He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 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.”
This sermon is the 2nd in a 4 part series on the Art of Protest
"Jesus told this parable to a specific audience: "...some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt." And the moral of the story is, be humble; don't be full of yourself or puff yourself up, of think that what you do is all that. 'Be like the tax collector. Admit you are messed up! Beat your breast! Cry out in honest humility to the God of mercy! And you will be justified!'
And part of that is true. We should be humble, and sincere, and not self promoting in our prayers, or in our lives. Yet the minute we start saying, "I want to be more like the tax collector," we begin the climb up the ladder of the Pharisee- making sure we are doing what's necessary to win God's approval- checking off lists and examining our prayers to make sure they are sincere enough; "have I beat my breast hard enough this time? Am I sincere enough in my prayers?- I don't know, let's check around at other and see how we are doing-' and then we get into that famous comparison game we love so much. "I thank God I am not more like other people, or even like that Pharisee over there." And it's easy to do Pharisees... checking our behavior is a familiar trap. Am I humble enough, praying enough, giving enough... more than someone else, that is.
The problem is, that kind of thinking makes God into a God who can be manipulated by what we do; by human behavior, human works. And once you think about the ramifications of of a God who justifies us based on what we do, well, I don't want to think about it. It would mean we see God as a wrathful, weak God- a God who punishes us when we step out of line, and rewards us when we do well. In fact, we've set God up to be like the unjust judge from last weeks parable- one who can be worn down by our continually coming and finally relents and helps us!
So what could Jesus have been trying to illustrate through this parable? Let's take a closer look at the players to see if we can find out.
The Pharisee was a leader in religious and state life; he was, as the judge was last week, part of the religious elite. He directly and indirectly benefited from the oppression of the non-elite. He was a part of, and represented, the systems of power in first century Judaism. Jesus spoke countless times about the corruption of the systems, and how they need to be broken down. He was all about liberation, caring for the poor and disenfranchised, the ones without, the least of these. Especially in the Gospel of Luke we see Jesus turn the tables of the system upside down, speaking against Pharisees, and Lawyers and Scribes.
The Pharisee was following the rules of the Torah. And I believe he was sincere in his prayer- "I've done x,y,and z that is listed right here.' And that in it self is not a bad thing. Except that he was blind to the fact that the system was corrupt. He represents the way in which we look at our sin as simply individual wrongs- that, if we just worry about our own stuff, we are ok - and we are OK with God- and we can remain blind to systemic corruption, racism, elitism, and our part in it. It's the way many white people (because I can only speak for white people) handle racial prejudice. "If I'm nice to everyone, I've done my part. I've loved my black neighbor. Thank God I'm not like other people- I'm not going around shooting people, or hunting black men and boys- I give regularly to NAACP and I go to prayer vigils after every shooting." It is easy for white people to be in denial of our privilege and participation in systemic racism when “racism” is viewed primarily or solely as the individual sin of racial prejudice. To do so, of course, is to miss the core of racism as a power and principality, a systemic evil. White racism is better understood as the way in which racial prejudice infected and diseased all white institutions for 400 years. It is a systemic sin that white people will remain blind to as long as racism is conflated to the individual sin of racial prejudice. The sin of the Pharisee goes far beyond self-righteousness. It involves the way in which righteousness itself is viewed on an individualistic level, thus masking the way that the system... is set-up to (violently) punish individual sins. The Pharisee, as a leader in a system..., is helping to maintain the systemic evil by looking at sin as amd individual problem only and not systemic. In other words, the primary sin of systemic racism is that is keeps us all focused on individualistic sins, our individual behavior, so that we continue to miss the systemic evil. ((1) italics are my paraphrase)
But let's take a look at the tax collector. Tax collectors were among the most corrupt of society. They squeezed money out of people unjustly, they took kickbacks, skimmed off the top- and everyone knew it. But the tax collector, corrupt as he was, didn't miss the bigger picture. I'm a sinner. No excuses. No blinders. No filters. He not only took responsibility for his individual sin, he called himself a sinner- one of many in the system of corruption and power. He is willing to pour everything out in his prayer because he knows God as a God of forgiveness- not a God who can be manipulated or swayed by our words or behavior. The is the God Jesus came to illustrate- that God is a God of compassion. His faith in that God is what justified him.
This is the same faith Paul talks about in his letters to the Romans and Ephesians and so on- that we are justified by faith, apart from works, that no one should boast. And that this faith is not something we can create, or decide to have, or take, or give ourselves- it's a gift from God. The tax collector simply recognizes that gift.
But be warned. Once you recognize that gift- once that kind of faith starts seeping into your being, it's not a warm fuzzy comfortable feeling that comes over you. It's an anger. It's a hot, burning fire that begins to burn deep inside of you because you realize that you will never be "ok" again, as long as there are people being crushed and killed by a system that you, up until now, have been complicit in maintaining. And that fire won't be put out- and it makes you do things that you never pictured yourself doing before- like getting involved with civil rights organizations, or calling or writing letters to government, or working in a homeless shelter, on the streets with gang members, or with restorative justice programs, or with fair share housing and black lives matter- and before you know it, you find yourself sitting in a church with a bunch of activists and protesters- people who aren't going to be turned around by powers and principalities and systems of oppression and evil. People who refuse to take no for an answer when it comes to issues fairness and equity- people who say no to discrimination and gender bias and racial jokes. and slurs. You'll find yourself turning into one of those people... one of those bleeding heart progressives who actually live out the teachings of Christ, ones who protest the way the world works and protect the world from injustice... one of those CHRISTIANS! God help us...