Can you see them; the pharisee and the tax collector? Their posture, their prayer? Are they familiar at all? Luke calls this a parable but it seems so true to life. There are no extended metaphors to work out, no women with coins, no lamps and bushel baskets, no sheep and goats, not a lot to decipher.
The temple, the pharisee, the tax collector. It has the ring of truth and experience because these are the actual cast of characters that Jesus spent time with and among whom all the other parables were told. I can imagine the real life conversations between Jesus, the pharisee, and the tax collector; the inner dispositions they reveal.
The pharisee, confident in his religion. Firm in conviction, and diligent in observing the law. “Jesus, can’t you see how hard I work? Can’t you appreciate the discipline this takes? Isn’t this enough for you? Don’t you see my sacrifice? Why bother with the ones who can’t seem to pull it together?”
And the tax collector, forced into a separate sphere life, the perks of wealth and protection that come from his occupation are a small consolation when his heart cries out in desperation. “Jesus, I don’t know what to do. I’m trapped. I just took this job to make some money but everything has gotten so twisted. Now they hate me as much as they hate the Romans, I feel like there’s nothing I can do to get out of this situation. Does it even matter what I do? Why should God bother with me?”
A few weeks ago I watched a fascinating program on television about the crocodile god of ancient Egypt. The fishermen and farmers along the Nile lived in constant fear of being eaten by enormous and hungry crocodiles. And so temples were built and homage paid to the crocodile god. They made offerings to persuade the god to eat fish instead of fishermen.
That’s the basic idea of temple in the ancient world: a place to appease a god, a place to influence the actions of a god. Although it’s a big theological shift to the temple in ancient Jerusalem, the idea is pretty much the same. Animal sacrifices were made by the thousands year after year to worship the one true God, to influence his decisions, to flatter him with praise and thanksgiving, and to appease his anger at the misbehavior of human beings.