23 October 2016

Luke 18:9-14

“But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (v. 13)

Psalm: Psalm 84


We know the sort, don't we?! The ultra-pious, the hyper-spiritual, the ghastly-godly. Not like us, obviously... We read this little story today, and it challenges us to examine ourselves very honestly. How do we see ourselves? How do we see other people? How do others see us? Perhaps, too, how does God see us? 'Religion' doesn't always make people more attractive in the eyes of others, even if it can make the religious feel good about themselves. The simple words of the tax-collector have, for at least 1,500 years, been seen by many Christian traditions as the model for true, humble, prayer. This is best known, perhaps, as the 'Jesus Prayer' in the ancient Eastern Orthodox tradition - a prayer which, when repeated many times, helps the one praying to draw closer to the presence of God by acknowledging that, as frail and flawed humans, we can rely only on God's mercy.

The original story, however, probably had a rather different purpose. It asserts that God's people (the "righteous" (v. 9)) include those who, for whatever reason, find themselves excluded by those who see only themselves as "righteous". A tax collector, by handling Roman currency and dealing with the Roman authorities, was considered unclean and a sinner, and thus, in the eyes of 'clean' Jews (such as the Pharisees), excluded from the temple and the presence of God. This is what Jesus was challenging. And for Luke, in both his Gospel and Acts, this was very important. He was writing at a time when the early Christian Church was dividing into two, often opposed, groups - Jewish and gentile (non-Jewish) Christianity. (This was the big issue Paul often addressed in his letters.) The Pharisee, a strict interpreter of Jewish Torah ('teaching') also represents Jewish Christians, and the tax-collector, as unclean, represents gentile Christians. And God declares them "justified" (v. 14) (or righteous), not by obedience to Jewish teaching, but by their humble reliance on God's mercy.

To Ponder

  • Does it help you to make sense of this Gospel story if you understand something of its 'original' meaning? Why?
  • As a modern reader, who do you identify with in the story? Why?
  • Have you ever prayed the Jesus Prayer? Does it 'work'?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.