At Least I’m Not Like…

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
October 23, 2016

Luke 18: 9-14 (CEB)
Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10“Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

A couple of months ago, Owen went through this brief period of time where he would say “hi” to everyone we would encounter. He still does it some, but not quite as regularly. Anyway, while Owen was in the midst of this phase, we were in Northern Kentucky for my father-in-law’s memorial service over Labor Day weekend. So on Saturday, Mary Ellen went with her older cousins to the Cincinnati Zoo, and Ken and I decided we would take Owen to the new riverfront park on the banks of the Ohio in downtown Cincinnati. We began our walk, and as we started across the historic Roebling bridge, we started running into a lot of people. There was a Reds ballgame that day, and so we were seeing a lot of fans on their way toward the stadium for the game, but there were others as well; runners, tourists, homeless, and so on. The folks we were running into were all shapes, sizes, persuasions, and colors. And without fail, Owen, with his cute dimpled grin, said “hi” and waved to every single one of them. It was really beautiful to see how people reacted to the enthusiastic greeting from the tiny human walking by. They all smiled. You could even tell that for some, it really made their day; maybe even their week. When we got over to the park and Owen got busy playing, Ken commented to me about how great it is that kids just see people. Owen wasn’t scared by anyone we encountered. He wasn’t judgmental in any way, shape, or form. He greeted every person with that same cute smile and friendly “hi,” and people ate it up!

Listen again to how this parable begins: “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.” Have you ever felt like you were a pretty righteous person? I think most of us realize we’ve all got some work to do in the righteousness department, so maybe we don’t fall into that category. But I bet all of us, at some point or another, have looked on another with disgust; maybe not everyone, but at least someone. And if we’re being honest, we’ve probably looked on several someones with disgust. So, whether we want to hear it or not, this parable is for us.

That day we walked across the bridge into Cincinnati with Owen, I was distracted by what he was doing and how everyone was reacting to him. But let me be candid for just a moment and tell you what probably would have been going through my mind if I had been by myself, because the truth of the matter is, I think we all do this. I likely would have been making judgments about every person, so my internal monologue would sound something like this: Reds fan (yay!), Cardinals fan (boo!), tourist (wonder if they’re from Missouri), drunk (isn’t it only 10am?), why are there doughnuts on the ground (can’t people clean up their mess?), homeless (I wonder where all the homeless people that used to be down here went since they built the park), thug (better move over), bicyclist (can’t they see there are too many walkers on this bridge and they need to slow down!). I think you get the idea. We do this ALL. THE. TIME. For whatever reason, it’s part of our human nature (not that that makes it okay). Maybe it’s like a survival instinct, or something, as we try to measure up who is a threat and who is not. I don’t really know. All I know is that it runs counter to everything Jesus teaches us about how we should live our lives and be in relationship with one another.

To help us learn some of what that means, Jesus tells this parable. Two men are in the Temple praying. The fact that they are in the Temple tells us that they are both Jewish, and because they are praying, it’s also safe to assume that they are both pious. One is a Pharisee and one is a tax collector. Now, we might as well acknowledge here that we probably have some preconceived notions about the Pharisees and tax collectors, just as we do of thugs and Cardinals fans today. Pharisees are rule-bound, legalistic, religious leaders, and tax collectors are selfish, greedy, turncoats. But there’s more to the Pharisees and tax collectors than what we generalize from our Biblical study. Pharisees were actually pretty liberal in their interpretation of the law. As a matter of fact, their aim was to make the observance of Torah (the Jewish scriptures) available to all. And the tax collectors; they’re job was to collect the tax for the Roman Empire, but anything more they collected was theirs to keep. Often, these tax collectors would appoint their work to others, who would actually go around knocking on doors and collecting the money. These “agents” (in essence) were usually locals, a Jewish man in this case. And while we could assume that perhaps they were simply doing a job, and not engaging in any “funny business,” it is probably likely that they, too, would get caught up in the pyramid scheme and try to rake in a little extra for themselves before passing the dues on to the higher ups.

Anyway, I share all that to make the point that this parable really could have gone the other way. As the Pharisee meekly prayed, seeking forgiveness for his failure to more fully abide by the Law, the tax collector could have been offering prayers of thanksgiving to God that he was not so wayward as that hypocritical Pharisee over there, who tries to teach others to follow the Law, but barely follows it himself. The truth is, we could take out “Pharisee” and “tax collector” and fill in the blanks with an infinite number of pairings and combinations, any of which would be correct. The Democrat says, “God, I thank you that I am not like…this Republican…” Or the Republican says, “God, I thank you that I am not like…this Democrat.” It could be black or white, college-educated or middle school dropout, Tennessee fan or Alabama fan; whatever. We might not thank God that we are not such-and-such or so-and-so, but we all have this thought run through our minds on a regular basis, “At least I’m not like…”

To that mindset, this parable speaks. Part of our tendency to self-righteousness and a judgment of others like that of the Pharisee, is a belief that we can do no wrong. The tax collector knew he had done wrong. He knew he had treated people unfairly and cheated them for his own benefit. So as he prayed, the tax collector threw himself on God’s mercy. There is no self-righteousness here, no judgment, no thought that, “Yeah, I might have messed up, but at least I’m not a murderer.” All he offers is a plea to God for mercy. No matter how good we think we are; not matter how bad we think everyone else is; we are all of us equally dependent on God’s mercy, and at the end of the day, the best any of us can do is to plead for God’s mercy.

Still there’s more. Jesus’ closing to the parable is this: “I tell you, this [tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” Obviously, the point that Jesus is making is that because this man humbly surrendered himself to God’s mercy, rather than pridefully pointing out his righteousness like the Pharisee, he was justified. Pride doomed the Pharisee, but humility saved the tax collector. But how easy might it be for the tax collector to be standing in that Temple a month later saying to God, “I thank you that I’m not like that adulterer over there. She’s had three husbands!” See, this is another aspect of our human nature, humility can quickly turn to pride. The fact is that humility is really something we have to work at; otherwise, we don’t stay humble for very long. We start thinking to ourselves, “Wow, I’m really great, I’m so humble.” I wish other people were as humble as I am!

The simple truth of the matter is, when we hear this parable, we want to put ourselves in the place of the tax collector. We think of ourselves as humble, we know our need for God’s mercy. We want to be justified by Christ. But in all reality, we are really more like the Pharisee. We spend our days prideful of our great accomplishments and judgmental of everyone else’s failures. We can tell one another and God about why we are good and everyone else is bad. The best I can tell, it’s this sort of Pharisaic, prideful, judgmental thought and behavior that is at the root of so many of the problems we see in our world today. Because rather than viewing one another as sinners in need of God’s mercy, we stoke our own egos by mocking the weaknesses and shortcomings of others.

But even as Christ pointed out the problem, he also gave us the solution. He commanded us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. You see, when we truly love others the way we love ourselves, we won’t be judgmental; pride can’t overtake us. When we truly love others the way we love ourselves, our deepest desire is the good of the other, even more than our own well-being. When we truly love others, we don’t scorn everything that is wrong, we celebrate everything that is right; kind of the way Owen was doing that day we walked across the bridge to Cincinnati and he said “hi” to every single person.

We should hear in this parable a challenge from Jesus to see our neighbors for who they are, not just for who we think they are. The Christian writer, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes of the practice of encountering others as an act of faith, seeing others as reflections of Christ. And the thing is, we don’t have to start with the most difficult people in the most challenging circumstances, we just need to notice the folks around us. She says: “The next time you go to the grocery store, try engaging the cashier. You do not have to invite her home for lunch or anything, but take a look at her face while she is trying to find ‘arugula’ on her laminated list of produce. Here is someone who exists even when she is not ringing up your groceries, as hard as that may be for you to imagine. She is someone’s daughter, maybe someone’s mother as well. She has a home she returns to when she hangs up her apron here, a kitchen that smells of last night’s supper, a bed where she occasionally lies awake at night wrestling with her own demons and angels.

“’You saved eleven dollars and six cents by shopping at Winn Dixie today,’ she says looking right at you. All that is required is that you look back. Just meet her eyes for a moment when you say ‘Thanks.’ Sometimes that is all another person needs to know that she has been seen—not the cashier but the person.”

As we begin seeing people in this way, with child-like eyes unclouded by preconceived notions, perhaps we will find that we go down to our homes justified.

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