I am reflecting on the notion of "identity" in this text, and the "delicious irony" (Levine) of the trap Jesus sets in the telling.
On the face of it, everyone assumes their proper station and says the right kind of prayer. It is appropriate for the Pharisee to pray as he does--he is, in fact, thankful to have been called to be a Pharisee and his prayer is no different than ours when we say, "There but for the grace of God go I." (Levine)
Likewise, the Publican ought to beat his chest and hide his face and stay away from polite company as he prays his miserable prayer miserably alone.
If the hearers of the parable were surprised that Jesus commended the Publican and his prayer--trapped by grace--we are surprised to find that we are trapped by our legalism when we say something like, "I am glad I am not like that Pharisee." (Levine) In sum, when we identify with the Publican we only prove we are the Pharisee (Schillebeeckx).
Still, this question of identity...it is not just that the Pharisee plays by the rules but that he takes his identity from who he is and what he does. His identity is based in self-affirmation. He has received his reward. The Publican, howver, finds identity in confession and self-contradiction, which Abba Evagrius said was the beginning of salvation.
And still both are in the Temple. Both are in my church! All of us are probably both. I know people in my church who are self-aggrandizers or self-blessers--I am one of them! And truth to tell I am thankful for them (as Levine says, the Pharisee is just the kind of congregant all of us want to have and in multiples--these folk pray and fast and, especially, tithe!). They follow the rules and who wants a bunch of antinomians to shepherd? That said, the Pharisees in the pews and the Pharisees we are are mostly unaware of our sin, and therefore are unaware of our own need for grace. Instead, we take identity from our righteousness, our works, our proper place in the Temple.
I also am and have folk who are so sure of their sin they are unable to see that they too are loved and are welcomed in the Temple...that their prayers are heard and are efficacious.
Last week (see above. though I cannot get the paragraphing to work!) I departed from the lectionary to preach on Luke 7:36-50, how in pride "we," like Simon, are inclinced to see "its" (7:39) instead of seeing "hers/hims/thems" (7:44)--that how we treat "outsiders" is crucial in replicating the hospitality of God. This week I return to the lectionary to preach this text, determined to deal with "insiders," folk who come to Temple with us to pray and whose only hope is in God (Lathrop)--while many of us still put our first best hope in ourselves and regard the others with contempt.
The solas of the historic Reformation speak to what will reform the heart, too, what might reform the shape and tenor of congregational life. Moreover, these images seem to help me see the Bible as a book of salvation by grace and not for me alone (Just as I am, without another plea), but also as a political tool by which God forms and reforms the people.