SCRIPTURE – Luke 18:9-14
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Look Down There!
October 24, 2010
When I was in grade school, I’d rush home in the afternoon and flip on the TV to watch one of my favorite afternoon shows, a rerun of an old Western series. “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi Yo Silver!’” The Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. One of the reasons I liked that show as a kid was that there wasn’t any ambiguity. You never worried that the Lone Ranger was going to turn evil. The sings were clear, if not politically correct: good guy – white hat, white horse, white teeth, clean-shaven. Bad guy – black hat, black horse, black teeth, black robe, goatee. You knew who was good and who was bad, and you knew that good always won.
On the surface, Jesus tells his parables with the same kind of clarity. When you read them the first time, it’s clear who’s good and who’s bad. The servant who buries his master’s money so as not to lose it is good. The rebellious son who fritters away his inheritance is bad. The man who stops to help the robbery victim in the road is good. The two people who walk by that victim without stopping are bad. See, this is easy!
Until you look closer. The good servant who protects his master’s money is called “wicked.” The prodigal son who wasted his inheritance returns home to a party in his honor. The man who stops to help the robbery victim was a despicable Samaritan, while those “bad guys” who didn’t stop were a priest and a religious leader. All of a sudden, it’s no longer easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Where’s our Kemosabe when you need him?
The same applies to our passage for today. A quick look at the cast list reveals clear lines of demarcation. The good guy is the Pharisee, the religious leader who dutifully fulfills his obligations. The bad guy is the tax collector, the traitor who robs his own people while working for the Roman Empire. But Jesus, as he so often does, turns the tables. The one who leaves the temple justified is not the Pharisee, but the tax collector.
I have a real problem with this story. I’m not just saying that as some sort of sermon technique. I really struggle with the implications of the conclusions Jesus draws based on the actions of these two men. First, I have trouble with the Pharisee ending up as the bad guy here. Look at his resume: he’s a Pharisee, one of the chief religious leaders of the time. He comes to worship regularly and has given his life to serving the church. He is obedient in his faith and honors God through sacrificial giving. I bet he even sings all the words to the hymns, even the ones he doesn’t like. Or at least he lip-syncs. And for goodness sake, he’s in the temple praying! You can tell this man is serious about his religion because it affects two things most dear to a lot of guys: his stomach and his pocketbook. As we wind up our Stewardship Campaign here, I think we’d be pretty pleased to have a tither like this Pharisee as a member of our church.
On the other end of the spectrum, the good guy in this parable ends up being the tax collector. This is where I really have issues. This man is lifted up as exemplary, and yet he approaches God as this self-denigrating groveler who can’t even turn his face to God. Based on this example, how low do we have to go? Do we have to roll around in the dirt for awhile and compare ourselves to worms in order to make the cut? I once said in a communion meditation that we are not worthy to come to the table and yet God invites us anyway. After worship, a very upset parishioner stormed up to me and said, “My whole life I’ve been told I’m not worthy. I would think that church is the one place where I am worthy!” Point well-taken. Isn’t there a happy medium between these two prayers?
Here’s another thing about the tax collector that bothers me. His honesty in prayer is rewarded, over and against the prayer of the Pharisee, which can lead to misconceptions about who we are called to be as Christians. In essence, the conclusion could be drawn that parable is saying we can do whatever we want, as long as we’re honest about it. In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector could have prayed this: “God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee. Sure, I’m an extortioner. Yes, I’m unjust. And an adulterer. But that’s just who I am, and at least I admit it. Therefore, because of how honest I’m being – did I mention that I steal from the offering plate? – I’m a lot better than this pompous windbag Pharisee. I’m not hiding anything. So have mercy on me.”
So I’m having trouble agreeing with Jesus’ conclusions here. I’m having trouble reconciling who these people are with who I think they should be. In my version of the story, it’s very clear who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat. And I’m tempted to draw the same distinctions in life, as well, between who’s good and who’s bad. But I guess that explains a lot about what’s going on when I disagree with Jesus. I’m trying to make him fit my worldview instead of letting him transform it. In this case, I’m trying to understand the character of the Pharisee and tax collector. Instead, maybe I should be exploring what the story tells me about God’s character, a God who extends grace to both of these people, regardless of how over-worthy or under-worthy they think they are.
Obviously, just because the Pharisee is religious doesn’t make him righteous. In fact, the only righteous he is is self-righteous, and that’s the least attractive kind. Notice that the passage tells us he was standing by himself praying. Other translations say he was saying to himself these things, as opposed to saying them to God. All the things he puts in his laundry list of good deeds are worthy of praise, but his achievements are not in question here. The problem isn’t that he was doing wrong things. It’s that he was doing right things for wrong reasons. He assumed all his good deeds earned him good standing with God. He forgot that good standing isn’t earned; it’s given as a gift.
And to make matter worse, he lifts himself up by putting someone else down. He’s not just acting morally superior; the Pharisees WERE morally superior to just about everyone else, which means he should be even more sensitive to the spiritual standing of those around him. Instead, he uses the tax collector as Exhibit A to prove how worthy he is of God’s praise.
But isn’t that just human nature? Isn’t it almost an involuntary reaction to compare ourselves with someone else? Anytime we walk into a new situation, the first thing we do is look around at others to see how we fit in. We gravitate toward those we appear most like us and create space and distance from those least like us. It’s human nature to want to feel good about ourselves, and one of the ways we can do that is to look around us at those who are less fortunate, less motivated, less privileged, less affluent and say, “Look down there! There but for the grace of God go I.”
But saying that statement implies that the person down there isn’t a recipient of God’s grace, and that’s not the God I worship. The God I worship extends grace to everyone, even the people that I so readily place at the other end of the spectrum from me. We delude ourselves into thinking we are so much different from those whom we don’t want to be like when in reality we are bound together by our common humanity. To compare ourselves may be human nature, but I don’t believe it’s a part of faith, because faith never expresses itself over and against others. We can never say or do something that puts someone else down and submit it as evidence of our faithfulness.
I believe that statement includes how we view ourselves. There’s a difference between acknowledging our sinfulness and beating ourselves down. I’m not saying that’s what the tax collector was doing here, but I believe this passage could be misread that way. We ARE worthy of God’s love and grace and mercy, and while our behaviors may not merit such gifts, they are ours, anyway. There are a lot of people in this world who have been told they are not good enough, they are not worthy of love, they only deserve crumbs from the table instead of their slice of the pie. Don’t believe it and don’t let passages like this lead you down that road. Yes, you are a sinner in need of mercy, but so am I and so is the Pope and so is everyone else. No one is more or less worthy.
What I believe Jesus is pointing out here is the importance of coming to God in prayer just as we are, not padding our spiritual statistics like the Pharisee. Catholics call this confession, a word that makes us Protestants cringe. But confession isn’t about slipping into telephone booths to share your darkest secrets and say a few Hail Marys. Confession is simply presenting your real self to God. It’s bringing before God not the person we hope to be or the person we think we should be, but the person we really are. Prayer is a time for us to speak openly and honestly with God, even if we can’t do that with anyone else, and then to receive the gift of mercy that God has to give each one of us.
I believe the tax collector goes home justified because of the two, he is the one who leaves the temple having had a real conversation with God. He is the one who comes out of the temple with a desire to move further and deeper into his relationship with God. He’s the one who recognizes that God’s work in him is not finished yet. Is that our goal in praying? Do we pray to God as a divine butler or cosmic therapist or holy yes-man? Because what I hear Jesus saying here is that prayer is not about getting what we want or justifying our goodness; it is about presenting ourselves to God just as we are and being open to who God is calling us to be.
So maybe the most appropriate prayer here isn’t “Look at how great I am” or “Look at how sinful I am.” Maybe the most appropriate prayer is the old slave prayer used by Dr. Martin Luther King at the end of his sermons: “O God, I ain’t what I ought to be, and I ain’t what I’m gonna be, but by your Grace, I ain’t what I used to be.” Thanks be to God.