Commented Bible Passages

These Bible meditations are meant as a way of seeking God in silence and prayer in the midst of our daily life. During the course of a day, take a moment to read the Bible passage with the short commentary and to reflect on the questions which follow. Afterwards, a small group of 3 to 10 people can meet to share what they have discovered and perhaps for a time of prayer.

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2020

November

How Can We Stand Before God?: Luke 18:9-14
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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.’ 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.’ 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.” (Luke 18:9-14)

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector begins with a brief introduction. Here we have a story, says the narrator, that Jesus would have told to people who were absolutely confident about how close they were to God and who, at the same time, regarded others with contempt, or as the word in Greek suggests, as nothings or nobodies. What did Jesus have to say when he encountered such a troubling attitude?

The parable proper then begins, with the two figures set before us side by side, going up to the temple. After being told that the Pharisee stands and prays by himself, we are taken into the man’s inner world. We hear him actually praying. He thanks God for not being like other people, offers a few examples, “swindlers, unrighteous, adulterers,” then adds, “or even like this tax collector”. The phrase has a spiteful sound as well as a growing intensity to it. All-embracing yet vague at the start (other people), it seems to gain focus (swindlers, etc.) before at last finding a target, standing there (the tax-collector). Because of their work on behalf of the Romans and a reputation for taking advantage of their position for personal financial gain, tax collectors were indeed often ill-considered at the time. In his next sentence, the Pharisee strings together three verbs all in the first person singular, “I fast… I give... that I get.” Fasting and alms-giving, along with prayer – precisely what he is doing in the temple – were viewed at the time as the three pillars of religious practice. In comparison to the tax-collector, he is, in other words, beyond reproach.

When the parable turns to the tax collector, the contrasts begin to leap off the page. Whereas the Pharisee was standing, the tax-collector is standing “far off”. The Pharisee, as he himself says in his prayer, is not like others; he stands by himself. The tax-collector, held in contempt by the Pharisee and disliked by others, is a man who lives far off, at a distance. The distance is expressed in the way he carries himself, his head held down, not daring to show his face to God but beating his breast, a sign of remorse and shame. His prayer is visibly the prayer of one who suffers. His inner world, not surprisingly, is also in striking contrast to that of the Pharisee. “Be good to me, God,” we might paraphrase him as saying, “I have cut myself off from you.” Whereas the Pharisee asks nothing from God (does he even think he really needs God, we might ask), the tax-collector awaits everything. The Pharisee, who thinks he does all God requires, is in fact trapped in himself and far from God and others. The tax-collector, who feels isolation and pain, places himself entirely in God’s hands. Jesus concludes. It was the tax-collector, he says, and not the Pharisee who returned home “justified”, in other words, restored in his relationship with God.

- Put the prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector side by side, writing them out for example on a piece of paper. What do you notice as you go back and forth from one to the other?

- Allow the attitude of the Pharisee and that of the tax collector to sit with you for a while. How do they affect you? What thoughts do they bring to your mind?



Other bible meditations:

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