Godspell is one of my favourite shows. I know I’ve said it before and it’s not just because there’s been two great runs of it in Bashaw. I love the story, of course, and the songs, but I love most that the story’s told with spirit, enthusiasm, humour and joy. I wish that were how we always told the story of Jesus, with drama and flare.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have a couple of issues with the story telling, though, and that’s why I mention it this week.
In Luke 18:9-14, we hear Jesus telling the story of the pharisee and the tax collector who are at the temple praying. The pharisee stands at the front by himself and prays that he’s thankful “that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The tax collector stands at a distance and won’t even look up. He beats his chest, a sign of penance, and says only “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” With these two contrasting examples, Jesus tells them that it’s the tax collector who goes home “justified,” or right, with God: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The story has a pretty simple point which Jesus states clearly at the end. And the fact that Luke precedes the parable with an explanation of why Jesus was telling it, should make it even more clear: “he also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
But just because the concept is simple, doesn’t mean we don’t fall into the trap of making it simplistic. Life’s way more complicated than that.
And this is where I have an issue with Godspell. When this story appears in the play, it’s told by one of the cast like a real evangelist to a tent meeting. The pharisee’s introduced and the rest of the cast boos with “general derision.” Then the tax collector’s introduced and the cast responds with a fond and sympathetic “ahhh.” So before anyone’s said anything, we’ve established that the pharisee is the bad guy and we like the tax collector. Except he isn’t and we shouldn’t.
Despite our learned response that pharisees are evil, ungodly enemies of Jesus, that’s a gross simplification of a group of people who were often the most well respected holy men in the community, the guardians of the law, the keepers of the temple. That’s probably how most of the people hearing this story for the first time in the first century would have known them. And there’s no indication in the story that the pharisee is praying anything that’s not true. He probably really is thankful not to be one of those “bad” people, he does tithe and follow the letter of the ritual law.
Not tax collectors, though. They were mostly reviled and hated, known more for working with the occupying Romans and rich upper class to bleed the poor. They were often dishonest and corrupt. That’s how most of the people Jesus talked to, especially the poor, would have known them. If anyone should be booed when they appear in public, it would be the tax collector.
And yet. To be truly humble is to speak from the heart and recognize who we are, beyond, or perhaps in spite of, our behaviour. When we come to God in prayer, we cannot make our relationship with God right unless we speak from the heart with honesty and sincerity. It’s the source of right relationships with each other and the world around us, too.
And it’s not comparative, either. I wonder how often we hear this story and think, well of course one wants to be like the tax collector. Thank goodness I’m not like that pharisee. But wait a minute. Isn’t that just what the pharisee said? It isn’t about what he is or isn’t, or how he behaves or doesn’t. It’s about who we are and how we are, living sincerely and honestly the love that’s in our heart.