A Tale of Two Sinners

Am I… handsome enough?  Does this robe make me look fat?  Am I having a bad hair day?  A no hair day?  Do I make as much money as my next-door neighbor?  Is my nose too big?  Is my middle too soft?  Am I naive?  Am I smart?  Am I loveable? 

I don’t usually say these things out loud.  In fact, it sort of embarrassed me just to write them down.  But these are the kinds of messages that sometimes play in my head.   You have your own messages that play in your head.  These messages play because we measure ourselves against others. No matter how much we accomplish or how much we can bench press or how much we have invested in the stock market, there is always someone who has more or can do more.

One way that we mitigate our feelings of inadequacy, then, is to compare ourselves to those who have less than we do.  We may not be the best or the brightest or the most beautiful, but at least we’re not like so-and-so.  And we say that in the nicest way: “There but for the grace of God go I…”

I was a shy boy and we moved a lot, which meant that I was always adjusting to a new school, never quite fitting in.  Because I was shy and studious and not that interested in sports, I was an easy target for bullying.  And I remember that I was often afraid and sad and angry. But every now and again, that pressure on me would be relieved when someone less cool than I became the object of ridicule. My classmates would leave me alone while they picked on someone else.  Sometimes I even joined them as a way to further deflect unwanted attention away from me and onto the other.  I’m ashamed of that now, of course. And I like to think that long ago I outgrew the need to prop myself up by tearing others down.  I like to think that, but if I am completely honest then I must confess that sometimes I still react like that frightened kid.  

Two men went up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray.  One of them was a Pharisee and the other was a Tax Collector.  Now, to the original audience who heard Jesus spin this tale, the Pharisee would have been presumed to be the good guy. Most folks thought of them as serving a noble purpose in society. In the midst of Roman military domination, it was the Pharisees who preserved the faith of Israel.  After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, it was the Pharisees who reinterpreted the faith for a post-Temple world.  If Jesus were telling this story today, he might substitute Pharisee for pastor or board member or denominational official or some other good person. 

The tax collector, on the other hand, is the natural villain of this story, a universally despised character.  Tax collectors made their living by collecting more tax than was actually due, and then pocketing the difference.  That was how they made their living and it was encouraged by the Romans who let them raise their own salaries in this way.  So let’s say that your annual tax bill to the Roman government was $5000.  And you had scrimped and saved to finally get that amount.  One day, the tax collector knocks on your door and presents you with a bill for $6000.  Now, you don’t have the extra $1000.  And you know that the tax collector is going pocket it.  It’s not fair, but there isn’t anything you can do about it if you want to avoid a debtor’s prison.  No wonder people hated them. 

So when Jesus began his story by saying that a Pharisee and a Tax collector went up to the Temple to pray, everyone in the audience that day would have assumed that they understood who the hero was and who the villain was.  But like lots of things with Jesus, there was a twist.

The Pharisee, in his gorgeous and flowing robes, was just settling in to his favorite spot when he spied the Tax Collector.  “What is he doing here?” he whispered to his buddy.  After staring for a while, he decided that he better get to his prayers.  And he used his prayers to verbalize thoughts that most of us only internalize.  “God, I thank you that I am not like some other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that tax collector over there.  I fast twice a week.  I give 10% of everything I make to the Temple.  I’m a good guy.” 

And in many ways, he was!  Everything he said he did was good and noble.  We shouldn’t steal or cheat on our spouses.  We should live sacrificial and generous lives.  But what we should never do is prop ourselves up by denigrating others. 

The tax collector, on the other hand, stood far off by himself.  He was hoping that in those shadows no one would recognize him.  And the tax collector was so laden with the weight of his sin that he couldn’t even look up.  Jesus said that he beat his breast, an action most often associated with women in the Ancient Near East. And he kept repeating “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!  God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 

Jesus concludes this parable by saying that the tax collector went home justified while the Pharisee did not, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  This is a common theme in Luke’s Gospel – the first last and the last first.  Biblical scholars refer to these kinds of Jesus statements as “Great Reversals” and they are at the heart of his teaching.  The Gospel is meant to turn the world upside down.

At first, this parable appears to be a simple morality tale: don’t judge yourself by judging others.  Be humble in your prayers and in your self-assessment. That sounds right.  But if you look at this parable a little closer, you will see that it is trickier than that.  It’s almost as if Jesus sets us up, which might be the point.  

In this Great Reversal tale, the Pharisee is a self-righteous jerk.  It’s easy to dislike him.  His so-called prayer was really just a litany of how pious he was. And haven’t we all learned how hard it is to stomach a fool who props himself up by tearing others down?  The tax collector, on the other hand, is a sweetheart!  It’s easy to like him.  He knew he needed to change and he threw himself on the mercy of God.  He doesn’t compare himself to anyone.  And so the obvious conclusion is that we should be more like the Tax Collector and a lot less like that phony Pharisee.   Right?

But in coming to that easy and logical conclusion, do you see what just happened?  We did to the Pharisee what the Pharisee did to the Tax Collector. We heard the Pharisee speak just once in this reading and from that one instance, we imagined that we knew exactly who he was and what was in his heart.  We vilified him and comfort ourselves with the thought that although we may not be perfect, at least we’re not like that Pharisee.  And in judging the Pharisee, we become the Pharisee.  

In this painful election cycle, it has been very easy for me to judge some of the candidates.  I have been aghast at the comments and rudeness, the lies and the manipulations.  We should be aghast.  But what we should not do; what we cannot do is prop ourselves up by easy comparisons to them.  We fool ourselves and excuse ourselves from the rigors of following Jesus by saying things like “compared to that politician, I’m not doing so bad!”  And then we make easy idols of our relative goodness. And that idolatry convinces us that we don’t really need to look deeper at our own prejudices and fears and hatreds because at least we’re not that guy!

But I am this guy.  I am James Campbell, a flawed, sometimes afraid, sometimes confused, sometimes arrogant sinner, who stands in the need of God’s grace and mercy, just as much or more that those I so conveniently judge.