When I try to picture the scene of today’s gospel, I see featured, two men standing in a synagogue. There will be others there, of course. Other worshipers. Jesus. Some of his disciples. Us.
One of the men is tall. At least he stands as if he were. He stands with his shoulders held back, his chin raised. He is wearing a toga-robe sort of affair that I think of when I try to dress men from the time of Christ.
The other man is short. Or maybe he just appears that way. His head is bowed, his shoulders not proudly held back, but humbly hunched. His toga-robe sort of affair is not as noticeable as the other man’s. In fact, he blends more into the background, while the taller-looking man stands out.
The taller of the two is the Pharisee, a religious man who feels a real zeal for the law -- and applies it to every aspect of his daily life. He worships correctly at the correct times. He tithes. He fasts as is prescribed. He follows the law to the letter.
The other man, the shorter one, is a tax collector, a publican as he is called in the King James version of the Bible. His job for the hated Roman government is to collect the taxes that build roads, to provide water and to distribute food. It makes me think of a hate-love relationship. Yes, they soak me for taxes. But we have good roads to travel on, aqueducts to bring in sufficient water, and surplus food to feed the hungry.
Our publican is not a bureaucrat; he’s not on a government salary. Instead he is a private contractor who agrees to raise X amount of money for the government. To make a living he has to raise more than the government demands to cover his own salary. His kind isn’t popular in Judea.
In today’s parable these two men stand worshiping, and since they are doing it in the same space, we can observe them both and compare them. Specifically I would like to compare the way they view themselves. Let’s start with the tax collector.
Jesus holds him up to us as a good example. It’s his humility that Jesus wants us to see. The man stands apart from the others, not because he wants to be conspicuous, but because he doesn’t feel himself worthy to join the pious. He does not, like the Pharisee, compare himself to thieves, rogues, or adulterers – or, for that matter, to the Pharisee. He does not proclaim to God the wonderful things he has done, piously thanking God for making him such a good guy.
On the contrary, he stands there beating his breast, eyes downcast, begging God for mercy. He terms himself a sinner. On what grounds? How does he judge himself? What’s the standard he uses to measure himself? I believe he compares himself to the image in which he was created. Just as we might do. When God created man, it was in God’s own image. But we have fallen far short of that image, and are sinners. The publican, that tax collector, recognizes this shortcoming. He is, pure and simple, a sinner. I think he would consider himself a sinner even if he were not thought a “bad guy” by his society because he compares himself to the image in which God created him.
It struck me when I was writing this that it’s so easy to come up with examples of Pharisees. I certainly didn’t have to go far afield to find them. But when I got to the tax collector, examples were harder to come by. For one thing, if I were as humble as the tax collector and used it as an example, then I wouldn’t be humble,
Let’s look more closely at the Pharisee. There he stands, thanking God that he is not like other people, several of whom he names, even pointing out the tax collector who is praying some distance away.
It almost embarrasses me to watch him make these comparisons. I think as a child my middle name might have been not Anne but Pharisee. First grade, and our little school didn’t have a cafeteria – or if it did, we couldn’t afford hot lunch. I really don’t remember. What I do remember is that my lunch was always packed in a brown paper bag. Everybody else had a lunch box. Mother told me every time I whined (and that was pretty often) that I wasn’t everybody else. I was Gretchen. The brown paper bag really didn’t do me any harm. What hurt me was comparing myself to the other kids.
By high school a few things had changed, but I still used a brown paper bag for my lunch. However, it no longer embarrassed me. We were still not economically well-off, though, and by making other comparisons, I kept myself uncomfortably self-conscious, and, I realize now, self-righteous.
There were over 2000 kids in the high school I graduated from, and I was aware that so many girls had more and nicer clothes than I did. I noticed the other girls’ more attractive hairstyles. I thought a lot about how much more sophisticated other girls were. But at the same time, I was an excellent student, not because I was necessarily very smart, but because I studied hard; and I was secretly, snottily, proud of being in the Honors English class.
There were only 20 of us in that class – the top twenty English students out of our class of 435. About 15 of the twenty were rich kids from Palos Verdes. They drove to school in expensive cars – like the kids of “Beverly Hills 90210” – and they seemed to achieve their grades with no effort. They wore elegant – well, up-to-date – stylish -- clothes and held all the ASB offices. I graduated with what I felt were the best of them – I was fourth in that class of 435.
Then we went off to college. A significant number of those kids flunked out the first year; everything had come so easily to them before that they didn’t know how to buckle down, how to focus on their work, how to study hard. I, on the other hand, had had to work hard to achieve my grades, and that ability served me well in college. Dean’s List the first semester (and all the succeeding semesters). Did I feel smug! Rather like the Pharisee…
Now. Back to the tax collector. Let’s look again at the good example Jesus wants us to observe. We see him beat his breast. We hear him proclaim himself a sinner. What does he do in his everyday life when he’s away from the synagogue? (Besides collect taxes.) Does he do good works? Maybe. Does he fast as often as the Pharisee? Maybe. Does he tithe? Maybe. He obviously attends synagogue. He stands away from the others, not making a public show of his worship. He’s humble, but he doesn’t flaunt his humility, which appears to be genuine. Jesus notes that. “I 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” [Luke 18:14].
The Pharisee, unlike the tax collector, is very sure of himself. He proclaims the good that he has done. He reminds me of that song “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble/ When you’re perfect in every way/ I can’t wait to look in the mirror/ ‘Cause I get better looking each day.” He fasts and tithes and attends the synagogue according to the letter of the law.
Letter of the law. That takes me back to the fourth grade, a time in my life when getting clean horrified me. I remember running the bathtub half-full of water and standing beside it, swishing the washcloth around in the water to make it sound like I was taking a bath. I’d hold the washcloth between two fingers so that my hand wouldn’t get wet. I’d dribble water over the soap so it would get wet. The only hard part was pulling the plug. I actually had to put my hand into the water to pull it. Ugh. That method worked until Mother got a close look at my dirty ankles one day – but that’s a story for another sermon.
Mostly I was a painstakingly honest child. But I was honest in letter, rather than in spirit. My fourth-grade teacher (Mrs. Courson) insisted that we be perfect Pharisees. Girls were to be ladies. Sashes tied in neat bows. Mine I often ripped off when I bailed out of the swings. In spite of the fact that Mother braided my hair ribbon into my braid, I’d often manage to shake one loose. Mrs. Courson expected demure behavior. I was a tomboy, for heaven’s sake! She criticized my running, because I kicked up my heels, “like a mule,” she said. We could not say darn or heck or gosh because those words were merely substitutes for curse words. Every day she inspected our fingernails (so I had to clean them even if I didn’t bathe), and she asked if we had brushed our teeth.
Fortunately for me, she didn’t inspect them. Now I knew that the verb “to brush” could mean to come into contact with quickly and lightly. So I had plenty of time on the mile and a half walk to the bus stop to brush my finger across my two front teeth. I was always careful to touch both of them so that I could honestly say, “Yes, Ma’am, I brushed my teeth.” Plural. My conscience didn’t even bother me. The Pharisee of the parable would probably have been proud of me.
And by the way, I corresponded with Mrs. Courson up until the time she died in her 90’s. We exchanged letters through my college years, through my first marriage, and into my marriage to Karl and the births of my two children. I remember that she wasn’t happy with my working as a bartender for a couple of years. She said I was casting my pearls before swine.
Jesus tells his parable to men like the Pharisee, to people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Hopefully, maybe, the story encouraged Pharisee types to become humble people who would be exalted in the end.
So how do we be humble? If we run around saying, “I’m humble, I’m so humble,” we aren’t. I remember a freshman class in a school where I taught some years ago (many years ago, now that I think about it!). They came into our building with a reputation of being an extremely difficult group to handle. I wanted them to have what we call today a good self-image, so as one of our first assignments, I asked them to write an essay explaining why they were worthwhile people.
They rebelled. They had no intention of “bragging.” It wasn’t proper. What I needed them to understand was that I didn’t want brag. I just wanted facts. Self-assessment isn’t the same as bragging. Once they had a grasp of their abilities and talents, I hoped that they would feel worthwhile enough to use those talents constructively in school. To my delight, it worked.
We all can do what they did, although I didn’t preach to those kids about comparing themselves to the image in which God created them as I think the tax collector was doing.
It’s OK to be pleased with our successes. If we dwell only on our failures, as we see the tax collector doing, we’ll end up being terrible evangelists. Who is going to accept the religion of sniveling whiners who always put themselves down?
Rather let us say, for example, I am (or I was) a good teacher—or good mother—or good father—or good cook—or good nurse—or good leader—or good electrician—or good student—or good kid—but not on my own steam only. Without God’s help, without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, without the gifts God has given me, I wouldn’t have been, I wouldn’t be, that good teacher—or good cook—or good leader—or good student—or good parent. I’m grateful to God for the gifts He has given me. I feel called upon to keep track of what I think God wants me to do, of what his image for me is. I think that’s the lesson the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee can leave with us.