Reflection for 23rd Oct: The Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9-14)

Two men went up to the temple to pray; the reading contrasts two starting points for prayer.  The first, the Pharisee, starts with himself.  The tax collector starts with God.  The first begins with ‘I’, the second with God.  A well loved and popular mantra prayer, Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner, comes from this insight into who God is and who we are.

Unfortunately all history including our religious history is handed on with baggage and distortions.  Mainline theology is underpinned with messages of sin and judgment and these, in turn,  have caused people to feel guilt and shame, at so deep a level, that even fresh and positive understandings of the human condition, and an emphasis on the unconditional love of God, cannot shake it off.

It is first necessary to understand the difference between shame and guilt.  Guilt is a focus on behaviour, ‘I did something bad’ or I made a mistake and can make amends.  Shame, on the other hand, is focus on self: ‘I am bad’, I am a mistake.  The effect of guilt is to make amends, apologise and be sorry.  The effects of shame run deep; they are addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, eating disorders and suicide.

Two men went up to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee, looked with contempt upon the other and judged him to be worthless.  His attitude is quite shameful.  Rather than judging the Pharisee we can seek to understand him by reflecting upon how he became the person he is.  He is obsessed with the keeping of the law, to the extent that any variation from the law, by him or others, is met with punishment.

The ideal of all law is to challenge us to reform and to renewal, but in practice it is imposed through threat and violence.  Those of you who have been brought up by parents, who were strict and punished you as a form of correction, will have experienced a measure of shame.  This will have extended to other authority figures in school and society who sought to exert their power and control through the threat of violence, actual violence and humiliation. 

My sense is that the Pharisee was as much a victim as anything else and suffered from deep shame.

The tax collector, on the other hand, had plenty to be guilty about and was to open to reform and renewal, where the message of repentance could find a home.

I want to conclude with a quote from Gandhi.  He said, ‘I abhor violence, the good it appears to do is temporary, the evil it does is permanent.’

If you wish to download this reflection can you can do so here.