22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 24, 2010
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. Luke 18:9-10
Oh, goody! The gospel text for this week starts out with the equivalent of a big red flag and a strong warning that might be interpreted like this: “Look out comfortable, righteous, self-reliant, pretty doggone good faithful person with a rather nasty habit of looking down your nose at folks. Here’s a story for you…” Forgive my extreme paraphrase of Jesus’ words, but you get the picture, right? It’s a story about two men engaged in an ordinary activity–prayer. One is a good, socially acceptable Pharisee, a man who prays formally and uses the acceptable religious language of his day. The other man is an unsavory tax collector who realizes his condition and falls on his face before God. So what’s the point? Is this story simply about prayer styles, or is there more involved?
Unfortunately, life is not cast in black and white. If we admit that we are like the sociably acceptable religious man, then we must accept our failing in judging the moral/spiritual condition of others. If we relate more to the tax collector, then we admit that we are abject sinners completely dependent upon the mercy of God. Neither character sounds like a particularly ideal example to emulate. Snob or sinner: take your pick.
Most of us strive to be decent; at least we try to be nice, welcoming, happy people, for the most part. We like to think our congregations are places that guests like to visit, and that once they spend a little time with us, they will want to add to our roster, our volunteer pool, and the offering plate. We’re good folks, right?
Unlike the Pharisee in the story, we don’t usually stand right out in the open and thank God that we are not among the dregs of society–robbers, crooks, adulterers, or thieving business people (like the tax collector). We may think these thoughts, and we may look down our nose at those who are not as “righteous” as we delude ourselves into thinking that we are, but we know how to put on a happy face and play nice. Yes, we know how to be nice and keep our distance.
We know how to play by the rules, to do what is required of us as good church folk, but we fool ourselves if we think we are righteous. We are simultaneously saint and sinner–not black, not white, but gray. We simply cannot be righteous on our own. Come on, admit it; have you ever judged anyone to be “less” than you? Have you ever looked at someone who enters your house of worship and thought, “Hmmmm…they don’t look like they really belong here.”
Unfortunately, there are all too often limits to our welcoming, caps on our mission dollars, and closed doors and ears where there should be open ones. We are blind to these behaviors, seeing only what we want to see, seeing only the image we want to see of ourselves and others. We ignore the sinner-self crouching in the shadows. This is too painful an image to consider, too much a reminder of our shortcomings. It is a reminder that the world is truly rendered in shades of gray rather than absolutes of black and white.
The truth is this: we are both the Pharisee and the sinner. We cannot do this thing called life on our own, not do it and really live, not truly be alive in the way that God intends for us to be alive. No, we inhabit a world of grays, of muddled shadows and dirt and clouds. There is goodness in this gray area, if we learn to embrace it. If we can simply acknowledge that we do not do this on our own, that we cannot do this on our own and that we need Jesus in order to truly be ourselves, then we find the goodness in life’s gray areas.
As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself” (Luke 18:14b). By letting go, by admitting that we really are nothing without the mercy of God, we become so much more. We become stewards of the gospel, bearers of the story, able to reflect the colors of grace in all their vivid hues.
Photo by flickr used under a Creative Commons License. Thanks!