Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 4

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a second parable about prayer – we call it the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Again, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but want to provoke some thoughts for us as preachers in light of this parable.

1. The Gospel is shocking.  The story of the two men going up to pray is not immediately understood because of cultural shifts and lack of biblical understanding. The Pharisee was not seen as “one of the bad guys that killed Jesus” and the Tax Collector was not someone looked at with a “soft spot … since another one gave us half our Christmas readings, and another one climbed trees to see Jesus.”  The Tax Collector was a hated traitor, and the Pharisee was the model citizen.  This makes the final verse shocking.  This man, and not the other!  We can so easily drift into a “nice” gospel where God’s benevolence is offered to decent people.  Not so!  We are all bankrupt before God and His offer of life is 100% undeserved.  Let’s never lose the shock of the gospel in our own hearts as we preach it to others.

2. Pride is frightening.  The Pharisee’s confidence was born out of his own performance.  We easily fall into that too.  A good week, a good sermon, a couple of encouragments and we can march boldly into prayer.  We should be bold, but never based on our personal right to be confident.  Our boast is all in Christ.  Yet, if we listen to our prayers, do we find traces of the Pharisee’s pride?  I am not like others…I do this and that…I go above and beyond what is required.  Pride is frightening and it is often not hard to find it in people that preach.  If anyone is a candidate to be a Pharisee today, it is probably you and me – educated, ethical, respected, maybe even impressive.

3. Brokenness is required.  The Tax Collector’s brokenness is key to the parable.  His posture, his clarity, his self-evaluation are all significant.  He knew he was absolutely sinful and called himself “the sinner.”  As such, he knew he brought nothing in his hands to God, but instead had to rely totally on the atoning mercy of God himself.  The same is true for us.  When we feel that in all its fullness, then maybe we are in a better place to preach a gospel that will not drift into evangelical pride and Pharisaism.  Furthermore, maybe our churches will have a bit more reality in them too – the church is the place where sinners should be open and real about their brokenness.  Is that true in the church culture your preaching has shaped?

Blinkers Off

When preaching a narrative it is important to preach a whole story, but don’t wear blinkers.  I am referring to the beginning and end of the specific narrative in question.  We easily fall into the trap of believing that section breaks added in a contemporary version are actually inspired dividers that should separate two distinct texts.  In reality the Bible authors usually strung several stories together.  We may preach only one story, but we must be aware of the flow.

Take, for example, the story of Zaccheus as Jesus left Jericho in Luke 19:1-10.  This story is naturally paired with the other man who couldn’t see as Jesus entered Jericho at the end of chapter 18.  But I would suggest the flow goes back further.  There are a pair of prayer parables at the start of 18, the first connecting strongly with the end of chapter 17.  The second (Pharisee and Tax Collector) begins a flow of stories reaching into chapter 19.  After the shocking story of the two men going to the temple to pray, Luke illustrates the right attitude in approaching God with two stories – one positive and one negative.  First the little children coming to Jesus and then the Rich Young Ruler.  This ends with the challenge of how a rich man can be saved when such is impossible in human terms.  The answer is that it is possible with God (and Jesus goes on to explain how he will suffer and die in Jerusalem).  Then another pair of stories, two men who can’t see, one ends positively, the next?  You’d expect negative – it’s another rich man, this time a despised sinner, one worthy of condemnation by any standard.  But he is saved.  How?  By this same Jesus taking the wrath of the crowds on himself to save the man from probable posse justice.  Zaccheus the rich man is saved by Christ who takes it on himself.  The text flows from at least 18:9 through 19:10.

We need to take the blinkers off as we study the gospels and narrative books of the Bible.  We need to look for how the individual elements are tied together by a very purposeful author.  It will help us to understand what is being communicated.  Furthermore, it is worth thinking about sharing some of this with the listeners.  Not to overwhelm or distract from the message of the specific text in question.  But enough to clarify that the gospels were not written in NIV sections, and maybe even to motivate them to study the flow of the text for themselves.