Jeremiah 14.7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84.1-7; 2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14
Problem is, if all we learn from this story is to be like this character and not that character then suddenly we are standing before God praying “Lord, we thank you that we are not like the other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self-righteous, and even like those Pharisees.” We’re right back at the beginning.
This parable absolutely needs a much closer reading. The fact that it’s a parable in the first place tells us that this story would have been shocking to it’s original hearers. To Jesus’ audience, the Pharisees weren’t villains, they were dedicated to observing the law, they were respected and honored. The Pharisees were the good guys. AND, the Pharisee in this story has gone above and beyond the letter of the law. He fasts twice a week instead of just once (as the law called for), he tithes on everything he gets, not just food and animals (again, as the law called for).
The tax collector, on the other hand, would have most definitely been the ‘bad guy.’ Tax collectors were Jewish people working for their oppressors, for the Roman Empire. The Romans required a certain amount of tax to be turned in, but anything extra these men made they were welcome to keep for themselves. Because of their work, they were considered traitors and religiously unclean. The fact that the tax collector went home justified would have been cringe-worthy to the original hearers.
The setting of the temple is important as well, because in Jesus’ time where a person was allowed within the temple are clearly indicated their ‘place’ in society. The temple had rules related to insiders and outsiders which meant it was clear that these two men would be standing so far apart. And so perhaps Jesus’ little parable is saying something about that. But Jesus’ stance on this subject of who is in and who is out will get much louder at the end of the book of Luke, when at the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain of the temple is torn in two, a great symbol of the removal of division between God and humanity. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection changes everything, though Jesus, God removes boundaries.
The sadness in this parable to me is not in either of these men, to me it is in the space between them. There were systems in place within the temple that separated them. But also, the Pharisee’s posture before God, one of inward focus and works righteousness, is connected to his contempt for the tax collector. When our focus is inward, when are convinced the most important part of our faith is what we DO, then it isn’t long before we find ourselves judging others who don’t stack up to our hard work.
The tragedy of the space between these two men is alive and well in our world today. Chances are, your home is right next to other homes in the same price range as yours, making you neighbors with people with the same socio-economic status as you, but likely similar in other ways. How often do we walk past those on the street in need doing everything we can to avoid eye contact? Where do we sit when we hop on public transportation? How often do we write off those we disagree with as categorically wrong or simply stupid? “Thank God I’m not like that tax collector” today sounds like “That person who burglarized your house must have come from across the bridge” or “I can’t believe how anyone could vote for that person.”
Problem is, anytime we draw lines between who’s in and who’s out we will find God on the other side. In the end, this parable isn’t about self-righteousness and humility, it’s not about these two men. It is about GOD.
It is about a God who justifies sinners. And why does God do this? Well, since we don’t know if the tax collector who has repented will change his ways or if he has been coming to the temple for years saying the exact same prayer, God’s justification appears to have nothing to do with what we do or even what we pray. God justifies sinners because God loves them and wants to be in a relationship with ALL of creation. We don’t remain in friendships and relationships with people because of their perfect behavior, we do it out of love. And so does God.
The Good News is that this love and justification and salvation is for each and every one of us - sinners all. And through God’s example of love, we have hope for the space between us and the other beloved people of God.
And yes, there are big, systemic issues around why we are separated and how we treat each other. But I believe that showing love to each other, in grassroots, everyday, ordinary ways can affect real change. Acknowledging other peoples’ humanity, truly listening, and practicing empathy all matter.
We acknowledge the humanity of others every time we make eye contact, share a smile, say hello. Most of the time this is a simple thing for us to do, but it’s uncomfortable at times. And yet, it can bring joy and dignity to others and to ourselves in ways we never expect. Let’s challenge ourselves to say hello to the people in need we see at a roundabout in Gig Harbor. It’s difficult, but it’s worth it.
Let’s practice better listening. Actual listening, not waiting for our turn to speak. When someone finishes sharing something (especially if it’s difficult or deeply emotional), for us to tell them what we just heard from them instead of jumping ahead to OUR story or OUR advice, means that person will truly know we were listening. What a gift!
And finally, empathy. Empathy has four attributes: being able to see the world as others see it, being nonjudgmental, understanding another person’s feelings, and communicating that you understood that person’s feelings. Empathy happens in those sacred spaces where someone is in a deep hole and says to us “I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed.” and we respond with “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.” We don’t try to fix anything, we don’t start sentences with “at least…” or “it could be worse.” Responding to someone in pain with empathy fuels connection, and connection is what fuels healing, not telling people what to do.
Empathy is difficult. It takes practice. Take a look at the picture on your announcement page. One person sees a six, another a nine. When we dig our heels in to our perspective only, we may find ourselves convinced that since we are right, anyone who says something different is wrong. And yet, by practicing empathy, by being able to see the world as someone else sees it, to put judgement aside, by moving to stand alongside others instead facing off, we can see the world as it really is: perhaps a bit more nuanced that we thought, with more than one ‘right’ way to do things. We can connect with other people in ways we might never expect.
While it takes work, I am joyfully hopeful that simple, person to person acts of listening and empathy can make the world a better place. I have hope that true connection and empathy can heal us and heal the world. My hope isn’t abstract. I have it because I’ve experienced empathy – I’ve received it and practiced it and I have seen it change things. I’ve seen it make love and forgiveness possible when those things seemed far off.