “pray always and not lose heart.”
The readers of Luke’s gospel were in a hostile environment, a long ways from Easter, wondering how they were going to hang on. At least in part, Luke’s telling of the parable of the persistent widow was a way to encourage early followers of Jesus to endure, not to settle for a world in which struggling widows have to beg for justice. But then, as Fred Craddock reminds us, Luke does something that Luke is prone to doing, he follows that parable with another parable that seems to contradict everything Jesus has just said. If the message of the first parable is the assurance that God will hear the prayers of those who persist in the pursuit of justice, the message of the second parable is the assurance that God will hear the prayers of sinners—even over the prayers of those everybody else thinks are righteous.
So what’s it going to be? Righteous or sinners? Place these two parables back to back—you make sense of them. In the first, the prayer of a righteous woman is heard, while in the second the prayer of a righteous man is discounted in favor of the prayer of a scoundrel.
See what I mean? It’s tough. It’s a lot easier to treat Scripture as having a bunch of mineable nuggets of wisdom. Take a verse here, a parable there, another story over here, and they stand on their own—none of them relating. But Luke has bigger fish to fry than just retelling a few stories, rehashing a couple of old parables. He’s trying to make a point by the way he arranges the material.
Our job as interpreters is to ask what kind of point Luke’s trying to make by placing the parables together. Well, remember the scene starting back in Luke 17:20. The occasion for the telling of these two parables is a discussion about the end times. Jesus tells these parables, and Luke uses them to speak to the situation of a struggling church awaiting Jesus’ return.
In the first parable, Jesus says that when things get tough, hang in there, keep knocking. God will not let the prayers of the righteous go unheard forever. The parable is about a God who is determined to have the world as God envisions it. God will come among us to set things right.
In the second parable, we get a qualification of the first parable. The parable of the persistent widow tells the righteous to hang on. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican, however, warns the righteous not to hang onto their own righteousness … at least as a way of ensuring their future with God, but to pursue the justice that takes care of widows and orphans.
Jesus picks up one of his most important themes in this second parable: The great reversal. The reign of God is about tipping reality, as we understand it, on its head.
You know what I’m talking about.
In the very first speech in Luke’s gospel, we find Mary singing the Magnificat, saying: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things; and sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:51–54). The great reversal.
The first speech John the Baptist gives in Luke recalls Isaiah: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:5–6). In the new kingdom, nothing will be as it appears. Everything’s going to be topsy-turvy.
Then, in chapter 4, in Jesus’ first speech in Luke we hear Isaiah’s voice again: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18–19). Do you see a pattern emerging here? The last shall be first, and the first shall be last … Those who seek their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
If you think you’ve got it all figured out, you’d better watch out. Things with God never work out the way we’d have done it if God had just left the heavy lifting to us.
God’s always goofing things up that way, according to Luke, giving a lowlife Samaritan the nod over the pillars of the assembly, going after a $1.99 sheep, while the real investment watches after itself, letting the weasel son come home after blowing his inheritance on BMWs and single barrel bourbon, while the devoted son doesn’t even get so much as a Ford and a PBR for his devotion.
The great reversal.
You thought the world worked one way—survival of the fittest, what goes around comes around, the early bird gets the worm, the evil fail and the righteous prevail—but God’s not running the world according to Hoyle. In Jesus Christ, the world as we’ve been taught to perceive it has been turned on its head. In the reign of God, the losers of the world wind up walking away blessed, while the winners just wind up walking away.
The great reversal. Is that good news or bad news? I guess it depends on where you’re standing when you hear it. If you’re one of those folks who’s always coming up roses, if you’re relatively certain you’ve got this whole God thing pretty much nailed down, if you think when God goes on a recruiting trip, God’s looking for somebody pretty much like you … watch out. This parable suggests that God’s fixing to mess up your world.
If, on the other hand, you happen to be one of those folks just trying to make it through the day, one of those folks just trying to stay one step ahead of the man, one of those folks that the vagaries of birth seemed not to bless … pay attention. You’re just who God has in mind.
Why the great reversal? Why do those folks who have it all together find no blessing, while the two-bit punk with the shifty eyes and the gang tats finds the peace and forgiveness of God?
I’ll tell you why: The point of this parable is that they’re both dead, and their only hope—as Robert Farrar Capon reminds us—is someone who can raise the dead.
And the point for all of us is that in the end, we’re all dead and our only hope is someone who can raise the dead. No negotiating based on our years of service, no pleading because of our healthy tithe, no wrangling based on our superior lives of prayer, no card-sharking in a morality game, no lenience based on the assumption that we’re basically good folks who just got a raw deal.
What we need is someone who whistles in a graveyard and makes the dead dance.
God’s dealing from the bottom of the deck on this one — without apparent apology and without caring much about how we’d do it if we were in charge.
You see, this is an eschatological passage—that is to say, a passage about the end times. This is a passage about beginning to see the world the way God sees the world. In a world in which success is defined by images on TMZ and The Wall Street Journal, where the intensity of religious devotion is determined by the loudest voice, the biggest hair, and the most influential political lobby, in a world in which we’re so certain who’s on the side of righteousness and who’s on the side of evil, this is bound to be heard, if at all, as bad news, unsettling, world altering news. But if you’ve gotten to the point where you don’t have any place to look but up, take heart. You’re a prime candidate for the new reign God is introducing. If you think you’ve got pretty much all you need, this whole thing doesn’t appear to offer you much. But if you know what you’ve really got, when it’s all said and done, isn’t enough to build a life on, the reign of God has everything in the world to offer you.
The great reversal. Turning the world on its head. God will fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich empty away. Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain be made low.
Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.
Determined to have the world the way God wants it, God can’t just leave it alone.
But then again, why should we expect anything less from a God who couldn’t even leave death well enough alone?
And that my friends is good news no matter where you happen to be standing.