Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Today in the Gospel, we get a parable that most of us are all too familiar with. Two men went up to the Temple to pray (one always went “up” to the Temple, never “down”). Two men: a tax collector and a Pharisee.
The Pharisee praised God that he was better than other people. He followed Torah! He did everything that Torah commanded! Certainly he was better than that (Ick!) tax collector over there.
Tax collectors, of course, were awful people. They were reviled by most Jews. They collaborated with the Romans, with the oppressor. They took more than in taxes than was required. Pharisees, on the other hand, were respected citizens, learned men who interpreted Torah.
But the tax collector, in contrast to the Pharisee, simply asks God for mercy. And Jesus says that he, rather than the Pharisee, leaves the Temple in a right relationship with God.
In this parable, Jesus once again twists reality into a pretzel – at least in the minds of his listeners – by saying the tax collector went away justified, implying that the Pharisee…didn’t.
Now, to be honest, don’t we all have a little in common with the Pharisee? After all, we give to the church. We worship regularly. We don’t steal. We don’t sin against each other. We try to do right. We’re good people!
And I fear that even while we are saying we see the point that Jesus is making, we still, down deep, don’t get it.
Whenever we read parables, don’t we tend to say that we identify with the underdog? I mean, we’re the good guys, right? In the story of the Prodigal Son, we identify with him, right? He comes back and is forgiven. We don’t identify with the older brother, the one who grumbles. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we identify with the Samaritan, not with the priest or the Levite. It makes us feel good! It’s edifying to know that we’re on the right side!
The thing is…Jesus’ parables are not meant to edify. They are not meant to make us feel good about ourselves. Really, it’s quite the opposite. Jesus’ parables are meant to shake us up. They are meant to upend our way of looking at the world. Jesus’ parables are subversive. They turn good guys into bad guys and bad guys into good guys.
Parables are meant to make us question our assumptions as to how the world works – or how the kingdom of heaven works. Jesus is saying “See, God’s kingdom doesn’t work like the kingdoms you’re used to! It’s just the opposite!” One thing I like to tell people is that if they are interpreting one of Jesus’ parables and their interpretation doesn’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, then it’s probably wrong.
We’re not meant to identify with the underdog when we listen to these types of parables. Instead, we are meant to take a good, long, hard look at the not-so-good guys – the ones that often get their comeuppance, as it were — and contemplate how much we are like them. And that’s hard. Sometimes it even hurts.
So when we look at this parable, we should not be looking for ways that we are like the tax collector. No, we should be looking for ways in which we are like the Pharisee.
Scary, isn’t it? I’ll answer for you: Yes, it is. Taking an honest look at yourself and your behavior is never ever fun. But let’s take a minute here and try.
The Pharisee praised God, yes, and that’s good! But he did it by comparing his own piety to someone else’s. And that’s bad.
How often do we do that?
How often do we decide that someone else’s piety is “not good enough?”
How often do we take it upon ourselves to decide who belongs and who doesn’t?
How often do we decide on our own authority who should be allowed into our church, instead of letting God lead the people here that He wants? Do we look at people who come in and think “Wow, they don’t look like they belong,” or “They aren’t like us,” or “What are they doing in here?”
Any time we say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” when we talk about how blessed we are, we are treading on dangerous ground. It’s not a very big leap from thanking God for his grace to saying that there is some kind of difference between us and someone else. We are close to saying that God has bestowed his grace on us, but not on that person over there. We are very close to saying that we deserve grace, but that person doesn’t.
What we need is a good dose of humility.
Even if we are doing everything God has commanded us to do, we need to realize that this doesn’t make us any better than anyone else, and I mean anyone. In Luke 17:10, Jesus says “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
See, that is humility.
Our reading from Jeremiah is a song of suffering, humility, and asking for mercy: “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you.” Pretty much the same prayer as that prayed by the tax collector.
We are, in the eyes of God, no better than the tax collector, or the homeless person we see on the street, or the sex worker, or the thief, or the murderer in prison. Because God doesn’t see with the same eyes that we do.
Yeah, that’s uncomfortable. But remembering that is how we stay in a right relationship with God. In the Orthodox Church, there is a favorite prayer, and it’s very simple. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and it simply goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” No more than that. It’s a good prayer to use from time to time.
Here’s another suggestion, a way we might use today’s parable to keep ourselves in a proper state of humility. Whenever we feel tempted to compare our own devotion to someone else’s, or we feel even a little superior to someone else, let’s try using this little verse to remember who WE are in this parable:
“Two men when up to the Temple to pray.”
“One was a tax collector.”
“And the other…was me.”