This week we’re looking at the short stories in Luke 18 – each individual story, as well as the big picture. We’ve been keeping score as to who “wins” in each story. Yesterday, we saw the poor widow (someone of low status ) win an appeal for justice over her (probably rich and important) adversary, wearing down the unjust judge in the process. The score stands at: low status people 1, high status people 0. Let’s find out what happens in today’s two stories.
The first one is of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector:18:9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
Another spoiler alert, where Luke tells us what the point of the parable is. Remember that one.18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
In this parable, Jesus uses two stereotypes designed for maximum contrast. Pharisees were the devout, respected lay leaders of the Jewish faith. They were all about keeping God’s laws – even coming up with their own additional laws to stop them coming anywhere near breaking God’s laws. To the point where, for many, their own laws were just as binding. Good intentions. But it became, for many, an idolatry of the law – showing that they were God’s people not by loving God on the inside, but by doing a bunch of things on the outside.
By contrast, tax collectors were considered traitorous scum. I mean, we might not much like the tax man today – or accountants, for that matter – but that’s nothing in comparison to the position held by tax collectors in Jesus’ day. It’s not just that they took people’s money. And it’s not just that many took extra, and kept it for themselves. What made them really reviled was that they were collecting tax for the hated Romans. The occupying army. The non-Jews who were defiling God’s land with their idols, false gods, and foreskins. They weren’t just scum. They were traitorous scum. The kind of people drug dealers wouldn’t let their kids hang out with.
With that background out of the way, on with the story.18:11-12 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
Praying by “thanking” God that he’s not like other people. Real sinners. People who deserve God’s judgement. That’s pretty self-righteous. He even reminds God of his good works: fasting and tithing. Like pointing to his scouting merit badge in case anyone missed it. There’s someone who’s confident in his own right standing before God, based on what he does.18:13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
Where the tax collector stands is telling. He hangs back. He won’t look God in the face. He doesn’t try to show his credentials, because he knows he hasn’t got any. He simply acknowledges his sinfulness. And asks God for mercy.
Jesus’ verdict?18:14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
That’s what the good news Jesus came to proclaim was all about. If you trust in yourself – your own actions – to be right with God, you won’t be. But if you acknowledge your sinfulness and ask God for mercy, that’s when God will declare you right in his sight. And Jesus goes on to allude to an OT principle of God humbling those who exalt themselves, and exalting those who humble themselves.
Looking at the little picture – this individual story – the application is obvious, isn’t it? If you want to be right with God, don’t trust in what you do, or who you hang out with, or any kind of externals. But you know that, right?
Yet it’s often harder to remember, the longer we’ve been following Jesus. We’re so used to doing stuff as part of the community of God that we can become focused on that as our assurance we’re part of God’s people. If I’m hanging out with other Christians and doing what they all do, then all’s good. And over time, that becomes the “marker” of our spirituality, rather than what Christ has done for us. We’d never say we’re saved by being part of a church or doing “Christian” things. But it becomes the focus of our identity. This parable, although primarily told (as Luke introduces it) for self-righteous Jews in the first century, can remind all of us of our real status before God. We were (once) tax collectors, forgiven by a merciful God.
Stepping back – as we’ll do after each story – to look at the bigger picture, who “wins”? It’s the unexpected, low status person again, isn’t it! The respected religious figure turns out not to be right with God, and the penitent scumbag is. Updating the score: people of low status – 2; people of high status – 0.
The second story for today is a very short one:18:15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.
In the first century, children were to be seen and not heard. And preferably not seen, either. At least when important stuff was going down. In the private world of the home was where they belonged, until they (that is, the males) were of age to enter the public sphere. But here, people were bringing even their children to Jesus. While this wouldn’t have been particularly scandalous, clearly the disciples thought it was out of place – bugging an important man with such trivialities.18:16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Jesus, however, has a different view of who’s important and who’s unimportant. He tells them in no uncertain terms – both in the positive (“let them come”) and negative (“do not hinder them”) – that children are to be welcomed. Why? Because they are in the eyes of the world of low status. And that’s who the kingdom is for, first and foremost. (Remember: “Blessed are the meek”? Or “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor…”?)
And Jesus uses this as a bit of an object lesson. He says:18:17 “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive [=welcome] the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Quite what this means is unclear, made more complicated by some ambiguous Greek. I’ve got two main options; the first where “children” are the subject of the verb “receive” and the second where they are the object:
- Welcome the kingdom of God like a little child welcomes/receives something. Jesus doesn’t just say, “welcome children into the kingdom, too.” Children are actually an example to be followed. Just as children know they have not much to offer (cf. the tax collector in the last story), and accept help and favour freely and openly, so too we must welcome the gift of the kingdom from God.
- Welcome the kingdom of God as you would welcome a little child. (That’s grammatically more likely, but a little harder to fit into the flow of thought, since the context shows that the disciples were not welcoming children. But some commentators think this is what’s meant.)
Either way, if you look at the scorecard for this story, it’s children – 1, disciples (i.e. adults who have higher status than children) – 0.
So at the end of today’s play, we’re at: people of low status – 3, people of high status – 0.