Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
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It’s been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. 1
Consider the Pharisee for a moment. He is not the bad guy in this parable. If we write him off as the cartoon villain in the black cowboy hat we miss the entire point of the story. He is, in fact, a very good guy. He’s not a hypocrite: there is no reason whatsoever to believe what he says about himself is anything other than true. He really does pray the prayers and fast the fasts and give away his money. He really doesn’t cheat or steal or commit adultery. This is a pious, faithful person who’s put in a lot of time and discipline to cultivate some very real virtues. If you met him today on the streets of Berkeley, maybe he’d be the one who buys local, eats organic, runs marathons, and volunteers for a couple of admirable nonprofits, all while regularly donating to public radio.
It’s also not clear that the tax collector is particularly good in this parable. In his place and time, being a tax collector means earning your living by essentially shaking down your fellow countryfolk for money and sending a prescribed amount to the Roman colonial occupiers. The more you successfully shake loose from your fellow Jews, the more you get to keep. He’s something like an officially sanctioned small-time racketeer shaking down his neighbors for protection money. There’s a reason tax collectors were not particularly popular.
What does seem clear is that this tax collector has at least one moment of clarity as he stands before God. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Does that mean he reforms his extorting ways after he goes back down to his house redeemed? Maybe. Next Sunday we’ll hear not a parable but an actual episode from Jesus’ ministry about a tax collector named Zacchaeus who does just that. But in this parable we really have no idea. It seems that’s really not the point. In this story Jesus doesn’t seem to insist that the tax collector put his money where his mouth is and show some real change in order to get forgiven. It just happens, because he asks. It’s as if to say, of course: That’s what God does! That’s the kind of ridiculously generous God God is, willing to be taken advantage of, to forgive dozens and hundreds of times; the God of the Prodigal Son story who’s constantly looking for any opportunity at all to get back into relationship with a beloved child. The fact the tax collector gets God’s forgiveness is not actually the point of the parable. It’s not meant to be the surprise. The question instead is—how on earth did this Pharisee manage to get out of the temple without it?
I’m going to hazard a guess that there are two reasons. The first is that he doesn’t actually seem to see any need for it. He doesn’t ask for any grace or mercy because as far as he can see there’s nothing wrong with him, no need for self-examination, no room to grow. And the second is maybe even more significant: it’s that he defines himself not by who he is, but by who he isn’t. “I thank you, God, that I’m not like other people—all those thieves and rogues and adulterers—or even like, say, this tax collector over here.” Thank you, not for who I am, your beloved child, but for who I’m not.
The Lutheran pastor Duane Priebe has said, “Whenever we draw a line between ourselves and others, Jesus shows up on the other side of the line.” 2 God is in the business of breaking down dividing walls. The Pharisee is the kind of person who divides the world into two kinds of people. But in God’s eyes there’s only one kind, and you and I and the Pharisee and the tax collector are all in it. Beloved children. Flawed sinners, offered free and unlimited grace.
How often we’re tempted—how often our society almost forces us—to define ourselves over against others. In this bitterest and most divisive election season most of us have ever seen, one marked by an amazing lack of charity and humility, it’s ridiculously easy to write off those who disagree with us as unredeemable; to demonize and caricature and even to take pleasure in the “other side’s” missteps or bad behavior because it reinforces our narrative that “at least we’re not like them.”
It happens in other areas of our lives too. In academia, where I spend a lot of my vocational energy—as do many others in this parish on the doorstep of one of the great research universities of the world—there is no better way to get published and get prestige than by one-upping another person’s work. In workplace politics of all kinds. In our families, our parishes, our schools, whenever we find ourselves dividing into camps and identifying someone else as the other. And Christians do this no less than anyone else. How easy is it for many of us Episcopalians who are rightly proud of our tradition to begin congratulating ourselves and saying, “O God, I thank you that you have not made me like those fundamentalists, who are so rigid and exclusive. We would never divide the world into two kinds of people, like they do!”
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, Jesus says, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. I don’t think he means that these are permanent states and all of us are either in one group or the other. I think this is actually something more cyclical, and we all spend time in both sides of the equation. With the best of intentions, we try to be humble, to reflect on our need for God’s grace. Maybe we actually succeed. Then we notice, “Hey, I’m being humble!” And then before long we notice others who really don’t get it the way we do, thanks be to God. And then we need to open ourselves again to God’s purifying and healing grace. It’s available to the Pharisee, to the tax collector, to you and me.
Today we’ve come together into God’s house to pray. We confess our sins. We hear of God’s grace. And then in a few minutes we will be fed at this table with God’s very life. At this table there is only one kind of person, and we are fed without distinction, and healed without price.
1 Apparently first by American humorist Robert Benchley. See http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/02/07/two-classes/.
2 Professor emeritus at Wartburg Theological Seminary. Attribution in several places online.