The Holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to you, O Lord.
[Jesus] 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.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
When Jesus walked this earth, he was known not only for the miracles he performed but also for the parables he told. The genius of Jesus’ parables is the way they shock and surprise the audience by subverting conventional wisdom and expectations. One such parable is that of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
When I was on internship my supervisor & I retold this story with the Supervisor as the Pharisee and the intern as the Tax Collector. To appreciate the shock of this story, maybe we could hear it differently to re-orient ourselves to the way people would have heard it in the time of Jesus. Such retelling can go like this: A model Christian and a criminal went to church to pray. Without hesitation, the Christian entered the church, made the sign of the cross, and headed straight to his favorite pew in front of the altar.
It is obvious that he knew what he was doing and was familiar with the place. Looking up, he lifted up his hands and prayed, “Thank you, God, for blessing me and making me unlike those corrupt and miserable sinners who cannot tell good from evil, who live their lives separate from you, who do not come to church, like that criminal over there. I read the Bible daily, I never miss church, I pray for the less fortunate, I fast twice a week, I advocate for justice and human rights, I support Lutheran and other non-profit organizations that are helping the poor, and I give a regular offering.”
The criminal, on the other hand, hesitated, unsure whether to kneel or stand. He had not been to church in a long while. His only claim to fame was his notoriety as an incorrigible crook who stole money from people to support his drug addiction, lured young people to join his gang, and was in and out of prison. Full of shame and with head bowed, he whispered this prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
A recurring theme in Luke, and in much of Scripture, is the lowering of the proud and the raising up of the meek. Mary’s Magnificat and the parable of Lazarus and the rich man have already brought us this theme. This week, the lectionary texts bring us a couple more examples of humans who exalt themselves and those who humble themselves.
Jesus noticed that some people around him trusted in themselves and viewed others with contempt (Luke 18:9). Sadly, this is a common phenomenon in the church.
Frequently, Christian leaders of all kinds, denominations and political persuasions can fall into the trap of thinking that they have everything figured out, and they disdain others who aren’t as wise or enlightened. This posture and high opinion of self is literally anti-Christ.
Jesus told a story of two men who walked into the temple. The Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t a practitioner of injustice, a sex criminal or a collaborator with the empire. He fasted and paid tithes on everything he owned, which were given to the temple and to the landless poor (11-12). This sounds like a good guy in our minds. He wasn’t greedy or violent, and he practiced economic justice. But he knew he was doing everything right and was proud of himself. Meanwhile, the tax collector, a collaborator with the forces of the empire, stood far off, not looking toward heaven. He hit his chest and begged God to have mercy on him, a sinner.
Jesus said the latter man went home justified, not the first. How can this be?
The Pharisee did everything right, devoted himself to justice, and resisted violence and the empire. The tax collector certainly didn’t lie when he called himself a sinner. Yet, Jesus says those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Despite doing everything right, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable trusted in himself and viewed others with contempt. This is simply not allowed for the people of Jesus. We don’t get to think this way. The tax collector saw the truth: he was a sinner in need of mercy, as we all are.
The poetry in Jeremiah provides an excellent example of communal lament and request for God to return to help a humbled people.
Interestingly, it seems that God provided this language as an example to a people who were too stubborn and self-reliant to listen, as God spelled out what proper repentance might sound like.
God longed for the people of Judah to confess that their wrongdoings testified against them, their sins were many and that they sinned against God (Jeremiah 14:7). The people should have longed for God to dwell with them permanently, and not just be like a stranger passing through town (8).
God gave Jeremiah the pattern for what the people should have said to God. Instead, they loved to wander from God’s call to humble themselves (10) and listened to false prophets who promised peace and prosperity instead of punishment for the people’s arrogance (13-14). Eventually, the people learned to confess their wrongdoing (19-22)—but it seems it was too little, too late.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. That is exactly what has happened to every kingdom on the face of the earth so far. The ancient Egyptians, Romans and all other empires waned in power eventually. The kingdom of heaven calls humans to a different kind of posture. Instead of standing proudly, looking around at all those who don’t measure up to us in power, wisdom or even in the pursuit of justice, Jesus points to the one who acknowledges that we are a sinners and doesn’t know how to free ourselves. Only through the humble admission that we are lost and cannot save ourselves will Jesus justify us.
Even in our justification, we remain always sinner and saint, perpetually in need of Jesus, and never able to trust in ourselves or view others with contempt.
We hear this and respond “Ouch, Jesus! “Why do you have to shine your bright and penetrating light into my heart of darkness and brokenness, into the places I’d rather not discuss or even acknowledge? I mean, come on Jesus, for me to be right (or righteous) doesn’t someone else have to be wrong (or wretched)?
I go to church, I put something in the offering plate most weeks, I serve on a committee or two, and when I have extra time I volunteer to serve those less fortunate. I clean up pretty well compared to most folks, don’t I? Surely I pass the righteousness sniff test in a world filled with boors and louts and lazy miscreants.
The good religious leader in Jesus’ parable can easily be adapted for today—it’s a timeless role. All one has to do is peruse Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to see how human nature plays out predictably in the “best foot forward masks” so many of us project for the world to see. Who wants to be vulnerable and transparent at the risk of being exposed as inadequate or “less than”? We want/need to be part of the in-crowd. Human nature demands that there to be an outsider to justify embracing the status of an insider. We need someone to be more despicable in our eyes in order to hide our own failings and frailties. Somebody has to be the scapegoat, right?
Not according to Jesus, who consistently draws the circle wider and upends worldly ways of assessing righteousness, of who’s in and who’s out, and who stands justified in the eyes of God. It’s not the thin veneer of religious insider who ends up meeting the righteousness requirement, but rather the vulnerable and self-admitted outsider who cries out for mercy and who humbles himself before God. It’s the self-admitted and humbled sinner who receives mercy and is elevated in the story.
It is so much easier to play the role of the insider and to curve in on oneself and one’s fears and insecurities. It feels less risky and ever so much more right.
But this is not what Jesus desires of us. Jesus wants us to humble ourselves, to admit our failings and sins (no one is exempt!), and to lean fully on God for mercy. There is no room for bootstraps and lone ranger mentality in the reign of God. The preferential treatment and free-flowing mercy is dispensed lavishly and lovingly to those on the margins.
Don’t be mistaken. God hears all prayers. God loves this entire creation and proclaims everything good. God loves “Pharisees” and “tax collectors”, and God longs for all people to recognize their place in the divine arms of mercy and grace. The stewards of God’s mercy and grace, however, are the ones who recognize it for the precious gift it is and who aren’t afraid to plead for it. Knowing that everything belongs to God, is of and from God, and depends on God makes it much easier to live lives of grace-full wholeness and to extend God’s love and mercy to others. You see, the beauty of God’s mercy is that it’s wide and deep enough to include everyone in its reach. There is no need for lines of inclusion and exclusion where God is concerned because it is the divine desire for all to be held in the glorious grip of grace.
Go ahead then. Let go of the fractured need to exclude others and stand in better stead. Beat your breast in prayer—preferably metaphorically—and lean humbly into God’s open arms of forgiveness and mercy. You will find rest for your weary soul and radical inclusion as a child of God. Steward the gift of God’s mercy by allowing yourself to be bathed in it and then in turn leading others to it. Draw the circle wider to include those “other people”—thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors, the whole ragtag beloved bunch. Prepare to be amazed at how God can redeem and exalt the brokenness of others (and all of us too!).