Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Godspell and the Parables (part 3): The Pharisee and the Tax Gatherer

"Jeffrey," the "Tax Gatherer" in Godspell

The subtitle for Godspell indicates that it is based on the Gospel of Matthew, which is not entirely accurate. Although Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and parables dominate, the film also incorporates some Lukan parables with dramatic effect. The parables not only are the main focus in the non-musical sections of the first hour of the film, but they are also creatively presented. The parables include (in order) the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Unforgiving Servant, Sheep and Goats, Good Samaritan, Rich Man and Lazarus, Sower, and Prodigal Son, all of which are spoken and acted out in creative ways (cf. Tatum 1997: 121).

The teaching in the junkyard begins with Jesus’s statement that he has come to fulfill the Law and the prophets, including the admonition that his followers must be better than the Pharisees and the doctors of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20), but the first parable comes from Luke’s Gospel: the “Pharisee and the Tax Gatherer.”

A key element is that Jesus does not narrate the story. Lynne, the student, starts the story: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One, a Pharisee. And the other, a tax gatherer.” Katie, the waitress, acts the part of the Pharisee, and when she is introduced, she gets cheers and applause. Jeffrey, the taxi driver, acts the tax gatherer’s role, and when he is announced, he receives boos and a cry of “shame.”

Lynne continues the story: “And the Pharisee he just stood around and prayed,” and Katie speaks her part: “I thank thee O God that I am not like other men: greedy, dishonest, adulterous. Or for that matter like that tax gatherer.  I pray twice a week; get that? Twice a week. And pay taxes on all that I get.” The crowd responds with cheers of approval, echoing the standard understanding of a Pharisee as a respected member of society.
Lynne turns to Jeffrey: “But the other kept his distance and would not even raise his eyes to the good Lord in heaven. I said the Good Lord in heaven, child. And he beat upon his breast, saying”:
Jeffrey: “O God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am.” The crowd of followers moan their disapproval, once again echoing society’s disapproval of such reprobates, but Jesus now interrupts: “And it was this man, I tell you”—here the followers already are in disbelief, even before Jesus states the case: “What? You’ve got to be kidding!”—"and not the other, who went off acquitted of his sins. For every man who exalts himself (as the Katie the “Pharisee” falls through a card table) shall be humbled. But every man who humbles himself" (the disciples start throwing Jeffrey up in the air in a blanket, as they all say together: “shall be exalted!”

By opening with this parable, the film immediately establishes that God is a forgiving God, and sometimes God’s forgiveness defies human expectations and cultural conventions. The implications of this forgiveness also become immediately clear, because Jesus resumes the Sermon on the Mount material to proclaim that human beings who are angry or in disputes should reconcile with one another—forgive one another, in other words. This theme is clearly advanced in the parable that immediately follows this teaching: the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

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