“Lord, I just want to thank you that I’m not like all those other people–those wicked folks, the sinners, the bad seed, the scum of the earth, the dregs of society, the bums, the moochers and takers.”
Yes, this is the heart of this week’s Gospel passage from Luke, and it’s one that should make us all squirm just a little. If not, then maybe we have a great deal more to ponder about the true condition of our souls:
[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.” –Luke 18:9-14 NRSV
I’ll come right out and say it: There’s more “Pharisee” in me than I’m generally comfortable admitting. My typical default setting, morally speaking, probably runs closer to the judgmental end of the scale than its opposite, humility. I live a pretty comfortable life in a house that’s warm in winter and cool in summer. The fridge and pantry get restocked with regularity. I attend church on Sunday with folks who, not surprisingly, aren’t all that different from me. The same can be said for the larger community in which I live.
It would be very easy to look down on others whose social, financial, and moral world is dramatically different from my own. And it would be a relatively simple additional step to look at all that and think that my “station in life” (a phrase we don’t use all that often anymore but adequately expresses the idea) is the result of God’s gift bestowed on me. And, of course, once I reach this point I’m standing next to that Pharisee in the temple expressing thanks to God for you know what.
One response to all this would be guilt. And, hey, I was raised with a fair bit of guilt! Maybe some of those reading this were, as well. But guilt doesn’t lead to anything positive or uplifting. Recently I found this quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that weighs in on the topic at hand:
The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community” (Harper and Row: NYC, 1954), p. 27
One small way I force myself to get out of my comfort zone is to volunteer each week with the central food bank in Kansas City. Along with a friend from my congregation we load up a big Ford Econoline van with groceries and deliver them to various locations in the metro where the food bank offers nutrition classes for individuals whose income is far closer to the poverty line than mine. This literally requires me to drive through parts of the city where I’ve never been before and where, frankly, I wouldn’t go were it not for this volunteer gig. When the deliveries are done, we load my pickup with free food from the food bank and deliver it to the Community Services League office in Independence.
I realize that the mere act of sharing this information begins to move me back into Pharisee mode: “Look at me and the great stuff I do!” Which, fortunately, triggers an interior alarm that a healthy dose of humility and self-awareness is in order. Here’s the trouble with humility–it’s all too easy to lapse into being proud of one’s humility! Oops. More importantly, I meet folks I wouldn’t otherwise. Because I claim to follow Christ I “see” and “feel” the presence of the Spirit in those places and with those folks. And I am humbled.
Furthermore, I realize I don’t have to be that Pharisee that I’m afraid I’m becoming. As Apostle Paul counsels, we are not to be conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of our minds–and all because of Christ Jesus.
- Pharisee and Tax Collector – Righteousness (friarmusings.wordpress.com)
- Pharisee and Tax Collector – Context (friarmusings.wordpress.com)
- 30th Sunday Ordinary Time 2013 The Pharisee and The Tax Collector (blueeyedennis-siempre.blogspot.com)
- Why Evangelicals Need to Pay Attention to Bonhoeffer (endofgod.wordpress.com)
- My Allah Is More Authentic Than Your Allah! (imeslebanon.wordpress.com)
- When we pray we seek the presence of one who knows us better than we know ourselves (catholicherald.co.uk)
- Last Sunday after Trinity 27.10.13 Luke 18.9-14 (preachersfriend.wordpress.com)
- A Healthy Awareness of Sin (stfrancisfields.com)