The other day I picked up (from a shelf of free, used books) an old copy of Exploring the Parables (United Church Press, 1963), by Eugene S. Wehrli. He was a professor at and former president of Eden Theological Seminary, where I teach some semesters. Then I got down from my own shelves a book I’ve had since college, The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).
In the chapter “Relations of the Kingdom,” Wehrli writes this about the pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). “The Pahrisee does not see his life in relation to God and in dependence upon him, but rather compares himself with other men. This precludes a true relationship with God” (p. 87).
Of course, this is Jesus’ story about one of his own people, but we distance ourselves from the point by thinking this is a problem with this particular religious group, rather than a serious temptation for any religious person! “See, I don’t sin like he or she does. I’m a wonderful churchgoer in all this ways.” Jesus identifies a way of thinking that’s common among many of us.
I was thinking, though: what about those of us who compare ourselves to others----unfavorably. What about the times we become blue because our achievements, our “breaks” in life, seem less impressive than someone we know. I play those kind of “tapes” in my head an awful lot, and then I feel down on myself. But why? It strikes me that this kind of comparison is also a way we don’t see our lives “in relation to God and in dependence upon him,” as Wehrli puts it.
Wehrli also writes that the Pharisee’s “very goodness becomes his downfall” (p. 88). We’re accustomed to thinking of downfalls that result from moral lapses and critical errors. But in the Kingdom preached by Jesus, the recognition that one is, indeed, far from God is actually an indication of closeness to God! But the goodness, uprightness, and clean record of the very religious person becomes, paradoxically, a chasm of separation----because if you’re good and know it, you have no need of God.
Jeremias finds a prayer in the Talmud that sounds much like the Pharisee’s prayer, thus letting us conclude that Jesus’ story is drawn from real life (pp. 142-143). But there, the prayer is a thanksgiving to God for helping the pray-er be guided to a righteous life, unlike the unrighteous ways of others. Still, even in that thanksgiving is the temptation to compare oneself favorably to people who think are undeserving. Jeremias also notes that the Publican’s despair may be partly due to the difficulty he faced in truly repenting: he must not only give up his way of life but also restore fraudulent gains. But how will he now support his family, and how will he ever know exactly whom he defrauded? (p. 143). (Publicans were Rome-employed public contractors who also collected taxes.) But a person at the end of his or her rope is exactly the person whom God favors!
One clue to the favor of God in this story is the fact that the Publican evokes Psalm 51: God does not despise the broken heart of a sinner. In fact, “He is the God of the despairing, and for the broken heart his mercy is boundless. This is what God is like, and this is he is now acting through [Jesus].” (p. 144).