October 27, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Our readings today invite us to a deeper and more authentic relationship with God. The text from Joel offers the promise of restoration and renewed vision from God. The imagery hints at the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Similarly, Jesus’ parable calls us to humble recognition of our need for God’s grace. The Luke story should be familiar to all of us and we may hear it with both a sense of recognition of these kinds of characters in own lives or with a bit of humor as we recognize parts of ourselves in them. Let us pray, O God, the strength of those who humbly confess their shortcomings and place their hope in you, save us from displays of righteousness and hypocrisy, and give us the grace to keep faith with the true humility of your Son Jesus. Amen.
Sometime ago, I read a wonderful novel by the author Jo Jo Moyes called The Girl You Left Behind. It takes place in a small town in France during WWI when the area is occupied by Germans who have taken over the town and proceed to steal all of the best food and resources for themselves while the townspeople struggle to get through each day. There is one young mother who is believed to be collaborating with the Germans, perhaps in fact participating in an improper relationship with a soldier to enable her just to eat and feed her young daughter. The townspeople stand in judgement of her and treat her very badly. Eventually, she is arrested and beaten and paraded through the center of town in front of those who have judged her and in front of her own daughter who is filled with anguish and fear. It’s a terrible scene as people mock her and spit on her as she passes by, and yet one woman, rushes out to rescue her child and hide her from this horrible scene. This woman who owns the Inn where the Germans have been eating nightly knows a secret about the poor young woman and shares it with her fellow townspeople. In fact, that poor woman had been the one who had been sneaking out in the night and sliding news and letters under the doors of some in town, sharing communication from loved ones who had been imprisoned or information from the French Resistance about what has been going on outside of their region. While being mocked for her collaboration, she had in fact been a person of courage in the dark of night.
In Luke’s reading, we hear two interesting character sketches that Jesus shares. The question is about prayer, and Jesus tells the story of the two men in the Temple and Jesus is trying to explain that the way a person prays is exactly the way a person is. First, Jesus shares that there’s a Pharisee and a Tax collector. For Jesus the word “Pharisee” meant a religious person who took his religion very seriously and lived it in his life as if his life depended upon it. We have to try to get back to the time in which Jesus was speaking and for those listeners, Pharisee would have actually been a good word. Even Paul would defend himself later to the early Christians saying, I’m a Pharisee. Don’t you understand, I’m a Pharisee- which was a compliment to himself. Today, most of us think of a Pharisee as a hypocrite or someone who doesn’t believe what they say, who don’t act according to what they preach. But at the time of Jesus, a Pharisee was really considered a very, very good religious person.
So, when Jesus says there was a Pharisee, he meant a good guy, while the Tax Collector, of course, was a collaborator with the Roman occupiers and he was also a thief and a scoundrel because Tax Collectors often skimmed from the top of taxes they collected. That was the way it was set up, you could skim, sort of like corrupt political systems, it was just part of the way things worked. So Jesus sets it up that there was the Pharisee, the good guy, and the Tax Collector, the bad guy. Then he lays out the scene, where the supposed good guy is actually totally full of himself. He is arrogant and is so confident in his own goodness, he justifies himself. He is self-righteous in the worst way. Luke often used these words, righteous, and unrighteous and self-righteous, three ways of being. He describes this person that we know very well, we run into them all the time…and if we are honest, we have some of this in us too. And sometimes, if they have money and power, it can make them even more difficult to take, thinking that they know it all and are just so good and perhaps they use their power or money in ways that are not good or decent. And so sadly, in Jesus’ story, this self-righteous man prays in this same way. But for Jesus, that’s not what prayer is supposed to be. He speaks of prayer as a time when you should be your authentic self in front of God. If the Pharisee had any genuine sense of himself and his own shortcomings, he wouldn’t be so arrogant and judgmental of others. Part of our responsibility is to take a good look at ourselves and be aware of the ways in which we do fall short or be aware of where we might improve and grow.
Well, on the other hand and paradoxically is the Tax Collector, the so called bad guy who comes to the Temple with a level of self- knowledge. He knows his own dark side; he knows his shortcomings. He knows he’s a sinner. And it’s pretty remarkable when people really face the truth of their own lives, isn’t it, when we know we’ve made a terrible mistake or fallen short of who we want to be and that we can actually admit it. Well, he knows he is a sinner and so all he can say is “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” He faces the truth of his own life and he asks for God’s mercy and he does it with great humility. And Jesus points out that this guy knows who he is and that is to be commended and the so called good guy goes home without any deeper sense of who he is, no openness to improving his life and how he sees others in the world.
In many ways, these two men are like archetypes for Jesus, they are obviously exaggerations used to make a point. It describes for Jesus what it means to pray. It means going before God and being yourself and trying to learn from that. Commentator Kate Matthews points out that in this passage Jesus addresses the heart of prayer: who God is, and who we are before God. Luke sets up the stark contrast between the tax collector and the Pharisee to make the point that the Pharisee is so filled up with his own sense of superiority, particularly in contrast to the despised tax collector, that he has no room for God, because in his mind, he far outshines the tax collector in all his virtuous works. To this religious leader, God is benevolent and has surely noticed how good the Pharisee is. Actually, there isn’t much need for God to do anything in the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.
In sharp contrast, the tax-collector pours out his heart to God and buries himself so deeply into the voicing of his deepest anguish, his most profound awareness of his own weakness, failures, and sins, that he apparently never notices the Pharisee, let alone compares himself with him. He flings himself on the mercies of God and depends on God to do something remarkable in his life. If we, too, come before God in humble openness and trust in God’s goodness, we make room for God to work in our lives. That is much closer to righteousness than all the good works we can manage. Honesty in prayer flows from openness: an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation. Such humble and trusting prayer helps us to discover who we are, and who God is: merciful and loving and just. When I think about the two women in the book I mentioned earlier, I am reminded that we just don’t know the truth of someone’s back story. We may make small judgements or think we know what’s going on, but often the story behind a person’s actions can be more complex or more troubled than we might imagine. We are called to be humble and not to judge, as challenging as that is. Humility literally means to be humble, to not be too proud or to think we are better than others. The term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilitas, which may be translated as “humble”, but also as “grounded”, or “from the earth”, since it derives from humus (earth). It means that we should know we are close to the earth; we are grounded in the best sense of the word. We often confuse humility with humiliate, but it does not mean that we should be the object of humiliation or that we should allow ourselves to think so little of ourselves that we do not have a healthy sense of self-worth. We are encouraged to find the balance somehow. We are invited to reflect on our own lives, take stock of the places where we may have fallen short and try to do better and always to know we are loved fully for who we are in the eyes of our Creator.
I’ll close with a quote from author Monica Baldwin… “What makes humility so desirable is the marvelous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with God.”