10/23/16 Good People, Luke 18:9-14
First Lesson: Psalm 51:1-14
Second Lesson: Luke 18:9-14
Rick McClatchy, the director of CBF of Texas, tells a story about years ago being a young man driving around Dallas. You see, he grew up in a small town in West Texas, where folks would all wave at each other as they drove by, and so at first he didn’t think anything of it as he was cruising down the street of this big city and the folks driving the cars that were passing him were waving at him. He was just waving back until he saw a car coming straight at him down the lane, and it finally occurred to him that he was driving down the wrong way down a one-way street. We got out of the way and back to going the right direction down the street.
He says that’s the tricky thing about being wrong: it feels like being right.
This Pharisee comes to the temple to pray, just as he should, and he stands over by himself—though the Greek here isn’t so clear. We could read it to say he’s “standing by himself” and prays, or that he stands and “prays to himself.” Both could be true, and either way, he is an important character in these prayers.
He prays, God, thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector over here. I fast twice a week; I tithe—I’m a good person.
And he’s right.
Now, there are obvious shortcomings to this prayer, which we’ll get to in a moment. But we can’t rush past the fact that by some very good definitions, this Pharisee is a good person. He’s not a thief—although in a post-Ocean’s Eleven world, that word probably isn't as damning as it’s meant to be. The King James translated it “extortioner”—that’s something with teeth. “Crook” is another option. He’s not a crook, he’s honest in his business life—a good thing. He’s not a rogue—an “evildoer” as some have it—another good thing. He’s not committed adultery, which speaks for itself. He fasts twice a week just like a good Jew was supposed to do, and he tithes, God bless him.
By so many, many accounts, this is a good person. A religious person, a faithful person. We have to be able to appreciate this for the parable to make the sense we need it to—we have to be able to appreciate that this man has done a lot of things right, and even admirably. By so many definitions he is living life well and we should applaud that. We can’t, as I saw it put this week, walk away from the parable saying, “God, thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee.” (1) Right? We would have learned nothing.
And yet something is missing. He feels like her’s right, but…
As Alan Culpepper puts it, “The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble.” (2)
Thank God I’m not like other people, he begins, and no matter how much we should appreciate the very good life he’s led, all that is tainted when we know his heart. And the truth is, for me at least—I try not to ever speak for you—the truth is for me that I know his heart better than I’d like to admit.
Thank God I’m not like other people.
Thank God I’m not like one of those Trump supporters.
Thank God I’m not with her.
Thank God I’m not with either of those scoundrels or their parties!
Thank God I’m not a freeloader—I work for my living.
Thank God I’m not like those poor unenlightened folks; I’m spiritually mature.
Should we go on?
We could all fill in the blank here, couldn’t we? Thank God I’m not like those other people, he says, and then honing in his contempt, Thank God I’m not like that tax collector over there. He feels like he’s right.
Tax collectors, like Pharisees, are common characters in the gospels, especially in Luke. And they were controversial figures in first century Palestine: Jews who collaborated with Rome to enforce their oppressive system of taxation, but also profited from it. They didn’t merely collect for the Romans but were known to take more off the top for themselves—Rome even encouraged this; what better way to build loyalty? They were traitors, and thus were unwelcome among their people, both socially and spiritually—in the temple and synagogues.
And it’s hard to come up with a modern day reference point. The populist in me is tempted to say the Wall Street banker types responsible for the financial collapse, but that’s not quite it. And besides, I would imagine their churches gladly welcomed them and their checkbooks. The important thing is that we can’t fall into the trap of romanticizing this tax collector, because he has done real wrongs—we have to appreciate that, too, for this parable to make the sense we need it to make.
And yet there he is, standing far off, unable even to look up to his creator, but beating on his chest in anguish, and praying to God: Be merciful on me, a sinner! The Pharisee, as we said, had enough religion to be virtuous but not enough to be humble. The tax collector perhaps had enough to be humble, but not enough to be virtuous. And yet when it come down to it, it’s this one, the humble but not virtuous one, whom Jesus says went home “justified,” or to put it in more familiar terms, he’s the one who went home “right with God.” Now how long that lasted, how long he stayed right with God—we don’t know. If he went from there to his office and right back to fleecing people of their money, handing folks over to the Romans…
But all the same, in that moment....
What do we do with this?
This is not an either/or situation: be like this one; don’t be like the other. It’s not that simple. Of course the goal, the hope, the dream is to be both virtuous and humble—of course this is true. Of course it is. We can’t take the easy way out and say that God doesn’t really care if we’re honest in out business practices, or don’t do evil things or don’t cheat on our spouse or don’t pray or worship or give generously, so long as we’re humble about it. This is a strange dynamic in contemporary culture where very little is sacred any more and the first duty is to “the self,” which is that we downplay the importance of these ho-hum, out-of-touch, basic areas of morality—but that’s not how it works. Virtue is still a virtue.
But even with this, Jesus says the greater threat to us good, honest, hard-working, religious types is to make another deal with ourselves, the one where we think so long as we can check these other boxes, we’re allow to take comfort and satisfaction in knowing we’re right. This is the danger that Jesus is concerned with most. Of course, anyone can be self-righteous. But it’s only us good religious folks that baptize it and all it grace.
Isn’t this the great lie we tell ourselves? That I’m right and so everyone else must just be different degrees of wrong. And this assurance of being right can build on itself until we’re suddenly living in this elaborate world we’ve imagined for ourselves—we have the Philosopher’s Stone, the magic wand, the skeleton key for life, where our point of view is the correct one for every conceivable situation—and how convincing it is; so air-tight, so self-confirming, this belief, this faith, in being right. It’s intoxicating. I heard it said somewhere recently that Jesus never called us to be right; he called us to be faithful.
This world we build for ourselves is so convincing that it’s almost impossible to see through it, short of a car coming straight at you. But eventually, those cars do come in life:
success that isn’t what you were promised it would be
These moments of crisis will come, for us and the people we love. And our first hope, of course, is to avoid them, to make it through unscathed, but I wonder if the better hope is to survive them.
And maybe this is the dividing line in life: those who’ve managed to avoid—and God bless them—and those who have somehow survived. This, I think, may be the most important difference between that Pharisee and and the tax collector. One has avoided, and the other has survived—or is in the middle of surviving. And if you’re among those who have managed to survive, you know that this doesn’t mean you’ve won—surviving is different from winning. In fact, surviving, coming out on the other side, means understanding that there are no winners and losers. Because it turns out there is no game. There is no game.
Ever since it was announced that Bob Dylan is the world’s newest Nobel Laureate, having one the Prize for Literature--that is if he actually accepts it. You may have seen that the committee has bee trying to get in touch with him but he won't call them back--proving that if there's one thing cooler than winning a Nobel Prize it's standing up the committee trying to give it to you!
But since it was announced that he would be offered this honor, I’ve found myself revisiting his catalogue. There aren’t many people I know of who speak to all the complexities and paradoxes and contradictions and absurdities of our humanity and though he may not have put it in these terms, our faith. Audrey and I have even been playing a bunch of Dylan around the house. Our boys loved dancing to Maggie’s Farm and Subterranean Homesick Blues, which is fine for now since they aren't old enough to understand the words.
But there are plenty of other songs that I can’t wait for them to be old enough to understand. One of them is his ballad, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, a haunting song, that’s written in a “question and answer” form:
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains,
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.
And it continues like this for several verses, with the poet, this blue-eyed boy, describing all the places he’s been, what he’s seen and heard, and who’s he’s met—each line almost containing a song in itself—and Dylan said as much, he said that each line of the song was the start of a song he “never thought he’d have time to write.” (3)
I saw a newborn baby with wolves all around it.
I saw a ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I met a young girl she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love,
I met another man who was wounded with hatred.
Until finally he ends with this last verse:
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’, he answers, and goes on to describe this terrible, beautiful world he’s seen and survived, but is not calling him back with a different purpose:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Where have you been?
What have you seen?
What have you heard, and who have you met?
And what will you do, now?
(1) Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Series. 211
(2) R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 343