No one is outside the sharp insight found within these words:
‘’…He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.’’ (Lk.18:9)
Prior to this Jesus had just finished speaking of a widow, who persistently came before a judge, pleading her case.
The judge is described as one ‘who neither feared God nor respected man.’ (Lk.18:2). We know little of the widow’s situation other than that, given her persistence, it must have been desperate. As the parable goes, the judge, more out of irritation than compassion, grants the widow justice.
Jesus doesn’t finish there. Luke records that what followed was an imperative “…hear what the unrighteous judge says.” (Lk.18:6)
Jesus then makes it clear that God “will give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night … He will give justice to them speedily.” (Lk.18:7-8)
In a seemingly unrelated conclusion, Jesus poses a question about the future. Leaning on the distinction between the widow’s relentless faith despite her suffering, and what could be described as the judge’s militant atheism, Jesus asks: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?”
It’s from here that Luke cements one of the most significant parables taught by Jesus: the Pharisee and the Tax collector.
We’re told that.
‘’two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”
The Pharisee prays,
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; and give tithes of all that I get.” (Lk.18:11-12)
We’re to understand that the Pharisee considers himself more righteous than the tax collector. He is ‘asserting his own righteousness’[i]
To see the relevance of this, we need to go back to Jesus’ question about the future at the end of the last parable:
“When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?”
It’s a question that begs another: Do we have more faith in ourselves, than we do in God?
In 21st century terms, the Pharisee would be living out of an attitude that leads to a prayer like this:
“God, I thank you that I am not like that racist, bigoted, homophobic, xenophobic, or intolerant person over there; I’m socially “responsible” and unlike all those haters, and “deplorables.”
There is a keenness to point out what others are, readiness to shift the focus of sin, a readiness to parade a fashionable, Machiavellian, public display of righteousness.
There is no recognition or confession of the fact that ‘’all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God’’ (Rom.3:23). The sinner is whoever and whatever the 21st Century Pharisee claims not to be. You are whatever they say you are. You will do, speak and think what they tell you to or else.
Accordingly, the righteous are those who adhere to the human rules and guidelines set by the modern Pharisee. In modern society this is imposed by the predominantly political and academic elite.
On the surface the 21st century Pharisee gives lip service to God, but underneath has become as God.
As identified by John Machen, in his 1923 book ‘Christianity Vs. Liberalism’, the majority of the Left, similar to that of the far-right, follow a faux religion. It’s a revisionism that fits the Bible and Christianity into a political box. The extremes of modern liberalism are upheld by tea-straining theology through the lens of social justice; of feel-good activism and ideologically mandated politics, which is quick to damn anyone they’ve collectively deemed as having fallen short of the faux word of god.
These are built on the imperatives of the progressive, “social Gospel”, that has slowly replaced Jesus Christ as the Gospel, with loyalty to a political ideology, a faux Christ, faux gospel and therefore a faux god.
Evidence for this can be found in the uncontrolled emotional outbursts and reactions to the recent election in the United States.
The Right (extremes excluded), through its own issues with pride and fear, is dragged into this downgrade of the Gospel, (and along with it the downgrade of democracy.) Reacting against the temerity of modern liberalism, the Right builds its own ideological fortifications. Justified by the faux gospel taught by liberalism, the Right stands in a state of constant battle, brought about by constant bombardment from the Left.
In its final form, though, this monster, this faux god, emerges, having control over both spheres. Still distinct in identity, both Left and Right worship, and conduct themselves under one faux religion. The difference is that one side, through compromise, jettisoned God, for the power it thought it would gain for having done so; whereas the other side, provoked into pushing back, finds itself slowly becoming that which it once fought against.
‘The warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God, and sad indeed is the heart of the man who has come seeking peace.’ (Machen, 1923*)
In contrast to the Pharisee, we’re confronted by the awkward timidity of the tax collector. He stands far off. He doesn’t even raise his eyes to heaven (Lk.18:13). He knows the job he has to do each day and wears the cost of it. His job isn’t easy and it’s not going to get easy anytime soon.
His only hope is in God. It isn’t in what he does, his nation gives or what others say he is.
Instead of seeking to out-do the Pharisee in self-praise, the tax collector “beats his chest [a sign of humility & shame][ii], saying, God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Jesus finishes the parable, saying,
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.”
The bible tells us that ‘none is righteous and the fool jettisons God.’ (Rom.3:10/Psalm 14/Psalm 53)
We are encouraged to be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing, of false teachers; masked “believers”.
We’re warned that at the coming of the Son of Man, sheep will be separated from goats (Matthew 25). That the political games of deny, evade and blame that give power, will no longer serve to do so.
Both sheep and goats are strong metaphors. For justifiable reasons, whether right or left, liberal or conservative, Christians are summoned to trust and follow the Good Shepherd, not bleat expletives, or eat everything that comes our way.
As for the elect, mentioned in the first parable, we can say that they are, the broken and contrite. They are ‘those who call upon the name of the LORD…’(Rom.10:13 et.al)[iii] They are, in the words of Karl Barth,
‘Jesus Christ and those He represents’ (CD. 2/2).
In closing, Jesus speaks:
‘For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’ (Lk.18:14)
Whether police officer, anarchist rioter, tax collector, Pharisee, liberal, or conservative, no one lives outside the parameters of these words.[iv]
The praise of God outdoes and outlasts the praise of self. May we follow the heartfelt and humble zeal of the tax collector, over-against, the self-righteous fanaticism[v] of the Pharisee.
[i] Green, J.B. 1997 NICNT: Luke Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing, [Green also notes, ‘Luke’s purpose is not to condemn a particular group but to warn against a particular way of comporting oneself in light of the present and impending reign of God.’ (NICNT: Luke, p.646)]
[ii] (Green, p.649)
[iii] Romans 10:13, ‘For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ See also: Joel 2:32/Acts 2:21/Psalm 145:18 & my personal favourite Psalm 51:17.
[iv] As Green writes: ‘disciples always are in danger of Pharisaic behaviour’ (NICNT: Luke p.646)
[v] Keenness to issue blame, and bestow on themselves credit.
*Machen, J.G. 1923 Christianity & Liberalism: closing remarks
Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash
© Rod Lampard, 2020