There's safety in numbers when you learn to divide. How can we be in if there is no outside. All shades of opinion feed an open mind but your values are twisted let us help you unwind. You may look like we do, talk like we do — but you know how it is: You’re not one of us. — Peter Gabriel (Not one of Us)
“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)
The Gospels, all of them, seem to transmit to us a deep dislike of the “The Pharisees,” so much so that it is pretty much an insult in our time.
Luke’s judgement on the Pharisees is found in chapter 6
29 All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.
From that point on, deep animosity reigns in the relationship between Jesus — and the tax collectors, sinners and ordinary folk that followed him — and the Pharisees.
But, who were these people? I am sure they had families, fathers, mothers, wives and children and in the way of the 1st century they “loved” them. I am sure they lived otherwise unremarkable lives like most people. They had friends. They had people that they associated with, mainly other people like themselves.
We all tend to flock together with people who somehow share something in common with us. As we learned a few verses ago, that something might be leprosy (Luke 17:11ff) but at least it is something we got and it keeps us from being left to ourselves.
But somewhere in those associations there lies the seed of a little problem: Once you have gathered yourself into an association, the question will come: “How can we be insiders if there is no outside?” And, should somebody be found as not conforming to the rules and thoughts of the club, well they are on the outside and that is it.
A Venn Diagram Might help:
In a way, clubs, associations, sects, and granfalloons (yes, I read Vonnegut in college. So what?) give their members purpose while at the same time causing them to become idealistic about themselves and not but a bit blind:
"My God," she said, "are you a Hoosier?” I admitted I was. "I'm a Hoosier, too," she crowed. "Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier.” "I'm not," I said. "I never knew anybody who was.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle)
I only pass through Indiana on the way to other, usually more horrible places, like Chicago. It seems nice enough. Who am I to judge if she is right? I live in Ohio. We have nothing to be ashamed about either. Right?
You see, once you become part of the great cult of Ohio, all your gripes with it are about trivialities, like our food, or absence of culture commonly practiced in other places, or the Cleveland Browns, but not about weighty things. But, in Ohio, we never let the color “Blue” touch the color “Yellow.” It’s just not done! We are better than people that would do that.
And there lies the problem. When people gather they are in danger to think that there is only justice in their cause, the beauty of the place they live in, their way of life, their identity according to any peculiar measure makes them not merely different but better. And might not then their ways be the very ways of God? Once that is the case how will God break in to say: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold?” (John 10:16) How will God ever be able to say to these: “I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish?” (Luke 13:3)
I have noted that in popular “Xn” music everything is puppy dogs and roses, kittens and warm hugs. The enemy is that: “I was doing badly but you got me through,” or even: “I was thinking lowly of myself but you made me think I am special.” If there is still a notion of sin or repentance it tends to be talked about metaphorically: “I was sinking into darkness,” or such but in the end: “God and I; we be mates.” (Crocodile Dundee) Pharisees would have hummed that stuff gladly.
Humility is a little practiced virtue. The Veterans of Future Wars (Vonnegut) tend to show little reflection on the faults of their nation. The Pharisees show little reflection on their way of faith. Those who manage to persuade their church to repent of old ills done by generations long past show much pride in their repentance. (Can one actually be proud of ones repentance?) Lepers of modern day still congregate to show pride as their “kind.”
It takes supernatural intervention (eye of needle and camel type intervention — Luke 18:25) to make confession. As a group or member thereof it is even harder, because Jesus is on our side, what have we to repent of? We all believe in the depth of our souls that we are marvelously made and therefore we all agree there is nothing wrong with us.
It takes a special movement in the soul to come to the place where one can say the words of the publican. They are words of submission to the way of God (Luke 6:25) and they separate us from the granfalloons we are part of. It is no wonder that the eastern church made them a meditative prayer.
Does the church really ever have a cause or right to be proud? I ask this honestly. I live in the conviction that every “yes” to that question is a path to idolatry and phariseeism.
So here stands the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It stands as a warning. “You ways are not my ways, says our God.” (Isaiah 55) Nothing really is well until that is fixed. I do entertain the notion that only the Holy Spirit can and will change this. Maybe that is the point of this story and the story of the rich ruler that follows: “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27) Eventually Bartimeus will cry out: “Lord, have mercy on me” and “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 18:41-42) And Zacchaeus, a taxman himself, will come to the way of God. (Luke 19:1-10)