23 Pentecost—25C-Track 2
October 23, 2016
Sirach 35:12-17, Psalm 84:1-6, 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18, Luke 18:9-14
These two men in Jesus’ parable look different to us, but the truth is they have a lot in common.
+Both are at the Temple; +Both address their prayers to God. +Both believe what others think about them: The Pharisee believes the judgment of society when it says that he is worthy of respect because he is seen as a serious religious man who follows the Law of Moses and then some. The tax-collector believes the judgment of society when it says that he is unworthy of respect because he is a traitor and a thief. +Both think it’s okay to judge oneself: the Pharisee judges himself to be doing really well, while the tax-collector judges himself to be doing terribly.+ In the eyes of the world both are right. In the eyes of God, both are wrong.
I have a lot of sympathy for these two, because, we too so readily believe what others think about us and what we in turn think about ourselves. We learn as children to take what our parents think about us as a fact of life that is as real as gravity. If our parents tell us we “have a problem” with math because we brought home a great report card, except for a D in math, then we will begin to think of ourselves as having a “problem with math” which can rob us of any chance of ever doing well in math the rest of our lives.
Since the significant people in his life tell the Pharisee that he is in a good place with God, the Pharisee rests on this favorable judgment and therefore has no need to address his failings—the log in his eye. Instead he feels free to project his negativity onto the tax-collector. He gets an endorphin rush in his brain every time he sees the tax-collector’s sins. In fact, the Pharisee would feel lost without such people as tax-collectors, thieves, and adulterers on whom he can project his brokenness. If they were all healed and forgiven his only recourse would be to project his inner darkness on his wife and kids.
Likewise, with the cursing of society, the tax-collector believes the projection of others and can’t help feeling like the lowest of the low. And it is this feeling that robs him of any chance to believe God would ever be willing to hear his prayers.
These men have so much in common.
Of course what’s missing in this scenario is the truth that only God is qualified to judge. Only God can see clearly into the depths of their hearts. Only God is competent to diagnose the state of their souls. In taking the judgments of others for the truth, these men are like someone with thick cataracts who, instead of going to a skilled ophthalmologist, will let anyone off the street operate on their eyes.
We human beings are simply unqualified to judge each other and our own self. Only God can diagnose and heal the human soul.
But, by the grace of God, the tax collector does one thing differently: through his knowledge that he has nothing in himself to claim but has only his utter dependence on God, he throws himself on the mercy of God. He realizes there is nothing in himself to brag about, so he asks God, who alone is good, for help.
The Pharisee could have done the same thing: He could have prayed “O God, I fast twice a week and I give generously for the spread of your kingdom through the work of the church. I thank you, Lord, that I don’t cheat on my wife and rob my boss. I’m doing the best I can—yet there is nothing in me that makes me worthy to stand before you. Compared to your holiness my good deeds are as filthy rags—so Lord God, I throw myself on your mercy for your judgment and healing!”
Then he too could have gone home acquitted of his sins.
So in this parable we face a critical issue: What is going to be our strategy for living: Shall we, like this Pharisee, maintain a belief in our own goodness by projecting our negativity onto others, or shall we, like the tax-collector, finding nothing to claim in ourselves, face our radical need of God’s mercy, and refuse to project our mess onto others?
Jesus sets a wicked trap in this parable to help us answer this question: if we find ourselves siding with the tax-collector but then we hear our inner voice saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like this evil Pharisee who judges others”, then we know all we’ve done is change sides, not changed strategy. We know we have more work to do.
We will always have more work to do as God moves us from our default setting of judging others to the place where we throw ourselves on the mercy of God. Saint Therese of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun who died at the age of 24 said in her autobiography, “I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbors’ defects–not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.”
― Thérèse de Lisieux, Story of a Soul : The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux
One practice that can help us keep our need for God’s mercy before us is found in that Russian spiritual classic called The Way of a Pilgrim that tells the journey of a man wandering the Russian countryside in the 1850s. He is trying to find someone who can tell him how to follow St. Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing. Early on he runs into a holy monk who teaches him the Jesus Prayer and tells him to pray it thousands of times a day until it takes root in his heart.
In English the Jesus Prayer goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” You breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ” and exhale “have mercy on me”, until it becomes a mantra that your heart repeats automatically.
Prayed often and deeply enough this prayer fights against our default setting to focus on the faults of others and leads us into the mercy of Triune God, who alone judges truly and who alone loves the sinner that we all are.
Jesus invites us to join the tax-collector on the level ground at the foot of the cross: to find and finally understand that every moment of our lives is spent in the mercy of God—in Jesus Christ who loved us and gave himself for us. He is the incarnation of God’s mercy and from his cross flows the power to use people like us for spreading the awareness of the Kingdom of God.