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.”
God in the Smallest Things
October 27, 2013
Pope Francis has been causing quite a stir in Rome. This is not only by his teaching and administration, but also because of his lifestyle. Instead of residing in the Papal Palace, he stays in an apartment in the Vatican guest house and eats in the cafeteria with the other people who stay there. Instead of wearing papal gowns and red velvet slippers, he sticks to the simple white cassock and walks around in work shoes. Instead of being chauffeured in a limousine, he packs up his briefcase every morning and he walks the streets of Vatican City to his office.
Now, these choices that the Pope has made certainly send a message of simplicity and humility to the world. But that is not why he chose to make them. In a recent interview, the Pope stated that he chose to live this way for his own benefit. He quoted a line from St. Ignatius of Loyola who said, “God is not constrained by the biggest things but contained in the smallest things.”
The pope quoted this line to reveal an important truth. He lives in the way he does in order to see God. There is nothing wrong with living in the Papal Palace but it is harder to see God there. This is because when we are in the presence of the biggest things, we can think that they are about us. There is nothing wrong with being served breakfast in the papal dining room, but you miss the way that God can speak to you in conversation with others in the cafeteria line and in the discussion of what they plan to do this day with their lives. The Pope’s lifestyle is not so much against wealth as it is against isolation. He knows that God is to be found in the smallest things, in the connection that we have to one another in the ordinary routines of daily life.
This is something that the Pharisee in the gospel does not see. He rightly is proud of his accomplishments. It is a good thing that he is honest, that he fasts twice a week and gives one-tenth of his earnings to the poor. But instead of using these big things to join himself to others, he uses them to separate himself from others. Somehow he thinks that he is going to be better off by surrounding himself with his accomplishments than by identifying with the weakness and sinfulness that he shares with others.
The tax collector does not make this mistake. He knows who he is. He knows that he is weak and fragile. He asks for God’s mercy. Therefore, he goes home justified, right with God, because he is able to see God in the smallest things, in the weak things, in the broken things. That is where God’s presence is most clear.
So it is a good thing if at school you have a group of friends who support you and you enjoy. It is a good thing if you are popular on campus. But it is when you speak to someone outside your group of friends, it is when you say good morning to someone who is less popular than you are, that God is most likely to speak to you and reveal God’s presence. Parents have important responsibilities to earn money, to make sure that schedules are followed, to make decisions on family life. But it is when you stop to ask your six-year-old what she is coloring or ask your teenage son what went on in school today, that you are most likely to discover God in your family life. We all look forward to having a nice dinner with friends or relaxing in front of the television at night. But it is when we decide that we are going to visit someone who is sick or grieving or help someone who is struggling or alone, that we are most likely to see God. There is nothing wrong with living in a papal palace or wearing expensive shoes but those things divide us rather than unite us. There is nothing wrong with being proud of the things that you have accomplished but there can be so much of you in them that you do not see where God is.
“God is not constrained by the biggest things but is contained in the smallest things.” Today’s gospel then calls us to be attentive to the smallest, most ordinary, weakest things in our lives and to reach out to those who need us and who struggle. By doing this, we not only help others, but we also become able to find God in them.
Making a Difference
October 23, 2016
One word can change the meaning of a parable, and that is the case in today’s gospel. But before we look at the word, let us watch as the parable unfolds. Two people go up to the temple area. One was a Pharisee; the other a tax collector. Now the first thing to notice is that these are two very different people. The Pharisee is a good, religious person, perhaps excessively so. He fasts twice a week. He gives one-tenth of his income to the poor even though it was not required of him by the law. The tax collector, on the other hand, was a part of a profession that was the most hated and corrupt in the ancient world. He collected taxes for the Roman Empire. He would easily be seen by his fellow Jews as a traitor and a crook. No one would question the right of the Pharisee to be in the temple. He belonged there as a religious Jew. But people would be surprised to see the tax collector where he was. They could easily say, “What is this man doing in God’s house?”
So we have two very different people in the temple. They both pray. And Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “This one, the tax collector, goes home justified, not the other, not the Pharisee.” Why does Jesus make that statement? Why would the tax collector be seen to be pleasing in God’s sight, but not the Pharisee? Many people have suggested ways to interpret of Jesus’ saying. But here’s where the one word I mentioned earlier comes into play. If we change one word in today’s parable, a clear and life-giving message emerges. And that one word is the word “not.” Because in Greek, the word which our translation renders as “not” can also be translated “because of.” If we use that understanding, then Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “This man, the tax collector, returned home justified because of the other, because of the Pharisee.”
With one word, the meaning of the parable shifts. Now it is saying that the goodness of the Pharisee helps the tax collector. Now it is saying that the religious commitment of the Pharisee assists the tax collector in being pleasing in God’s sight. And the parable is saying to us that our faith, our good works, our prayers are not simply for ourselves. They can make a difference in the lives of others, even in the lives of those who do not seem open to God’s grace. We, after all, are the Pharisees. We are religious people who come to church regularly, who try to follow the teaching of Jesus. Today’s parable is saying that the efforts we make, the faith we express in this place can change the lives of others, others who would never come to this place. What a powerful and positive message. Our faith, our good works, our prayer have power.
So who should we pray for? Perhaps there is a member of your family or close friend who is struggling, struggling greatly, but that person has no faith in God. You can ask God to bring that person to happiness and peace. You can ask God to be close to that person, even though that person is not close to God.
Certainly there are people in our cities who are struggling with poverty and drugs, people we don’t know, and maybe people without an explicit faith. We can allow our faith to compensate for their lack of faith. We can ask God to lead them to life.
All of us are aware of how much anger, hatred, and prejudice have been a part of our political campaigning this year. As people of faith, we try to follow Jesus’ teaching of forgiving our enemy and working for justice. We can trust that our religious commitment can help to soften the heart and enlighten the minds of our fellow citizens, even though our fellow citizens might not be people of faith.
Not all people are religious, not all people are like us and the Pharisee. But today’s gospel tells us that our faith, our good works, and our prayer can make a difference in the lives of others. Our commitment to God can open hearts that are broken and weak to the power of God’s grace.
October 27, 2019
Today’s gospel parable is not really about Pharisees and tax collectors. It’s about God. It poses the question, what is required for God to hear our prayer? What do we have to do in order to obtain God’s favor? The parable answers: not that much. For whenever we turn to God and ask for mercy, mercy will be given. The parable delivers us this message through two characters, a Pharisee and a tax collector. It is very important for us to understand who these characters are. We generally have a negative view of Pharisees because they are always arguing with Jesus in the gospel. But to a first century Jew, a Pharisee would universally be seen as a good religious person worthy of respect. This description fits the Pharisee in today’s gospel. He takes his position in God’s house and speaks to God as a friend. He thanks God that he has not fallen into serious sin such as greed or adultery. He takes his faith seriously. He fasts twice a week and he gives one tenth of his income to the temple and to the poor. This Pharisee is a good religious person who is at home in God’s house. The same cannot be said of the tax collector. He was a collaborator with the Romans. He made his living by oppressing his own people. Almost every Jew would rightly see this tax collector as a criminal. When he comes to pray, unlike the Pharisee, he has no good works to point to. He does not fast or tithe. He does not feel at home in God’s house. He stands off at a distance. The only thing that he can say is that he is a sinner, and that one true statement is his only prayer.
The surprise of the parable is that God accepts the prayer of the tax collector. The parable ends by saying that the tax collector went home justified, that means he was accepted by God. Now sometimes we miss this because in our translation it goes on to says that the tax collector was justified, not the Pharisee. But the Greek word for “not” can also be translated, “along with.” I think this translation brings a deeper meaning to the parable. So that the last line would say that the tax collector goes home justified along with the Pharisee. You see Jesus’ hearers would automatically presume that the Pharisee would go home justified, and he does. But the surprise is that the tax collector also goes home justified, right along with him.
The challenge to us, of course, is that we are the Pharisee. We are good religious people who come to church regularly, who try to avoid serious sin, who share our wealth with the church and with the poor. We take our faith seriously and God loves us for our faith and generosity. We expect that when we leave church, we will go home justified, accepted by God. And we do. But this parable tells us that we are not the only ones. There people are in our world who are comparable to the tax collector, people who are non-religious and perhaps not even that good, sex offenders, white collar criminals, atheists, people who are motivated by greed or violence. This parable says that all any of them need do is admit, “I am in need, I am a sinner,” and God will accept them and justify them.
Now don’t get me wrong. God wants us to be religious. God wants us to hear the gospel, live it, and share it with others. But this parable tells us that the fact that we take our faith seriously does not mean that we have a monopoly on God’s love. The tax collectors of our world, the non-religious, the compromised, only have to recognize that they need mercy, and mercy will be given. They will go home justified, accepted by God—right along with us.