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Luke 18:9-14 (NRSV + a paraphrased dramatic reading from Liturgy for the Whole Church, by Susan K. Bock)
I was driving to the church the other day and I pulled up behind a big, white, “dually” pickup. On the back bumper was a sticker that said… “If we armed babies, they wouldn’t get aborted.” My first reaction was, of course, huh? Then I thought, you know, setting aside the problems of cognitive development, hand-eye coordination and fine motor control, the sheer logistics of this proposition were stunning. I mean, how do we get the gun to the baby? The options are all gross. And that’s when it happened…I found myself saying something to the effect of, “Thank God I’m not like that guy.”
This parable, which exists only in Luke, is more than just a common parabolic reversal, where the expected “good guy” becomes the “bad guy.” It is a reversal-reversal-reversal, a hall of mirrors where you’re never sure where your reflection is coming from. The “simple” and most common interpretation goes like this – you should be humble and repentant like the tax collector, not like that terrible pharisee. Right away you’ve done what I did with my super-judgy attitude at that streetlight, you’ve become the pharisee in disparaging the pharisee. It’s like hating hate, it doesn’t resolve anything. Plus, I would argue, it puts us right back in the game that the pharisee is playing. Oh, NOW I get it God, we should earn Your Grace by being humble…got it! Just watch, I’m going to be the best humble person EVER! No one ever in the history of the world has been as good at humility as me!! Really, everyone says so…super humble, this guy.
In order to make some sense beyond that over simplistic interpretation, we need to know that both of these characters are odd to a first century reader. A tax collector being in a temple is like the CEO of Chik-fil-a catering a drag show…the pieces don’t fit together. Tax collecting was one of the occupations outright forbidden to Jews by religious law. Tax collectors were viewed as ritually unclean, dishonest, and in cahoots with the Roman authority that exploited the people, largely through taxation. Why would that guy would step in a temple?
But the pharisee would be seen as odd, too. Note the details – he prays to himself, isolated and proud, maybe raising his arms and generally making a spectacle of himself. The Pharisaic way of life was not based on the disparagement of others, nor does it hold some theology of “earning” your way to righteousness. That’s why what this pharisee says would have been strange, not stereotypical. When we equate hypocritical, self-righteous religion with a sect of Judaism as a whole, we do disservice to that history and stir up the most vile of anti-semitism, something we ought to pay close attention to one the anniversary of the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue, the home of rabbinic Judaism, which comes directly from the Pharisaic practice. The listeners of Jesus’ day would have expected the Pharisee to be a careful observer of the Law, in keeping with their generally high view of the Pharisaic movement, but would also have cringed at his self-righteousness. The parable serves up two behaviors that are out of character: a Pharisee praying in a self-righteous manner, and a tax collector who prays at all!
But the point of the parable is not “arrogance bad, humility good.” It is ultimately for us to trust that we are forgiven, to accept divine Grace, to acknowledge our shortcomings, the places we’ve missed the mark, our sin and move into the acceptance of being blessed, so we might be a blessing to others, for the final gift of Grace is to allow us to be gracious, and we certainly can’t do that if we are arrogant like the Pharisee. But, neither can we do it if we remain habitually mired in a sense of our unworthiness.
It seems pretty obvious to me that Luke’s purpose for this parable was to challenge self-righteousness and to promote humility. Look at what he writes to introduce the parable –
“He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (18:9). Humility is a good thing. In fact, I happen to believe that it is a crucial thing, especially right now. But humility is not self-deprecation, nor is it self-abuse. It isn’t a chance to degrade yourself or publicly shame your way to happiness, which is not an equation that works. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.
I know that was not my first instinct at that stoplight. I was sure – I might still be sure – that I’m TONS better than that guy because of his bumper-sticker ideology. My response, the assumptions that I made, the rank I assigned him immediately — hell, I’m not even sure it was a him – reveals something about where my heart is and what I’m doing to contribute to the kin-dom. Because I’m still convinced that I’m “right”, that his position is untenable and pointless and represents the ridiculousness with which we talk about issues that are critical to our social fabric. And it’s not a matter of me being wrong about that, it’s more a matter of it’s application.
One of the great distinctions between the pharisee and the tax collector is the pharisee’s certainty, balanced by the tax collector’s surrender. The pharisee knows how God works and is working that system, even wielding it against others like a weapon. It’s like the tax collector is stuck on the question, never mind the answer. He is driven to this prayer because he has no other place to go, any wisdom or answer he already has seems insufficient. And neither way is the road to God. There are times when we need the certainty of God’s ways of inclusion and justice, to welcome in those who have been cast out, to protect them from a world that actively seeks to exclude, to stand for justice in the grayness of human experience. And we need to be certain of those convictions. There are also times – probably more times, to be fair – that we don’t have the answer, or our answer is incomplete or situational and we need to be able to sit with that, and appreciate how it shapes us.
That word humility is “Tapeinoo (tah-pah-nah-o)” in Greek, and it means to level, to be modest, to assign a lower rank to. It is not shaming or self-flagellation, it is that feeling you get when you are out late, away from the light pollution of the city, and you can look up and see a million stars spread out across the night sky. It’s a feeling of significant insignificance. You matter more because you matter less. You are part of something bigger than just you, and, suddenly, the world is no longer dependent on you to stay in orbit. Morality is no longer a sheltered puppy waiting for you to rescue it, but a living, breathing force that will make itself known. So, you are now freed to do other things, like speaking to a moral position, and also showing compassion, giving away the grace given to us, and learning how to be loving in a world that sees love as a transaction.
What if we really lived like that? I mean, what if there was no ladder to climb, no mark to meet? What if there were just heartstrings, divine heartstrings…holding on tight. What if there were no sinners, and no saints, either? Just the beloved of God, being carried home to the heart of God where we belong?
That would change the world. I’m not sure we could handle it.