According to Luke, on one occasion Jesus told a parable to people who trusted in themselves.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14 ESV)
In Jesus’ telling of this story, the tax-collector is “far off.” Spatially speaking, Jesus has placed the tax-collector at a distance. In the mind’s eye of the reader/listener, the tax-collector is away from the action. Furthermore, the reader is first introduced to the Pharisee, who then references the tax-collector (18:11). Even in Jesus’ introduction to the parable he first mentions the Pharisee and then the tax-collector (18:10). This being the case, “the viewers will be inclined to perceive the secondary characters through the perspective of the primary character.” (Yamasaki, Perspective Criticism, 24).
In this way, I used the spatial plane in a recent Thanksgiving sermon. If one is not careful, this holiday has a way of making us trust in ourselves. This time of year it is quite easy to merge with the Pharisee. What is our Thanksgiving prayer?
God, I thank you that I am not like other men. We have a big turkey, a big house, and a big–screen TV.
God, I thank you that I am not like other men—like that family down the road eating ramen noodles today. Why don’t they work more hours?
God, I thank you I am not like other men—like those people at the soup kitchen today. Why don’t they get a job?
The Pharisee has offered a prayer of thanksgiving. As I have counted, he has compiled a list of seven things for which he is thankful. This is the perfect, complete prayer of thanksgiving. Yet we all know there is something deeply wrong with this character’s prayer. Apparently, there is more to it than just making a list.
Perhaps he needed to look more carefully at the one who stood far off. As is the case with most of the parables, there is a twist. In this parable, the one who is “far off” is the one who ends up being close to God.
It may be that in our stories, there is a character standing “far off.” This is the person to observe, and be thankful for, this season.