A Trap in the Gospel
October 24, 2004
Today’s Gospel is meant to trap us. But I must admit that the trap probably worked better at the time of Jesus than it does today. Because in order for the trap to be set we must have to have a correct understanding of the characters in the story: the Pharisee and the tax collector. Now you and I share a rather lop-sided and negative view of Pharisees from our reading of the New Testament. But our view would not match how people saw Pharisees at the time of Jesus. For in the first century Pharisees were seen as sincere, religious people, people who cared for the poor and promoted an idea of a loving God. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were universally hated. They cooperated with the Roman oppressors in collecting taxes and would often cheat their own people in order to make a profit.
So when Jesus told this parable in its original setting, he set the trap with the first line: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector.” His audience would presume that the Pharisee prayed well, whereas the tax collector did not. But as the parable proceeds, we find out that the opposite is true. It is the tax collector, who goes home justified, whereas the Pharisee does not. This parable reverses the customary roles of the characters. It overturns our expectations.
This parable is a warning against pre-judging others. It warns us about the quick judgments on which we base our life. The word “prejudice,” at its root (you can hear it) comes from “pre-judging” because it is a prejudice to judge people without knowing who they are or what they think. We pre-judge people all the time. A new person comes into our neighborhood, into our office, into our school. He or she talks a little different or acts a little strange and we write that person off as someone we do not wish to know. We meet somebody who is a manual laborer, who has dirt on his clothes, and we say this person is not very bright, he has nothing to say to us. When we meet someone driving a Lexus, we imagine this person is intelligent, and we wait for the wisdom she will impart.
You don’t pre-judge, you say. Let me see if I can set a trap for you. Two people went to church to pray. One was a Democrat the other was a Republican. Who said the better prayer? You think you know? Are you sure? Two people went to church to pray. One was an American, the other was an Iraqi. One was black, the other was white. One was gay, the other was straight. One was Catholic, the other was an Agnostic.
If you think you know who said the better prayer, you have fallen into the trap. You have exhibited prejudice because none of us know who will say the better prayer until we hear it, until we know who these people are. If you are caught in prejudice, admit it. But then ask God for the power to change.
Action and Reflection
October 28, 2007
Every parable has more than one meaning. We can find a new meaning to any parable by looking at it from a different angle or posing a new question to it. Take, for example, today’s parable from the gospel of Luke. A Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the temple to pray. When they are finished, the tax collector is justified but the Pharisee is not. This parable invites us to compare these two men and to decide why one is pleasing to God and the other is not. But in order to do that, we must first determine what is the difference between the two characters and how that difference might affect our lives.
The normal way in which we read this parable is to see one man as an example of pride and the other of humility. We then conclude that God prefers humility. This is certainly a valid understanding. But it is not the meaning. Today I would like to present another way of reading this parable. I would like to see these two men as examples of two essential qualities in our lives. The parable, then, would invite us to keep those two qualities correctly balanced.
The two qualities are action and reflection. The Pharisee is a man of action. As he prays before God, he points to the things that he has done. Those things are very good. He avoids sin; he fasts twice a week; he gives away one-tenth of his income to the poor. The tax collector, on the other hand, is a man of reflection. As he prays before God, he does not point to his good works, although we presume he has some. Instead he reflects on who he is and how he stands before God. The tax collector calls himself a sinner, but we do not need to conclude from this that he felt that he was unworthy or unlovable. Recognizing his sin was an honest admission of who he was. It was accompanied by a belief that God loved and accepted him anyway. By knowing that he was a sinner, he recognized his need for God’s mercy. He understood that his stance before God was one of both mercy and grace.
Now seen from this perspective, the parable tells us that it is important to act, but that our actions should flow from reflection. We should reflect upon who we are and who God is to us. Unless we reflect, whatever actions we perform, no matter how good they are, are not guaranteed to give us joy or to be pleasing in God’s sight.
Now this lesson is a very important one for us. Our society seems to value action above everything else. Our culture is always asking us, “What have you accomplished? What have you done for me lately? Show me the money.” As people living in the real world, we realize that we must act. We must commit ourselves to getting ahead, to reaching our goals, to turning a profit. All these actions are important. But unless our actions flow out of an awareness of who we are and what we value, our lives can become more and more superficial. We can discover that the successes we reach feel like empty victories.
The busier we are, the more important it is to reflect. The more that we have to do, the more important it is to ground ourselves in who we are and what we value. What happens when we take a moment and reflect on the deeper issues of life? We remember. We remember that we are a child of God. We remember that we are not perfect, but God loves us anyway and others put up with our faults. We remember to be thankful for life, for relationships, for our health, for our future. We remember that life is fragile, and that no moment should be taken for granted. Once we reflect on all these truths, then we are prepared to go forth and do the things which we must do.
If we do not take time to reflect, we end up doing more and more and living less and less. We commit ourselves to being the best parents we can be. So we give ourselves to buying things for our children, to teaching them what they believe, to driving them here and there. But unless we reflect, we are likely to miss the wonder of their growth and the sparkle in their eyes. We can join with our spouse in building a future together, in securing for ourselves financial stability or planning improvements to our home. But, without reflection, we can forget the attraction which first brought us together in marriage and what we need to do to keep that love alive. Without reflection, we can do one good project after another, we can help this person after that person, but we can forget what it is that makes all of this action important. We can lose sight of the fact that we are valuable, even before anything we do and in spite of any mistake we make.
Today’s parable calls us to act, to strive, to succeed. But first it calls us to reflect. It calls us to slow down, to take a moment, and to ground ourselves in God’s love for us and our love for others. In reflection we need to admit our faults, to appreciate our talents, and to never forget that God is with us always. Once we reflect on those fundamentals, then we are prepared, not only to succeed, but to succeed with excitement and joy. We are all called to be people of action, but first we must remember that we are children of God.
Learning to Bow Down
October 24, 2010
Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, was a man of faith. One day he asked his Rabbi, “Why is it that in biblical times God appeared to many people and many people saw him, but today hardly anyone sees God?” The Rabbi thought for awhile and then said “I think it’s because today there is not anyone around who can bow down low enough.”
Bowing down low is not a modern virtue. We dedicate ourselves to improving ourselves, to lifting ourselves, to encouraging a positive self-esteem. There is nothing wrong with feeling good about ourselves and about our achievements. But when it comes to our relationship to God, another stance is demanded. God is greater than us. So the only way we can come into God’s presence is by knowing our radical dependence on God’s mercy. Yes, we are good and worthwhile people, but in the presence of God, we must humble ourselves. We must bow down low so that a relationship with God can be formed.
This is what the tax collector does well in today’s Gospel. Standing apart, he does not lift his eyes to heaven, but simply prays for God’s mercy. Jesus says that his prayer is answered, and he goes home justified. But the same is not true of the Pharisee. Now the Pharisee, to be sure, was a good person—a very good person. His fasting and his tithing are all good works. But what the Pharisee does not understand is that none of these achievements can be the basis of a relationship with God. In order to be related to God, he must take the same stance as every other person including that of the tax collector. He must understand his radical dependence on God’s mercy. Knowing this truth is important for each one of us, because it is the only way that we can have our correct relationship with God. It also prepares us for what is to come.
Basil Hume was the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster England. In 1999 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Upon this news, he told his friend, Tom Crawley, “The first thing I thought when I realized that I had the cancer was that I wished for another chance—a chance to start over. I knew that if I had more time, I could be so much better a man, a monk, a bishop. But then I thought that when I die it would be a great advantage to come before God with nothing. Instead of being able to say, ‘Thank you God for making me such a good man, such a good monk, such a good bishop,’ it would be so much better that I could simply say, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ If I came to God empty handed, I then would be ready to receive what God would give.” The stance, then, of a disciple is not to come before the Lord with all of our blessings and achievements but rather to bow down before God and to be empty enough to let mercy in. This is why we must begin to cultivate in our lives an attitude of humility. Now it’s certainly right and just that we should be thankful for our health and for our energy– to be grateful that we can run and swim and play ball. These are all that come from God. But one day it is likely that we will find ourselves in a situation where our health is faded, where our joints no longer bend. In that moment, the important thing is that we will be able to open ourselves to receive God’s love. So even today, as we have our energy and our health, it is important to carry these gifts with humility realizing that they are ultimately not the most important thing.
It is right and just that we take pride in our talents and abilities—in our ability to work, to earn a living by speaking, selling, closing a case, or designing a project. All of these things are blessings from God. But a day will most likely come when our breath becomes shallow and our mind a little feeble. On that day, the only important thing for us to say is “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” So even today, as we use our talents and abilities, it is important to carry them with humility because they will not always be with us.
It is right for each one of us to be thankful—thankful for our possessions, for our talents, for our relationships, for our achievements—but it is also important to remember that a day will come when none of them will matter. This is why we should begin today to cultivate the habit of humility, to recognize today our complete dependence on God. In the end, that is the only thing that matters. “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.”