I have a small sticky note stuck to my computer monitor in my office—I don’t remember where I read this, so I cannot give the credit, but it as probably Fr. Richard Rohr, whose email devotions I read daily. This little sticky note says, “There is no manipulation in God’s love. This is why Jesus told parables—so we can see ourselves from a distance.”
Our parable today is a good example of this—a chance to see ourselves from distance—but the more time I spent in this parable this week, the more of a slippery slope I found myself on, the self I saw in me was not one I wanted to see., even from a distance.
The parable seems simple enough. The Pharisee is arrogant and self-righteous and that’s bad, the tax collector is humble and that’s good, so be humble. But, of course, there is much more to it than that. First off, we must be careful not to demonize the Pharisee, and therefore the Jewish religion, inadvertently promoting antisemitism by how we talk about these texts. Yes, Jesus had lively discussions with the religious leaders of his day, but Jesus himself did so as a Jew. We must read this parable as a corrective against self-righteousness of every sort, not just on the part of one type of religious leader.
Digging deeper: to first century ears, this parable would have drawn some laughter at its absurdity. The practices of this pharisee are truly over the top. “I fast twice a week”—nowhere in Scripture is there a requirement to fast twice a week, or even once a week, and not even once a month. The only required fast was once a year on the day of Atonement. Then there were other occasional fasts for special times of prayer—for illness or death of a loved one, for forgiveness, or the threat of war. But twice a week? No one ever even heard of that.
Then he says, I give a tenth of all my income—this is not just a regular tithe. He says he gives 10% of everything that passes through his hands or household, which would include gifts, favors, a pot of soup a neighbor cooked when he was sick. How would you even keep track of all that to give 10% of it? “ “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He not only talks completely about himself, but has absurd practices of “spirituality on steroids.”
This makes us hate him even more so, because we are not even close to being that spiritually awesome, and we feel justified in judging him. Seeing ourselves from a distance—now who is arrogant? The listener who judges the arrogant ends up being even more arrogant. So where does that leave us? Like the tax collector perhaps?
Let’s look at him. Tax collectors were truly hated by others because they were seen as traitors. They over-collected taxes from their own people to pay the Roman oppressors and get a nice cut for themselves. What’s the equivalent today—giving an internet thief the password to your companies’ accounts, selling drugs in your own neighborhood or school, organized or white collar crime (Bernie Madoff, perhaps)—pretty rotten stuff.
The tax collector knows he is engaged in sin. Interestingly, his prayer does not admit wrongdoing, he does not promise repentance and a change in behavior, he does not seek a new life. He simply hangs his head low, and says, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
This elicits two reactions—the first, honestly, is to be offended that there isn’t more of a commitment to change on this tax collector’s part. His forgiveness is just as offensive as the super-spiritual religious man’s arrogance. Forgiveness without an admonition to “go and sin no more?” Is he just going to keep being a tax collector? Is this his only career choice? Nope, he’s just forgiven.
Well, this is no way to run a universe so I would like to give God some advice. It may not surprise you that I have tried this advice-giving to God. Now who’s arrogant? The answer I have gotten is, ‘how many times have I forgiven you, and you went ahead and did the same dumb things over and over again? I thought you didn’t like fire and brimstone.” (notice how it’s the religious leader who’s the arrogant one in this passage, perhaps we could read, "Lutheran pastor!")
Our second reaction is to do what the parable seems to want us to do, which is to be humble like this tax collector, regardless of our sin. The problem is that as soon as we try to be humble, we are right back to being arrogant with the Pharisee—because that makes humility a work, a job, something we accomplish, rather than a disposition of the heart that we allow God to work in us. “Yeah, I went to the gym this morning. Now I am working on humility…”
There is no “working on humility… there’s only willingness—there’s only getting on your knees and being the creature rather than the Creator, the child, rather than the Holy Parent, the servant rather than the Lord, the sinner rather than Savior.
Which is why I think Jesus’ conclusion to the parable is, “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.” Yet this leaves us still in the arrogant shoes, doesn’t it, because we are left still judging the Pharisee, which is in itself arrogant. Is arrogance the truly unforgiveable sin?
But even here, we have a new insight. Jewish scholar, Amy-Jill Levine in her book Short Stories by Jesus believes “rather than” is a poor translation of the Greek preposition here. She translates it, “alongside” instead of “rather than”. So, she concludes the parable this way, “I tell you, this man (that is the tax collector), went down to his home justified alongside the other (the pharisee).
She believes they are both justified—the Pharisee is not justified because of his works, but simply because he is there praying, engaged in a relationship with God. Perhaps our Protestant arrogance snuck into the translation of the text, for it leaves us judging the religious leader and limiting forgiveness. From Dr. Levine’s perspective, being humbled for the spiritually superior is not being denied forgiveness but rather, discovering that he is seated alongside a traitor, and other sundry rogues, thieves, and adulterers in his salvation.
This is one reason why Jesus tells us to love our enemies—it is practice for the heavenly banquet where we will be seated next to those we despise the most. What surprising dinner companions will you have at the heavenly banquet? A drug dealer? A murderer? A white supremacist? A childhood bully? Someone in your own family?
Yes, we do have moments when salvation by unmerited grace and unearned forgiveness seems like no way to run a universe. Perhaps it’s human nature that we all have people whom we think do not deserve forgiveness, but this parable frees us from this worry, because Jesus makes clear that this is God’s business and not ours.
But deep down, this is truly good news for us because it means that we, too are forgiven! As I was living with this parable this week a memory from childhood came back to me. When I was about 10, I remember trying to pray perfectly before I went to sleep at night. I had a picture in my imagination for each petition of the Lord’s Prayer, and I tried to say the words with the each picture in my mind straight through without a break in my concentration. If I didn’t get it done seamlessly without distraction or a break in concentration, I would start over. There were nights I would cry myself to sleep because I could not say my prayer from start to finish perfectly.
What a relief to learn there is nothing we have to get right to be forgiven. The pharisee and the tax collector go home justified alongside one another—the arrogant, self-righteous, spiritually superior one is forgiven alongside the extreme sins of a traitor to his people. And we are freed from judging the arrogant, and we are freed from striving for a humility that cannot be attained, but only knelt for.
We do, however, all have a common prayer. At the beginning of our day, and at the end of our life, each one of us is just like the tax collector, and it turns out that one sentence is all it takes: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
It doesn’t matter what our sin is—we can all say the same prayer. The great thing about kneeling for Confession and for prayers during our worship together, is it puts us all on the same level—all in the same stance before God—no one is better than anyone else, no one needs less or more forgiveness, less or more prayer than the next person.
I encourage you to pray this prayer this week, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” every day, and see what happens for you. Do it on your knees if you can physically. I heard a speaker once say that after she made her bed in the morning, she knelt by her bed to pray, and that’s how she remembered to do it every day. As long as her bed was made, she remembered to pray. If she ran out of time, and made it later in the day, that’s when she got on her knees and said her prayers.
“There is no manipulation in God’s love. This is why Jesus told parables—so we can see ourselves from a distance.”
Today we see that we are forgiven by grace, and it is a free gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ. You don’t have to say a perfect prayer, a have perfect practice, or live a perfect life. You are forgiven and loved and accepted alongside the arrogant and the awful. The clearest view of this free gift is on bended knee.