Yr C ~ Pentecost 23 ~ Luke 18:9-14
Today we get to wrestle with one of Jesus’ blatantly obvious parables that isn’t obvious at all. That’s what makes it a parable! I like to call parables ‘thought bombs’ because as you contend with them at some point it’s going to make your brain explode with a fresh new revelation about your faith. This parable does not disappoint, but on the surface it appears to be simple.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. (Luke 18:10)
Instantly Jesus’ audience would be predisposed to believe that the Pharisee will be the hero and the tax collector the villain. (Now for us, Pharisees were often on the wrong end of Jesus’ teachings and argued with him constantly, but they were very, very well respected in that time.)
Pharisees were the ones who lived according to the letter of the Jewish Law and made it their life’s work to be holy and righteous, and tax collectors were no-good-dirty-rotten-scoundrels who cheated people by overcharging them for their taxes and got rich doing so.
By the end of the parable the tax collector ends up the hero and the Pharisee the villain. That’s a fascinating reversal but that’s not the thought bomb! Let’s look at what they did.
Luke 18:11-13 – 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!’
The surface interpretation correctly sees that the Pharisee’s problem was ego and vanity – that even though he was doing the right spiritual, churchy things he seemed to be doing them for the wrong reasons. And the tax collector humbled himself so he was rewarded.
That’s good as far as it goes, but there’s so much more here!
Here’s the first thought-bomb! If we only interpret the parable in this straightforward way aren’t we being just like the Pharisee?
Do you ever pray like the Pharisee did? (Be honest!)
After hearing this sermon so far aren’t you kind of thinking, “God I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee in the parable!”
Or perhaps we find that we do this in more subtle ways?
“God, I thank you that I am not like those atheists – or those biblical literalists – or those fundamentalists – or those weirdos at that church down the road – or…”
This is not to say that you can’t be grateful that you have a preference or that you think your way of doing something is better.
It is to say that those kinds of comparisons, and everything that came out of that Pharisee’s mouth, have nothing to do with prayer!
And that leads us toward the second thought bomb. What is the nature of prayer?
We’ve said that we know that the Pharisee’s way of praying was wrong, so let’s look at the tax collector. Do you ever pray like the tax collector did – beating your breast and crying for mercy? (That’s not our typical United Church style!)
I’m going to use a simplistic two-dimensional image to talk about this even though we know that God is much more than this – so another way to say all this is that the Pharisee was thinking horizontally and the tax collector was thinking vertically.
The Pharisee is concerned with what those around him think, his standing in the community, how he looks compared to others.
The tax collector is concerned only with his relationship with God – it’s like no one other than him and God are even present!
Here’s another way to say that. The Pharisee did all the right stuff in his life but his heart was oriented in the wrong direction.
The tax collector did all the wrong stuff in his life but in this moment of prayer he got it right – his heart was laid bare.
And now we’re getting closer to what the core message of this parable is: it’s not about what I’ve done, it’s about who I am – my heart.
And if you already knew that, so it isn’t a big thought bomb for you, it must be because you experience such wonderful theological reflection each week not like those other churches… 🙂
I think one of the biggest challenges with the way the mainline protestant church typically functions is that we have either forgotten or at least utterly deemphasized the idea of God’s ‘being’ in favour of the wonders of God’s ‘doing’.
Stay with me.
I don’t mean that we’ve forgotten about God’s character – that God is love. We embrace that. We celebrate that.
And I’m not talking about doubting the existence of God either because we confidently affirm that “Surely God is in this place and every place” so therefore God is.
What I’m saying is that we’re more Pharisee than tax man – putting our trust in the stuff we can control rather than letting go of control.
This parable started with Jesus saying that it was aimed at those who trusted in themselves (v.9). That’s not just the Pharisee – that’s us.
In practice we’ve tended to make church and faith all about the stuff we control, our actions – our justice work, our being good citizens, our personal morality, our church attendance, our do-gooding. And if we’re honest, we have tended to take pride in those things. And why not? Those are good things! It’s good to live justly, and be a good citizen, and have good ethics and morals, and go to church, and do good things for others.
In James 2:26 we hear that “faith without works is dead” – and nobody wants a dead faith so we make sure we do lots of works. The bible tells us so!
The problem is that unless you’re really careful and unless you’re really theologically plugged in you’ll fall into the exact same trap that our friend the Pharisee did in Jesus’ parable. I mean, we know he’s supposed to be the bad guy in the story because the other guy goes away justified and righteous, not him, but the truth is we’re just like him.
The Pharisee schlepped himself to church, stood up, said thanks to God, and then gave God his resume. “I did this, I did that. I’m a good guy, God. It ain’t easy doing all the stuff I do – for you. Where’s my pat on the back?” All the while looking out of the corner of his eye to make sure everyone around him knew that he was trying hard and was a good guy.
But faith is not primarily about actions. Your actions are what flow out of your deep faith – and yes, your actions greatly deepen your faith – but at the root of it all it’s not about what you do but about who you are. This is so hard for us because we’ve been conditioned to be ‘do-ers’ rather than ‘be-ers’. If you don’t believe me – I could get 50 of you to show up for a work detail or to put on a dinner, but I can’t get 10 to come to a prayer group!
When you meet someone what’s your typical first question? “What do you do?”
If someone says, “Hey, tell me about yourself” where do you start?
Probably with your job or role: “I’m a minister. I’m a musician.”
Maybe you might start with a relationship: “I’m a husband. I’m a father.”
But it would be pretty rare and probably strike you as pretty odd if you said, “Hey, tell me about yourself” and someone answered, “Well, I’m generally quite a selfless and tender-hearted person but lately I’ve been struggling with humility issues!”
‘Who you are’ questions are far more personal and revealing than ‘what you do’ questions.
And frankly, we’re so reserved and private that that kind of depth and vulnerability tends to unsettle us.
In Exodus 3:14, when Moses said,”Hey, tell me about yourself!” God replied, “I AM THAT I AM.”
God did not reply, “I am what I do.”
When asked to name God’s fundamental, foundational, core identity God named ‘being’ not ‘doing’.
Now, don’t get me wrong. God frequently communicates throughout the bible about all the things God has done for the people. “I brought you out of Egypt. I saved you from this. I helped you with that…”
But that’s not where it’s centred. It’s centred and grounded in being, not doing.
At the heart of it all, God is the Great I AM, not the Great I Do!
Here’s the thing.
‘Being’ is harder than ‘doing’.
‘Doing’ is tangible, understandable, explainable. You can grasp it and see the results, and others can see it too. ‘Doing’ generates checklists that make us feel really good as we fill them with check-marks and see that we’re making progress. And ‘doing’ makes a real difference in other people’s lives as they receive the fruits of your efforts. These are great things. Faith without works really is dead. By all means, get out there and ‘do’ for God.
Just don’t forget that underneath all that doing, under-girding it, inspiring it, providing the bedrock foundation for it, is a whole lot of ‘being’. That’s pretty alien for us good citizen mainline church types. That’s why it’s a thought bomb!
So, what do we do with this? How do we go forward? Because we’re stuck in a terrible paradox here. I mean, how do you explain ‘being’ to someone? You probably try to tell them how to do it. Like, “Here are the 4 things you need to do in order to be!” That’s a paradox!
Do you want to know how to ‘be’? You just ‘be’! It’s the opposite of effort. It’s the opposite of active. It’s what the tax collector did.
In Christian practice this has been called the contemplative life. If you’d like to know more about it we just happen to be doing a learning series on this subject that happens the first Wednesday night of November and December. It’s called, Into the Mystic. For today though, perhaps it’s enough to say that the gateway to ‘being’ is humility.
To humble oneself is to make oneself lowly, to lessen or diminish in arrogance, or ego. It’s about letting go – especially letting go of our self-reliance.
The root of the word humble is humus which means earth or ground. It’s the same root as human – which in theological terms is the stuff we humans are made from. Adam (of Adam and Eve fame) is the Hebrew word for ground. If Adam was Greek his name may well have been Humble.
To be humble is to be God-reliant more than self-reliant.
To humble yourself, therefore, is to surrender, to return to utter groundedness – not because you’re scum and worthless and ought to be treated like dirt – but because your foundation and core is rooted in that groundedness, in that openness, in that being.
To humble yourself is to be laid bare.
To use mystical language it is the stripping away of ego until you are naked before God – your essence and God’s essence – your being and God’s being.
You can see why it’s much easier for churches to talk about what we do instead of being naked before God.
Jesus ends the parable saying that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Our life experience tells us that in the real world usually it doesn’t work that way – because too often it seems that those who exalt themselves get more exalted and those who humble themselves get stepped on.
But the point of this parable is not to teach us about the passing cold realities of the fallen world but the eternal warm realities of the spiritual life.
Ultimately it’s a parable that teaches us what prayer is really all about.
Prayer is humility.
Prayer is a laying bare of your heart.
Prayer is what happens when the words stop, and everything is stripped away, and all that’s left is you and God.
And in order to get there we have to do something very hard for us.
We have to let go of the great I Do, and dare to be naked before the great I AM.
And all who humble themselves will be exalted!