April 2, 2017
Opening Up to Ourselves, to Each Other
Luke 18:9-14 – translation by Luke Timothy Johnson[i]
Jesus told this parable to certain people who trusted in themselves as being righteous and scorned others:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. The other was a tax-agent. The Pharisee stood and prayed these things to himself:
‘God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of people. They are rapacious. They are unrighteous. They are adulterers. Or they are even like this tax-agent! I fast twice a week. I donate tithes from everything I possess.’
But the tax-agent stood a long way back. He did not even want to raise his eyes toward heaven. Instead he beat his breast and said,
‘God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner.’
I say to you, this man went back down to his house justified rather than that other, because everyone self-exalting will be humbled. And everyone self-humbling will be exalted.”
* * * * *
Sometimes I think it’s hard for us to ‘get’ the parables of Jesus. Maybe we’ve heard them so often they lose their punch, like the joke your Uncle George tells every single time you get together for Thanksgiving, the one you’ve heard so often everyone yells out the punch-line before he does. This parable is like that: we already know what Jesus is going to say: the self-righteous will get their come-uppance and Jesus blesses repentant sinners. OK, we get it…
And sometimes parables lose their impact because we’re so far removed from the culture that we just don’t get the references. It’s like me making references to TV shows like Mr. Ed or My Favorite Martian… unless you’re a certain vintage you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. In this parable, we kinda sorta know that Pharisees are religious leaders; and tax collectors in any culture aren’t exactly looked upon with fondness; but that’s about as far as it goes.
But this parable was shocking when Jesus first told it, and I think it’s worth trying to understand why. I find one scholar’s interpretation particularly helpful in ‘getting’ the contrast Jesus sets up. The Pharisee, Fred Craddock says, “is the faithful, dependable, tithing type who pay the salaries of ministers so they can preach on the parable of the Pharisee and the [tax collector]!”[ii]
I would go so far as to say that the Pharisee is the church member every pastor dreams of: Dedicated, involved, generous, pious, devoted, faithful… the one you know you can count on.
And the tax collector? It’s not just someone who works for the IRS, bless their hearts. The tax collector, Craddock says, is “working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people, a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean... his life was offensive.”
Maybe the best visceral parallel for us is the vicious debt-collector who hounds you day and night when you’ve gotten behind in your car payments and your credit card is maxed out and your debt’s been sold to some collection agency. Or maybe the current parallel is some low-level parasitic henchman working for a foreign government trying to hack your bank account. I don’t know. Think low.
In other words, Craddock says, “The Pharisee is not a venomous villain and the [tax collector] is not generous Joe the bartender or Goldie the good-hearted hooker.” In Jesus’ world, the Pharisee is the good guy, and the tax collector is scum, and there’s no two ways about it. That’s what makes it shocking.
Is Jesus just trying to throw the faithful under the bus? You know that can’t be it, but I swear, this story is almost as bad as the Prodigal Son.
The problem isn’t even what the two men are praying. Both men could have been reciting the Psalms. When the tax collector pleads, “God, have mercy on me; I am a sinner,” it’s just like Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God… and cleanse me from my sin.” And when the Pharisee prays, he sounds like Psalm 17: “If you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; as for what others do, I have avoided [their] ways.” Both could have been reciting scripture.[iii]
But something’s wrong with the Pharisee; that much is clear. When Jesus says, “he prayed to himself,” the meaning is ambiguous, maybe intentionally so. Does Jesus mean he’s praying quietly to himself, like you might read to yourself? Or does Jesus mean it literally; the man is praying to himself? That would be a problem…[iv]
And notice where the two men are looking. The tax collector is looking down at the ground; he won’t even lift his eyes towards heaven. But the Pharisee isn’t looking up, either. He’s looking sideways, at the guy standing next to him. As another scholar puts it, “The pious one is all convoluted comparison and contrast… His prayer is one of peripheral vision.”[v] His eye is not on God; it’s on himself, and his neighbor.
So what’s a good Pharisee to do? What kind of prayer should he be praying?
A friend of mine serves a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Each time they have a group of new members join their church, they ask the new folks to write a brief statement of faith. Nothing theologically complex, just honest reflection on their faith at that particular moment in time. A few years ago a man named Richard joined; he was the town librarian, and at the age of 52 he joined the church. He was new to church, new to faith, had never been baptized.
This is what Richard wrote:
There comes a time in life when we are forced to admit the truth: I have missed the mark. In my weakness I cannot continue alone. We realize that we have been swollen with pride, driven by a relentless and merciless ego. But in time, pride drains away like a stream in summer, and the once-mighty ego is reduced to impotent rantings. It stands revealed not as the center of our being, but as a millstone round the neck . . .
The only real solution to this is love, love focused and embodied in Jesus Christ. The unknowable, unfathomable, indefinable mystery which we have the temerity to address as our God may be approached through his beloved Son, our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus.[vi]
What Martin Luther King said was telling, what Jean Vanier quotes in the video: that some people will always feel that they are better than others until we all acknowledge that we are weak, we are poor, we are broken, we are vulnerable… and we need each other.
You know, a long time ago a friend told me something very wise, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s helped me through a lot of tough places. She said, “Never compare your insides with someone else’s outsides.” People try to hide their weakness, their poverty of spirit, their brokenness, their need. You have no idea what’s going on inside them. On the outside, they may look as perfectly polished as that Pharisee, doing all the right things. They may even be proud of their accomplishments, as well they should be. But on the inside? We all have needs. We all have broken places. We all have things to confess before God.
As another friend puts it, “All God’s children got issues.”
And Richard is right: the only real solution to this is love, the love of God we know through Jesus Christ, who can see through the hearts of everyone, from whom nothing is hidden. When we start to look at ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, nothing is the same. When we start to see each other through his eyes, well… the kingdom of God is at hand.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
[i] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina, Daniel J. Harrington, S. J., Ed (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 268.
[ii] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 211.
[iii] Craddock, 211.
[iv] Johnson, 271.
[v] Johnson, 274.
[vi] Chandler Stokes, unpublished paper for The Moveable Feast study group, for the Sunday of July 13, 2014.