1. Acceptable People: Society’s View
When we look around at the world today, there are a number of people who are looked up to, who are given respect and places of honour, and who are held in high esteem. Some have done great things. Some, by their education, have achieved greatness. And some have had greatness thrust upon them.
Now, of course, for some, the esteem in which they are held is well deserved. But for others… well, it may not be deserved at all. And we may wonder, sometimes, about how such people came to such prominence—how they came to be in such places of honour.
2. Acceptable People: God’s View
However, rather than consider the world’s view of greatness, and how it can be achieved, we would, perhaps, be better off to view the world through God’s eyes. After all, how does God view the respect and honour given to those held in high esteem? And if we were to do that, then we would, perhaps, have no better starting point that this passage from Luke’s Gospel.
Because this passage gives us cameos of four different people. And it makes judgements on which of them God finds acceptable and which ones he doesn’t. And with that, the inevitable conclusion is that the people that the world looks up to and desire—that are usually deemed acceptable and honoured—are not the kind of people that God finds acceptable at all.
B. THE GOSPEL
Now, the story comes in two parts. And each part contrasts two people who seem to be exact opposites of each other.
1: The Judge and the Widow (Luke 18:1-8)
And the first part is a contrast between a judge and a widow.
a). The Judge
Now the judge wasn’t like a judge that we would know today. This was a small middle-eastern town. And the practice of the day was to appoint local people of prominence, as required, to mete out justice. (And there is nothing wrong with that.)
However, in this particular case, the judge was corrupt. And Jesus said he was corrupt in two ways. Firstly, he was corrupt because he had no time for God. And secondly, he was corrupt because he didn’t really care about other people either. His sole aim was to maintain his position in society, and he was prepared to go to any lengths to do that.
b). The Widow
The widow on the other hand was a typically needy and helpless person. She’d been wronged—probably diddled out of money that she couldn’t afford to lose. But she didn’t want whoever had wronged her to be punished, she simply wanted restitution. She only wanted what was taken to be restored.
Now, it appears that she had been unable to get a satisfactory response from the court system. Or that she had realised the pointlessness of even trying to pursue her case through the courts. But she was desperate enough to go to the only possible person who could help her—the judge.
c) The Story
And the judge should have given precedence to the widow’s case. That’s what he had been appointed judge to do—to help people like the widow. But, perhaps through laziness, or more likely because he didn’t want to upset her powerful opponent, he refused to take on her case or even listen to her.
However, the judge did budge, and justice was done. But only because of the persistent nagging of the woman. Even then, his motives for helping the woman were not pure. He only helped her because he was concerned for himself. He was concerned that her nagging would wear him out or give him such a bad name, and that he would lose respect in the community.
The first story then gives us a contrast between a judge and a widow. The judge… the man with position in society, albeit given to him. But nevertheless, a man who was so wrapped up in himself, that he had no time for God, and no time for the welfare of the needy. And the widow… a woman who had been terribly wronged, and who had great difficulty in getting justice. And it was only because of her persistence, that she received any justice at all.
2. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)
The second part of the story is a contrast between a Pharisee and a Tax Collector.
a). The Pharisee
Now the Pharisee was confident—a man of position—he knew where he was going, and he knew the respect that his position in life held. However, again, like the judge, he didn’t have much time for anyone else. He was proud of who he was—and wasn’t frightened of advertising it to the world. He also demonstrated a contempt for others who were not of the same social standing. He thought he was superior to others and wasn’t frightened of telling the world how much better he was than anyone else.
b). The Tax Collector
In contrast, the tax collector was not confident at all. He knew his position in society. He was a social outcast—not only for working for the Roman authorities, but because he lined his own pockets, by cheating his fellow Jews. Rather than pride, the tax collector felt despair.
However, he was prepared to admit his mistakes and to compensate others for his cheating ways. Despite that, he didn’t believe he wasn’t worthy of any honour. Indeed, he believed, he wasn’t fit to be acceptable to God at all.
c). The Story
Now as this story goes, both the Pharisee and the tax collector were at the Temple one day. The Pharisee stood proudly with his head held high, telling God what a wonderful person he was, and that he was nothing like the miserable tax collector. Meanwhile, the tax collector stood at a distance, mourning his predicament and his unworthiness in the sight of God.
d). The Application
The second story, then, giving a contrast between a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee… someone else who had an important position in society and didn’t mind advertising what a wonderful person he was. And the tax collector… a man who was not afraid to admit his failings and didn’t consider himself worthy of God at all.
Now, it would be easy to take both of Jesus’s stories and conclude that the four characters described weren’t real people. That they were made up by Jesus, so that he could make his point. And to a certain extent that is probably true.
However, the reality is that Jesus’ stories were based on real life situations, so that people could easily understand them. And whilst Jesus was quite happy to use exaggeration to emphasis his point, the pictures that he drew from life, including the four cameos I’ve just described, were pretty accurate of life at the time.
At the time, both the judge and the Pharisee were, generally, looked up to in society. The judge… someone with authority, and the Pharisee… a leader of the faith. In reality, however, it was not the judge or the Pharisee that were seen to have worth in God’s eyes, but rather they the widow and the tax collector.
And that is typical of the upside-down challenges that the Christian faith repeatedly produces. So much so, that it should get us thinking about the kind of people our own society holds in high esteem, and the kind of people that we are, and the people who we think are important too.
1. A Judge or a Widow?
After all, how many judges, and how many widows do we know in our society today? And which category do we fit into the best?
Are we a judge? A person who has been given a position of authority and power. A person who is looked up to in the community (which isn’t a problem in itself). But, are we a person who is more concerned with our own position, that God hardly gets a look in, and people (outside our circle of friends) generally get ignored?
Symptomatic of being a judge is: Doing only those things that would give us an advantage. Refusing to help or consider those in need where there is a risk of upsetting someone in authority. And generally trying to keep things the same—trying to maintain the status quo.
So, are we a judge, or are we a widow? A person who has nothing—no money, no authority, and no power. Someone who is usually ignored or overlooked as being totally unimportant.
And can you think of any judges or widows? Because I can. I can actually think of lots of people who could fit in either category.
But what about us? What about me? Well, in terms of the Christian faith we should all identify with being “widows”. Because, no matter what our circumstances in life, in terms of our place before God, in a sense, we are all people who are worth nothing, not even his pity or care.
But, despite that, we are of value in God’s eyes. Not because of what we have done, but because of what he has done. And consequently we can live with God’s promise of care for us, which far exceeds what the judge did reluctantly, and eventually for the widow.
2. A Pharisee or a Tax Collector?
And when it comes to Pharisees and tax collectors, how many of these do we know in our society? And where do fit in too?
Are we a Pharisee? A person who feels superior, who looks down their nose at those considered inferior. Who has no time for others, except in their own little circle. Who is full of pride, and snobbery abounds. And who parades up and down showing themselves to be important and showing nothing but contempt for those considered less than themselves.
b). Tax Collectors
Or are we a tax collector? Someone who has made many mistakes, and who in the past has put their own interests first. But someone who is prepared to admit it, whilst not feeling feel worthy of anyone’s affection, let alone God’s. Someone, who feels bad about the past, but is determined to turn their lives around, and make a fresh start.
So, can you think of any Pharisees or tax collectors? Because I can. I can think of lots of people who would fit into either of these categories too.
But what about us? What about me? Well, in terms of the Christian faith, we should all identify with being “tax collectors”. Because in God’s eyes we have all done terrible things, not least of which is not giving God his due. We are all deserving of death in terms of our relationship with God.
Now, in a sense, we are people who have nothing to offer God at all. And yet, again, we do have hope. The attitude of the tax collector was that he was repentant, and in his predicament, he admitted his total dependence upon God. As a consequence, even Jesus could conclude that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, was justified in God’s eyes.
In his life time, Jesus went out of his way to help and be with the poor, the underprivileged, and the outcast—people who struggled in life, People with which no-one else in authority wanted anything to do. He also had the habit of illustrating his teaching by using examples of everyday life. And in doing both of these things he fought against corruption, and injustice at the highest levels.
The life of Jesus in general, and today’s passage from scripture, in particular, teach us that the pursuit of pride, honour, snobbery, and the like, have no place in the Christian faith. And that’s because they relegate God to be an optional extra, and they do nothing to help our fellow man.
Indeed, having a position of authority, or power, actually increases the responsibility to use that authority and power to help those far less well off than oneself.—to point others to God, and to help people in physical, mental and spiritual ways.
Being respectable, and having qualifications, and even appearing to do the right thing may be acceptable in this world as deserving honour, but without the love of God and the care and compassion for others, as far as God is concerned, they count for nothing. What might be considered important in this world, does not necessarily translate as preparation for the next.
So today, we may know some judges and widows, we may also know some Pharisees and tax collectors. But which ones do we identify with the most ourselves? And I don’t mean in just a nominal way. Which one’s really describe who we are?
Indeed, are we only interested in maintaining our positions like the judge and the Pharisee? Or do we identify fully with the downtrodden, like the widow and the tax collector. Because it’s all very well to look around and point the finger at others. But which one or ones are we?
Posted 26th April 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis