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Each week I think a lot about the words located in the readings the lectionary provides. And often I get an image or a phrase that sticks in my head. This week what came to mind was the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!” Ahhh…now I know how to divide you all up, the Star Wars nerds over here and the “other” people over there. And with one kind of obscure Star Wars reference I engage in the very work that this parable, which really is a trap, tries to get us to notice. It’s no coincidence, I think, that this parable takes place in the temple, where the lines were drawn in Jesus’ time, and who was “in” and who was “out” was made perfectly, ritually, clear.
On the surface, it would seem that here is another example of Jesus’ radical love God who favors the outcast, another story where Jesus makes the unlikely the hero. After all, this is a tax collector, who is low on the social opinion ladder, but maybe not for the reasons you’d think. The biblical text always levels this charge at Jesus, that he eats and drinks with “sinners and tax collectors.” Now, you might notice the conjunction in that phrase – the “and”. It’s because collecting taxes isn’t a sin. No, tax collectors are disparaged because they are colluders, active participants in the Roman system that oppresses the poor and preys upon the weak. They report their neighbors, they make their living off what they can squeeze out of their fellows citizens. And they deal all day, every day, with the “unclean”, the foreigners. They may not be sinners, but they are definitely “out”.
In true Jesus fashion, we read this as if the tax collector is lifted up as the example. But hold on. It’s a trap. Because as soon as we think the tax collector is “the winner”, we slip into the same thing that Jesus exposes in this story. Now the tax collector is the good guy and the Pharisee the bad guy. And we’ve drawn new lines, we’ve rearranged the “in” and the “out”, but we’re still playing the game that keeps us from seeing the face of God. This is a parable, after all, not a fable. There is no moral to this story…there are LOTS of morals, and it is designed to keep working on you so that this week you get one thing out of it, but next week, or next year…who knows?
This morning you may be the Pharisee, self-righteous and smug, thanking God you aren’t like one of “those people”, or you might be the tax collector, full of guilt or even shame. It’s likely we all have some of both. I’ve been the Pharisee before, waiting for just the right moment to start comparing my character with that of others…never surrounded by the people who spend 20 hours a week volunteering at the homeless shelter or VA hospital, but waiting to be amongst the prisoners at David L. Moss or wandering the halls at the State Legislature…you know, to guarantee my place on the highest rung of the ladder that exists only in my head. But I’ve also been the tax collector, so aware of my own need for grace, so conscious of too many things I’ve done that I can’t undo that all I have is God’s mercy to steady myself. And then most of the time I have both of these things coursing through my heart and head, often simultaneously.
But I don’t think that the parable asks us to believe that the tax collector becomes the hero, that he suddenly claims the moral high ground. Sure, tax collectors were reviled and set on a lower rung in the social caste system, but there were some reasons for that. I mean they were colluding with the Roman empire, that didn’t exactly offer sunshine and rainbows, but made life very hard for the peasant class of Jesus’ time. And I don’t think this parable suggests that the tax collector goes away from the temple and becomes a tailor or a carpenter or a disciple. His cry for mercy might be very real, but he’s going back to the tasks that the Pharisee will call sin. This parable, however, is not about individual sins. It suggests that Jesus is concerned with how we are aligned, that he is teaching us about our foundations…the solid rock kind, not the sand variety. It’s not about what we’ve done, but who we are.
The parable is a trap. For as soon as you think, “That Pharisee, what a jerk!”, and place all of your identification with the tax collector…you’re the Pharisee. Thank you, O God, that I’m not like that Pharisee. It’s a trap. A trap set by the seductive power of righteous indignation and the lure of tribal politics, which works against the gospel assertion that we are all created in the image of God. I realize that it sometimes seems easier to thank God for not being like “those people”, whoever “those people” are, but it’s a trap. I suspect that it is easier to give some money, or miss a meal and declare yourself righteous, but it’s a trap. I know that we live our lives surrounded by a culture that is relentless in demanding proofs and justifications from us, but, as this parable reveals, it’s a trap. Just as it is a trap to think that righteousness is a destination, that you arrive there and then look down at everyone else, the poor souls, who have not made it. You might even manage to sound genuinely sad for them, the ones that God doesn’t love…only we can see from a distance that we’ve now made lists that God doesn’t have, the ones God loves and the ones God doesn’t. And we’re headed in a different direction than God is headed…
The age old warping of the gospel message is this – We believe that God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. When I have much to be thankful for, the “logic” goes, it must be that God has rewarded me, therefore I must be righteous, therefore I am not a sinner. And more to the point: I am not a sinner like that addict, or that street person, or that Wall Street banker, or that NRA member or that Republican, or that…well, you have your own list. But let’s pay attention to the parable – what makes the tax collector “righteous” is not remorse or guilt – he is NOT confessing specific sins. Rather, what the text calls “justification”, what sends him home “righteous”, is the deep recognition of his need for God’s grace and forgiveness, as if, despite what we might have done or which direction we’re headed, God is offering us grace and forgiveness…as the foundation of our relationship with the Divine. That’s the power of the tax collector’s stance, the thing that Jesus says sends him home “righteous”, which, in Greek, really means something more like being sent home in “wholeness”.
That wholeness comes from re-orienting ourselves, resisting the urge to be “right” in favor of being loving, being more interested in grace than in power, and aligning ourselves with the acceptance of that amazing grace so it might push us to examine how we have separated ourselves from others…how we we look to have others change rather than examining ourselves…how we have created things like “whiteness” to claim racial superiorities, patriarchy to assert the dominance of one gender over another, and “normal” to rate one kind of orientation as the standard, all the time taking God’s great gift of grace and compassion and making it an award that grants superiority instead of an humility that brings us together in our common need for grace. And that, my friends, is not a one-time deal, but a never-ending way of living.
So this morning I pray that this parable continue to work on us…especially in the weeks to come…reminding us that when we we start to look down our noses at someone else that our wholeness isn’t found in comparing ourselves to others, nor in plastic humility that just takes a longer road to the same finger-pointing, but in our coming to awareness of our dependence on God’s grace – and then trying, in our limited ways, to offer such grace ourselves.
May it be so.