I love that joke that Jesus tells in Luke 6, verses 41 and 42 – “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,” when you are blind to the plank in your own?” It is such a ridiculous picture. It makes us laugh, or it should. Yet it is often there in real life, and that is why the idea is a good basis for a parable as with the little story that we can read in Luke 18, the one we usually call the 'Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector'. They are both praying. The Pharisee doesn't mind who sees him. Indeed, we get the impression that he wants to be seen. He lives the good life that he should, and he wants to be recognised as a good role model. The Tax Collector takes a very different stance. Making himself as unobtrusive as possible, his prayer is a begging of God's forgiveness. It is a story of contrasts. This is almost a competition set up by the Pharisee. As with most of the parables, we know the story so well that we know it is not going to end in a good place. But put yourself in the place of Jesus’ original listeners. The tax-collectors were a despised bunch. They worked for the Roman occupiers. They cheated. They extorted. They got rich at the expense of their fellow countryfolk. Those who were listening to Jesus would not expect him to say anything good about such a person. A Pharisee offers a stark contrast to such a person. We don’t like the Pharisees because they always seemed to be clashing with Jesus. But they were the folk who got it right, and the people of Jesus’ time knew it. They provided the models to which anyone ought to aspire. But Jesus turns the conventional thinking of his day on its head.
Those who were listening to Jesus needed to learn that God does not always use the sources we might expect. They needed to learn that they needed to look for what God is doing, recognising that it might not be what they expected.