A reflection for Proper 25, Year C
Jesus 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.”
Several years ago, I was invited to attend a conference at the very last minute. I had just recently accepted a new position and knew that the rest of the people who would be attending were far more important, experienced, and well-known than I was. But, since this national conference was happening here in Richmond and my colleague was coordinating it, I had a seat at this prestigious table. So, on this particular morning, I found myself in the downstairs ballroom at The Jefferson, in a room filled with people I didn’t know. I was feeling awkward, out of place, and my tendency toward introversion was NOT helping the situation. I sat at a table where there were still several open chairs and occupied myself by reading through the conference program for the day. I saw that right after lunch, the featured speaker was giving a talk on “vulnerability in professional life.” I chuckled as I thought to myself: at least I know something about THAT. In the midst of my self-absorbed thoughts of being out of place, out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman wearing jeans and a funky jacket (noticeably different than the crowd of dull-colored business suits) slowly descending the large, ornate staircase of the Jefferson. She came halfway down, paused, looked around…then turned around and started to go back up the stairs. Then she paused, came halfway down again, scanned the entire group and gathered herself together to walk down the stairs the rest of the way. She started toward the first open seat she saw, which happened to be immediately to my left. She whispered shyly, like I do when I’m nervous, “is anybody sitting here?” and I said, “You are! Please join me!” rather relieved that someone other than me seemed to be feeling a little out of place. It was only once we began talking that I realized that this nervous, seemingly out of place woman who came and sat next to me to share lunch was, in fact, the featured speaker that afternoon: Brené Brown.
As it turns out, there had been a little glitch in communication. It seemed that Brené had prepared for this speaking invitation assuming that she was speaking to a conference full of graduate STUDENTS, and not a room full of graduate program directors. Her entire self-image shifted on that staircase as she…a famous scholar and public speaker about vulnerability…realized she was completely and utterly unprepared for and intimidated by this group. But, her humility (and she admitted to me, a prayer) brought her down the stairs instead of turning back around. It was from that very real point of her own vulnerability that she found new meaning emerging in her own work that afternoon. Her words and her presentation took on a whole new life.
In contrast to that transformative vulnerability, if there is one thing that I’ve seen way too much in recent weeks, it’s people who are full of themselves. Whether politicians or publicists, it seems that we spend a great deal of time in this world listening to people talk a good game, find loopholes that benefit them, spin the situation to their advantage and tell their side of the story in a way that makes them come out looking shiny. Exposing the truth of who really we, what we’ve actually done (or not done), and where our faults lie feels far too risky and dangerous…too vulnerable. What quickly follows all of this inauthentic neediness is grasping to prove our worth in comparison with others. So, what tends to happen is that the more we try to justify ourselves out of fear, the more we are tempted to put down others as less worthy so that in comparison, we look better.
I’ll let you draw your own inferences to people, politics, or situations who may resemble that scenario…
The parable Jesus relates places us in a similar scenario using ancient characters, but with these exact same themes we wrestle with in our contemporary lives. It’s worth mentioning that today’s Gospel is attributed to Luke, the Evangelist and sharer of the Good News whose feast day we celebrated just a few days ago (October 18). Luke’s desire…his call to discipleship…was to share and spread the good news of Jesus. He was also educated…a Physician…and in Luke’s version of the Gospel we frequently hear emphasized the messages of hope and healing in Jesus’ life and ministry. In today’s Gospel, I think of the way that Luke presents this parable of Jesus as a sort of “prescription” about the all-too-human temptation to justify ourselves, which is as relevant today as it was in Jesus’ time. When we understand these two characters a bit historically there is great healing in the way this Gospel lesson breaks open for us as relevant to our lives today..
Before we even get to the characters, though, this story has a definite setting. We are in the Temple, and two men (as it would be men at that time) have come up to the temple to pray. This isn’t a random act; it is an act of intention conducted in a space of worship central to the shared religious life of these two people. This lesson as Jesus tells it takes place in the Temple…God’s house…or for us, it would be the faithful gathered at the Church. This story doesn’t take place on a street-corner, or a political debate stage, or a University classroom, or the ballroom of a fancy hotel, or even in the middle of Monroe Park. It takes place in a holy space, involving two people who have been drawn into the house of God for the purpose of communing with God. The Temple was a designated space of prayer and worship.
The first person we meet in the temple is a Pharisee. We hear a lot of mixed messages about Pharisees in Jesus’ teachings, but what we know from history and the Jewish culture is that the Pharisees were religious leaders who were respected, committed, law-abiding members of the community who were set apart to meticulously study the Torah and follow the law. So, in the Gospel narrative, we hear this particular Pharisee describe…clearly and precisely…just how law-abiding and respected he is. In all likelihood, his actions were good and true. He might be a great person worthy of our admiration. But in his prayer…his connection with God…he almost seems to be instructing God about how respected and worthy he is, presuming that perhaps even God hasn’t paid close enough attention to his obvious worthiness. He gives in to human arrogance; he uses this overly-pious opportunity to “give thanks” that he is better than other, specific groups. Not only is it groups, though. Into this place of prayer and worship, the Pharisee declares himself better than a specific person…THIS tax-collector…another follower of God who is also present in that same holy space to pray.
Now, it’s helpful to know that the tax-collectors of ancient Rome are not like employees of the IRS today. Tax collectors were responsible for collecting the tax that was owed to Rome within their jurisdiction. But, whatever money they collected beyond that was theirs to keep. Tax-collectors were shrewd, deceitful, and sometimes bullying in order to insure not only Caesar got what belonged to Caesar, but that they made a hefty profit in the process. The tax collector was likely wealthy, distrusted, and even despised. He may even not have been a nice guy. But, in this parable we don’t hear him singing his own praises or trying to justify his actions. We hear an entirely different prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
It could be tempting to read this parable and think about which of these characters we are most like and, with reverse irony, think of ourselves as better than the one who is self-righteous. But, if we’re honest, it’s more likely that we see a bit of ourselves in each of these characters…each one of us has a bit of Pharisee and tax collector in the mix. If we listen instead to the words…the prayers…of each of these two characters, we hear that there is something else happening altogether. The words of the Pharisee are already full of himself; there is no room for the other, and no room for God. This is a prayer justifying his own self-determined worthiness. Does God need our worthiness? Our piety? Our money? Is the kind of worth that we justify to defend our goodness even of importance in the economy of God? The second character…the despised tax-collector…is praying in an entirely different way. He has emptied himself of a sense of personal or wordly worthiness, and is asking instead to be filled with God’s mercy.
Where, in our moments of self-righteousness and justification or in our moment of falling short of the goodness we should show toward others, is there room for God’s mercy? If we are convinced of our own worthiness, what do we have left to offer up to God’s grace? But when we stand before the God who made us, acknowledging our vulnerability, we open ourselves to the possibility of divine mercy and grace. The central question of this parable isn’t “who is the better person?” but “how do we make room for God?”
The answer Jesus gives is the healing prescription offered to us by Luke: by making ourselves vulnerable, we can make room for the transforming and redeeming mercy and love that can be offered only from God. “All who exult themselves shall be humbled; and all those who humble themselves shall be exalted.” That is the stuff of transformation, of real soul-level change where we begin to see ourselves as part of the economy of God and the Body of Christ, instead of justifying our individual worth. We come to understand that God is for US…all of us. Not just for me, and certainly not more for me than for any other person. God is with us, and for us, and only in God we are made whole. Of the two characters, it is the tax-collector who goes home (in this translation) “justified” but this is a place where I turn to the ancient Greek for a better sense of the original context of that word. In original translation, he goes down from the Temple to his home where he is δικαιόω (dikaioó), “shown to be righteous.” The person who others once saw as despised now bears witness to the God-given righteousness with which he has been filled.
Being brought into right-alignment with the love and mercy of God requires us to make room. And there is no place like this place…the Church…where we can open our hearts and make room for that transforming mercy and love. As this parable begins, our story comes full circle today as well: we come together in God’s house to pray. As Jesus shows us through this parable, it is when we make room for God that we are able to receive that abundant mercy which transforms us and moves us to right alignment with God. This is the humility through which we are exalted. Together, we pray. Together, we make room to open to God’s mercy. And together, we leave healed, transformed, and whole…shown to be righteous, exalted even in the midst of our humble vulnerability through the transforming power of God’s mercy.
Homily prepared for Episcopal Campus Ministry “Port of Grace” Service, Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (Richmond, VA). October 23, 2016