By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
October 24, 2010
Read: Luke 18:9-14
At first glance, this parable from Luke’s gospel is a simple story about prayer. One man prays an arrogant prayer and is blamed for his attitudes. The other prays humbly and is praised for so doing. Too often the unconscious response becomes ‘Thank God, we’re not like that Pharisee!’ But such a reaction demonstrates that we are indeed like him! The twist of the parable is that, in condemning the Pharisee because he’s such a prig, we condemn ourselves: “Lord, I thank Thee that I am not like this man!” And in this way, we prove to be just as guilty as he. And that’s the point – in judging others, we judge ourselves – just as Jesus taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not, that you not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”(Mt. 7:1-5)
The question is how can we keep from judging others? How can we move from judgment to compassion?
Here is the essential contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord’s benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.
It’s probably not an accident that this exchange takes place at the Temple. Because on the grounds of the Temple, you were always intimately aware of who you were, of what status you had, of what you could expect from God. There were, at the Temple, “insiders” and “outsiders,” and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood. But when Jesus dies all this changes. As the gospels report, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two (Luke 23:45), symbolically erasing all divisions of humanity before God. That act is prefigured here, as God justifies not the one favored by Temple law, but rather the one standing outside the Temple gate, and aware only of his utter need. (David Lose)
As soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as with Luke, we are doomed. Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side. This parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.
In her book, The Personal Touch, Terrie Williams tells about a letter that a grocery store clerk wrote to Ann Landers. The clerk talked about people who use food-stamps to buy “luxury” foods. She told about one woman who used food-stamps to buy a cake — and another woman who used food-stamps to buy a bag of shrimp. She labeled such people “lazy and wasteful” — lazy, I suppose, because they were on welfare — and wasteful, I suppose, because they were using food-stamps for cakes instead of bread — and shrimp instead of hamburger.
Ann Landers printed that letter, and sometime later devoted an entire column to letters she received in response. Among them were these:
One woman wrote: “I didn’t buy a cake, but I did buy a big bag of shrimp with food stamps. So what? My husband had been working at a plant for fifteen years when it shut down. The shrimp casserole I made was for our wedding anniversary dinner. It lasted three days. Perhaps the grocery clerk who criticized that woman would have a different view of life after walking a mile in my shoes.”
Another woman wrote: “I’m the woman who bought the $17 cake and paid for it with food stamps. I thought the check-out woman in the store would burn a hole through me with her eyes. What she didn’t know is the cake was for my little girl’s birthday. It will be her last. She has bone cancer and will probably be gone within six to eight months.”
The Sioux Indians have a prayer. It goes like this:
“Great Spirit, help me never to judge another
until I have walked in his moccasins for two weeks.”
Jesus puts it like this. That there are two great commandments: “The first is you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
If we truly love God, we will rejoice, not in our own goodness, but in God’s goodness.
Alex Haley, the author of Roots, had a picture in his office, showing a turtle sitting atop a fence. The picture was there to remind him of a lesson he learned long ago: “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he had some help.”
Says Haley, “Any time I start thinking, Wow, isn’t this marvelous what I’ve done! I look at that picture and remember how this turtle (as myself) got up on that post.” Let’s not forget that it is by God’s grace that we are where we are and who we are today.
But I think humility goes even further. It is the true acceptance and tolerance of the weaknesses and shortcomings of other human beings! True humility accepts another person’s weakness as much as our own!
A truly humble person neither views himself higher than others, nor does he regard himself lower, but is instead aware of a common bond with the other’s humanness–in having strengths and imperfections.
Think about this: “At the most fundamental level of our humanness, it is our weaknesses that make us alike, it is our strengths that make us different.”
No matter what our sin may be – self-righteousness, unworthiness, or any number of other things in between – there is mercy and pardon for all who call upon the Lord. The Good News is, when we know the extent of our own sinfulness and realize that, by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven, we can be just as forgiving of others. Amen.
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