I’ll look down on you, and you look down on me, and that way everybody can look down on the both of us.
In our Gospel this week, Jesus tells a parable about two men who went to the Great Temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a despised tax collector who stood way in the back of the Temple and begged for God’s mercy. He knew where he was not wanted, and he beat his breast repeatedly and said over and over, “Dear God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The other man stood right up front, in his rightful place, for he was a Pharisee, and said, “Thank you God! Thank you that I’m not like all those unjust people. Thank you that I’m not like extortioners and adulterers. I thank you especially that I am not like that tax collector standing in the back of the Temple. My pledge is larger than everybody else’s, and I fast twice a week.”
Can you even imagine being THAT arrogant? Can you imagine being that self-consumed? Can you imagine being like that self-centered, that conceited, that haughty and contemptuous Pharisee? O God, I’m sure glad that I’m not like that Pharisee, aren’t you?
Of course, at the moment I even think such a thought, I stand convicted, and our Lord’s parable has done what it is supposed to have done. Jesus has so cleverly accomplished so much in so little time.
The Pharisee is not the bad guy in this parable. One should not let late First Century biases, as reflected in the Synoptic Gospels, have undue influence when hearing the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Pharisee in this parable was a good man. Behind his outward piety there is an inward discipline. He really does fast regularly, and he really does give ten percent right off the top to the temple. I doubt there is a Christian parish anywhere that wouldn’t love to have a dozen or more of these Pharisees join the church.
On the other hand, the Tax Collector was the worst kind of crook, a legal one. As one commentator describes him:
He was a mafia-style enforcer working for the Roman Government on a nifty franchise that let him collect – from his fellow Jews, mind you, from the people whom the Romans might have trouble finding, but whose whereabouts he knows and whose language he speaks – all the money he can bleed out of them, while only paying the Roman authorities an agreed flat fee. He has been living for years on the cream he has skimmed off their milk money.
Now, there is no question that the Pharisee let his self-image get away from him. There’s no question that he was carefully polishing and buffing his ego. There’s no question that he carried his pride to an extreme. There’s no question that he commits the sin that seems to bother Jesus more than any other, the sin of SELF IDOLATRY.
There’s a joke often told among Jewish folks, and ideally it would be told with a Yiddish accent, especially the punchline:
It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and as it reaches its climactic moment, the Rabbi, stands in front of the congregation, throws himself down on hands and knees in an ultimate act of self-abnegation. He cries out to his Creator, “Before You, I am nothing!” The Cantor, on cue, jettisons down, sobbing with animation: “Before You, I am nothing!”
Mr. Schwartz, in the first row, is so moved, so inspired, so galvanized, that he dives down, landing on hands and knees, and yells out, “Before You, I am NOTHING!”
Seeing the kerfuffle in the first row, the Rabbi looks over to the Cantor. Dripping with sarcasm, he says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
O.K., so we don’t want to fall into the extreme of PIOUS BIGOTRY. We don’t want to think THAT highly of ourselves before God and in front of people. But we don’t want to become like the tax collector either. We don’t want a church full of people sitting in the back beating their breasts and beating themselves over the head until it feels good. This kind of self-loathing is immobilizing, and therefore it is just as ineffectual as the Pharisee’s attempt to justify himself before God by listing his own merits. Also, take note that the Tax Collector said nothing about amending his way of life. He just begged for mercy. This is what makes this parable so hard to preach, what makes it a trap. For as soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity in two, we will surely align ourselves with the kind of people Jesus warns us about, namely, those who trust only in themselves.
If you turn on cable news these days, you hear of a lot of attempts to divide humanity in various ways. I think Jesus is telling us to avoid it at all costs. Christians are asked by our Lord to walk a tough road. We are asked to believe that we are created in the image of God, and yet acknowledge our complete dependence on God at the same time. We are asked to believe that we have a part in the salvation of the world and yet acknowledge that there is really only ONE TRUE SAVIOR OF THE WORLD!
The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, said it best I think. He said we have two spiritual pockets. When we reach into one pocket we pull out our smallness. We find that we are nothing but dust and ashes. But when we reach into the other pocket we extract our greatness. It is for our sake that the universe was created. Christianity is indeed challenging isn’t it?
Martin Luther once wrote, the Christian is both a saint and a sinner at the same time. Therefore, one should not be too quick to take sides in this parable. There is a bit of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in each of us, but there’s also a whole lot of the love of God in us also. You have to call it up when the circumstances call for it. You are valuable in the sight of God, and God has a vision for what you can become!
The arrogance of the Pharisee automatically separated him from the rest of the world. The Tax Collector stood in the back of the Temple because there was no room up front where the Pharisee stood oozing his condescending vanity all over the place. Such an attitude is really nothing more than self-idolatry. Likewise, the I AM NOTHING attitude of the Tax Collector, especially without amendment of life, keeps one from ever thinking the great thoughts or dreaming the great dreams that are the fabric of the Kingdom of God!
If you reached into your spiritual pockets, what would you discover there? Lint and gum wrappers or life and glory? Chances are it will change from day to day, but no matter what you find there, God’s love for you never changes. So don’t look down on others. And don’t suppose to know what’s in their hearts, but don’t look down on yourself either. Never say that you are nothing because you are of tremendous value in the sight of the God that endowed you with many gifts. The same God who can make lint and gum wrappers – even dust and ashes — into a glorious creation called YOU!
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