“In humility is perfect freedom” – Thomas Merton
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But 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!’ 14I 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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
In the parables of Jesus, you are likely to encounter layers of possible interpretations. Today’s parable is a prime example. Two men went to the temple to pray. One of them was rich and successful, while the other, whom nobody liked, was a tax collector. The rich man, a Pharisee, prayed first, and thanked God that he wasn’t a sinner like the tax collector standing next to him, and then he bragged about all the good stuff he had done. The tax collector went next. When he prayed, he wouldn’t even look up at God. Instead, he just stood there banging on his chest and asking God to forgive his sins. God listened to the tax collector’s prayer and saved him, but turned his back on the Pharisee, who ended up in hell. We have to ask: what did the one man do wrong and the other do right? What was this story really about? Let’s try this for an answer: The first man had bragged about himself, refused to confess that he was a terrible sinner, and thought he was better than the tax collector. The second man, our hero, got right down to it. He groveled before God and asked God to forgive him, and God did. The moral of the story, therefore: we all need to admit to God we are sinners, ask for forgiveness, and stop bragging.
Today’s text is the assigned lectionary reading; and it also happens to be Giving Sunday, the Sunday we officially begin our annual campaign encouraging all of us at Calvary to make a pledge. So let’s listen again to the Pharisee’s prayer: Thank you God that I am not a slimy opportunist and collaborator with the enemy like that tax collector, cowering in the corner; what is he even doing here? I fast twice a week, I pledge 10% of my gross income, and I go on mission trips! The tax collector collaborates with Russia and tries to make deal with Ukraine to enrich himself and to seek political advantage. And yet, it is the tax collector who leaves the temple “justified.” He goes home vindicated, restored in his relationship with God. It’s not the first time Jesus does something like this. Jesus seems to like spending time in the company of mobsters, reaching out to scoundrels. Earlier this month, an off-duty white police officer, Amber Guyger, who fatally shot an unarmed black man in his own apartment, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Officer Guyger mistakenly thought she was facing an intruder in her own apartment. The judge in the case, Tammy Kemp, is a black woman, a woman of faith who also serves as a deaconess in her church. At the end of the trial, after the jury had been dismissed, Judge Kemp came down from the bench to offer her condolences to the victim’s parents, as is her habit when a family has lost a loved one. Next, she stopped by the defense table to offer a word of encouragement to Officer Guyger. After a few words, Officer Guyger did something that caught the judge off guard: she asked for a hug. Judge Kemp hesitated. She had hugged defendants plenty of times before—but usually it was after they had successfully completed probation or drug treatment. She could not recall hugging any newly convicted killers on their way to prison. She thought of what it means to comfort those who are hurting. She had hugged the victim’s parents only minutes earlier; and in the end, she reached out and hugged Officer Guyger, too. Judge Kemp explained, “The act that she committed was horrific—she murdered an innocent man—but none of us are one thing that we’ve done.” The gesture immediately drew criticism from social justice activists, who pointed to cases where defendants of color were shown far less compassion for less serious crimes. Other critics of the judge said that religion had no place in the courtroom.
Life is not always so clear cut. And life certainly isn’t so black and white. It’s like the pastor I grew up with, who was as responsible as anyone for introducing me to Jesus, who shared my celebrations and stood by me in my times of crisis, who later shamefully gave up his ordination following charges of sexual misconduct over the course of his 40 plus years of ministry. Life is full of ambiguity. The Pharisee, portrayed in the parable as bad and condemned by God, was not all bad; he also had goodness in him. And the Tax Collector, portrayed in the parable as good and praised by God, was not all good; he also had badness in him. And isn’t it also true for everyone of us. None of us can claim to be all good; and none of us can claim ever to be written off as having nothing redeemable in us. We are all good and bad. We are all capable of goodness and evil, of doing right and doing wrong.
If the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are both good and evil, if everyone of us is both good and evil, what then, is the point of today’s parable? Why was the Pharisee condemned and the Tax Collector praised? What was the difference between them? Listen again to how the Pharisee began his prayer: God, I thank you that I am not like other people—thieves, scoundrels, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee measured himself, his goodness, by looking down on others. He determined his position, his stature, his rank with God by comparing himself with others. Next to the Tax Collector, a traitor, he felt secure and confident before God. It is like our feeling smug and righteous that we are not racist because we don’t commit hate crimes, or that you are not a sexist because you use inclusive language. You can always find someone worse off than you to make yourself look good or feel righteous. With respect to the wretched Tax Collector, the Pharisee trusted himself to be righteous. James Baldwin writes: “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” In the Temple, in full view, it is not God’s eye the Pharisee wants to catch; his performance in the temple is not prayer but promotion.
A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times was titled: “Our Fear of Being a Nobody,” (Bianca Vivion Woods, October 4, 2019). The writer, who began using Twitter in 2010 as a high school freshman, has come to the realization that like many of her fellow millennials, a life without a social media presence is not having a life at all. She writes: “There is a widespread, genuine fear of obscurity among my peers. Social media is no longer a mere public extension of our private socialization; it has become a replacement for it. Constant social media visibility has become a way to measure our individual worth. We feel we need as many people as possible to witness our lives, so as not to be left out of a story that is written too fast by people much more significant than ourselves.” We are taught at an early age to compare and compete with others. “I’m bigger than you are; I’m better at kickball or smarter in the classroom or play the trumpet better than you.” Then we graduate to “I make more money or drive a nicer car; I attend the biggest church in town or live in a nicer neighborhood. I am more open-minded or volunteer more. No question, I am the better person.” It is everywhere, this propensity for comparison and judgment. Our culture encourages it more than ever. Congregational culture exerts pressure to be like the Pharisee. When we discuss successful ministries, we cite statistical measures: weekly attendance is up, giving is up, new programs are in place, we have added a new worship service. Our Pharisaic friend in today’s parable would fit right in, perhaps skewing the numbers even higher.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ offers a different way of assessing value, undoing these worldly statistical claims to superiority. It is tax collectors who are invited to the head of the class, not the Pharisees, not the self-righteous. We covet admiration and praise, but our greatest human need is to be known and loved and accepted by others. And that can never happen as long as we stay safely turned in to ourselves. Pride cuts us off from the love and goodness and mercy that gives life. In the crucified Christ, we discover the truth that God enters our lives not through our strengths and successes, but through our weaknesses, struggles and fears. If we try to pretend all is well with us—that we have no flaws, no needs and no shortcomings—then nothing can reach us, nothing can touch us. But when we do not hide our helplessness, it serves as the opening that God needs in order to heal us. The Rev. Dr Browne Barr was for many years the Senior Pastor at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. A masterful preacher, his sermons were widely published. That was my introduction to him, through his writings, before I met him in person. It was not until I became his colleague on the faculty at SFTS that I was transformed by him. As the Dean of the Faculty at SFTS, Browne openly shared his humanity—his fears and insecurities—and taught me the power of humility.
Our Annual Giving theme this year is “Let your light shine.” And that light shines most brightly when our pledge is made to give glory to God and not to serve and bring attention to ourselves. A couple of years ago I came across a story of a housekeeper living on the Mississippi Delta. She worked hard all of her life, sending her own biological children through college. Only after her death did several young people in the community realize that on her meager salary and thrifty living habits, she had also helped to send many others through college and the working world. Not only was she generous, she was also humble about it and did not receive glowing awards and wordy tributes. We are both Pharisee and Tax Collector; and we can trust God to accept and love us as we are. We can stop pretending. God will enter our lives through our honesty with our flaws, needs and shortcomings. To be known, accepted and loved is priceless. It is everything! Let us pledge with the same generosity as God’s unconditional love.