by Raymond Pickett
Professor of New Testament
What more can we say about this Pharisee who is portrayed as being self-righteous? In my minds eye, twisted as it may be, I picture Jon Stewart on the Daily Show with that impish little grin of his saying. “This is just too easy”, as he proceeds to show embarrassing video clips of the Pharisee who was “persuaded in himself that he was righteous”. In fact, Luke has already offered a less than flattering commentary on Pharisees earlier in the Gospel: “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces (Lk 11:42-43). And then a little later, Jesus declares to a group of Pharisees, who are described as “lovers of money”: “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God (16:14-15).”
So the Pharisees are not so different from everyone else after all, and we are not so different from them. Although we would prefer not to think of ourselves as “lovers of money” per se, who among us wouldn’t welcome an increased cash flow? And while we may not see ourselves as preoccupied with our own honor and status, to deny that we are guided through this life by an ego that enjoys, and at times even craves, the praise and adoration of others would be disingenuous if not downright delusional. So despite the impulse to distance ourselves from this Pharisee, is he really all that different from the rest of us?
What pastor wouldn’t welcome a congregation full of upstanding and pious parishioners like the Pharisee in today’s parable who could always be counted on to do the right thing? If there were more people like this Pharisee who gave a tenth of their income, the church and its seminaries would weather this economic crisis just fine. So while the oft-lampooned Pharisee in today’s parable is an easy enough target, the truth of the matter is that we would love to have this guy, and many more like him, in our congregations.
But this Pharisee is not a congregant is he? He is a spiritual leader, distinguished in some sense from the hoi polloi. If we were to take a more pastoral approach to our friend the Pharisee, we might say that he was over functioning religiously. Perhaps on the verge of burnout! It’s what happens when leaders begin to imagine it’s about them and what they are doing rather than about God and the community they are serving. I should know. I have been there, done that! In the parish I served before I began teaching, I had my own experience of burnout. It appeared that things were going well. The church was growing, there was a lot going on in terms of worship, education, and outreach. And people in the congregation seemed to be pleased with me. But I was lethargic and found myself slipping into a rather dark place.
The first person to notice what was happening to me outside my family was a UCC colleague who cared enough to be brutally honest. “Do you know what your problem is Pickett? You have a messiah complex!” Okay, he wasn’t the most sensitive guy in the world. I just wanted to hit him – really! Me – a “messiah complex”! You have got to be kidding. But he was right. It’s not that I was entertaining grandiose illusions about my accomplishments, or my self – at least not consciously. Rather, I was doing God’s work as though it depended on me and not God! That is the tacit critique of this Pharisee in Jesus’ parable. He is performing his religious and righteous duties as if it was about him rather than about God.
This kind of spiritual arrogance is different than more familiar forms of arrogance. In fact, it often masquerades as “false humility”. So I am not talking about that trash-talking boastful kind of arrogance we see in the media and celebrity culture. Rather it is a subtler disposition or attitude that impacts one’s relationship with God, with others, and with our selves. The cartoon-like Pharisee in our parable is an outward expression of this inward lack of grace! He is an easy target because he is one of those people that says out loud what we have all thought: “I thank you that I am not like other people!”
I know that the term “arrogance” seems a little harsh for our friend the Pharisee who for centuries has served as a whipping boy par excellence, let alone for more earnest spiritual types like our selves. But the word “arrogant” comes from Latin and simply means, “claiming for oneself”, which is what this Pharisee does even as he prays.
The tax collector, on the other hand may be able to teach us something about the posture of true prayer. For all practical purposes this tax collector could be any one of those people at the 12 step recovery meetings that meet in many of our church basements and parlors, but are less likely to be in our pews on Sunday morning. They are not as inclined to compare themselves with one another because while they come from every class, tribe and creed, what they have in common is the realization, the conviction, the confession that they are powerless and in need of God’s mercy, grace and power!
Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in order to remind us of the connection between true prayer and humility. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Most of us get that we are supposed to pray, and that we are supposed to be humble. What is more difficult for us is appreciating that prayer and humility are inextricably linked, and that both are rooted in our capacity to receive. This is often a problem for caregivers in general, but it seems to be particularly difficult for pastors eager to bring in the kingdom by doing for and giving to others. So busy mediating God’s grace and mercy to others that their own capacity to receive is diminished.
All this to say that the humility exemplified by the tax collector at prayer, in contrast to the Pharisee (who in case you have figured it out yet is me and you), is grounded in an awareness of his own need for God’s mercy and grace and his willingness to receive! The passage immediately following this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is the beautiful scene in which Jesus welcomes and blesses the children and then tells his disciples: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Consistently throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus reminds us that God is eager to give us the kingdom. Indeed, it is in our midst! But it can only be embraced, not seized!
If prayer is not just piety, as the Pharisee would have it, but rather a way of living in relation to God and others. And if the posture of prayer is open arms rather than an introspective gaze. Then perhaps one way we can develop this sense of authentic humility is by the practice of receiving from others, especially those who are most different from us. The Pharisee is not like the tax collector, and it is precisely for this reason that he could learn much from him about prayer, humility and his own need for divine mercy and grace.
The Catholic theologian Paul Knitter wrote a book entitled Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. I haven’t read the book, but I know what he is talking about because every morning the first thing I do after I put the coffee on is practice what I learned from Buddhists, namely meditate. How much we could learn from our Muslim sisters and brothers about the practices of prayer and humility, and how fortunate are we here at LSTC to have the Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement where that can happen. I heard Bishop Benoway of the Florida-Bahamas Synod say when he was here a few weeks ago how much they are learning from the Latinos in their synod about discipleship. God gives us the kingdom when in humility we embrace one another in gratitude as bearers of God’s gifts of grace. It is pure gift, but only if we are able and willing to receive.
Just a few verses earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it”. One of our deepest instincts is to secure our lives. I don’t know if you have noticed, but our lives are less and less secure, and our attempts to secure them are not going so well. Sisters and brothers, the “American dream” dies hard, and yet is has been dead for a long time – for many it never really existed. Perhaps it is time to loosen our grip a little and learn to pray with the tax collector, and the recovering alcoholic, and the truly humble of this earth that we may open our hearts to receive the kingdom!