Not Despising Others (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

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There is a famous prayer that I’ve seen re-printed in many places, and which often gets posted on the internet.  Maybe you’ve seen it, too. It goes something like this:

“Thank you, Lord, for helping me today.  So far, I’ve managed to remain calm and not let the chaos of the world upset me.  I’ve not been nasty or snarky to anyone.  And I’ve not cursed or even complained about anything. But now, O Lord, I’m about to get out of bed and start the day, and I think things will get harder from here!”

I don’t know where this prayer came from.  But, often, I can relate to this prayer!  And fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong with thanking God.  It’s good to acknowledge, implicitly or explicitly, that what you’ve been able to do is the result of God’s help and inspiration in your life.  And because of all the times that we all mess things up, it’s sometimes healthy to remember and even recite the times that you got it right! 

And essentially, this is what the Pharisee does in today’s parable.  And so when Jesus first told this story to his disciples, and he got to the end of the description of the Pharisee’s prayer, Jesus’ disciples would probably NOT have had a negative view of this guy. 

And that’s an important thing to remember, because often when we read the Gospels, whenever the word “Pharisee” is used, we think “this is the bad guy.”  This is a guy we’re not supposed to like or respect.

But in Jesus’ day – and even in the Gospels – Pharisees were a complex bunch of people.  Pharisees were a group of folks who studied the Bible and tried to figure out how to apply what was in the ancient texts to modern daily life.  Jesus did that, too, and that’s why Jesus and the Pharisees are often having debates, and not all of the Pharisees are hostile to Jesus’ interpretations.  Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel, some of the Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him when Herod is out to get him.

Pharisees were also often in conflict with the Temple authorities.  And so when Jesus sets this story up in the Temple, the Pharisee, like the tax collector, is not on his “home turf”.  Both the Pharisee and the tax collector are just a couple of regular people worshipping in the Temple. 

And after all, the Pharisee is at least TRYING to do what God wants him to do, even if he’s bragging about overdoing it!  In fact, Jesus presents the Pharisee as a kind of comical figure.  He says that he fasts TWICE a week, which is double the amount prescribed anywhere in the Torah.  And he says that he gives 10% of ALL “that he gets” (not just his income from work, but apparently his cash back bonuses and even his Halloween candy!).  And so Jesus’ disciples would have heard this description and probably thought this guy was kind of a comical caricature of a Pharisee, but not necessarily a bad guy.

That, however, would NOT be their view of the tax collector.  And that, again, is the opposite of the way we often hear this story.  And that’s probably because in Luke’s Gospel, tax collectors are often among the people who listen to Jesus.  One of them even became Jesus’ disciple!  And because they’re often lumped together with people who are outcasts and “sinners”, we tend to imagine them as poor, outcast and wrongfully despised.

But that’s not how Jesus’ disciples experienced most tax collectors.  Tax collectors were collectors of Roman taxes.  They were, therefore, collaborators with the occupying forces.  And because they collected taxes for Caesar, who set himself up as a god, they may also have been seen as promoting other gods.  And so a tax collector showing up in the Temple to pray to God would have seemed odd, or at least ironic, to many of Jesus’ listeners.

But also, tax collectors charged people a “commission” as their salary, and that “commission” didn’t have much oversight.  And therefore tax collectors regularly charged exorbitant fees, even to regular people.  And so tax collectors were among the wealthiest people in the society, and routinely experienced as some of the least ethical.

So then Jesus tells this parable about these two guys who go up to them Temple to pray: one a Pharisee and one a tax collector.  The Pharisee actually thanks God, and recites what he’s done to try to be good.  But the tax collector simply asks for mercy.  He doesn’t raise his eyes to heaven.  And notably, he doesn’t “repent.”  That is, he doesn’t promise to give up tax collecting and collaborating with the Romans.  And he doesn’t pledge to give back money to people he’s cheated (as, for example, the tax collector Zacchaeus does in the next chapter.)

And yet, Jesus says, the tax collector goes home “justified.”  That is, he’s accepted by God.  God forgives him.  And the tax collector is still considered to be fully part of the people of God.

And that’s the part that probably didn’t sit well with Jesus’ disciples.  It probably unsettled them.  They wouldn’t have liked it.  After all, they despised tax collectors, and with good reason!

Yet Luke says that Jesus told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (Or, more literally, “despised others.”)  And usually, when we read this parable – after assuming that the Pharisee is the “bad guy” and that the tax collector is a “poor, misunderstood outcast” – we believe that Jesus told this parable against Pharisees.  And so naturally, we often think, “yes, Pharisees are bad because they despise tax collectors.”  So, instead, we should despise those nasty Pharisees and instead love the tax collectors!

But Jesus didn’t tell this parable to either Pharisees or tax collectors.  He was talking to his disciples.  And Luke says that Jesus’ point was that you shouldn’t despise others – not that you’re despising the wrong group of people.  And if we conveniently read this parable as meaning “we should despise Pharisees, or perhaps pompous people in general”, we’ve missed the point Jesus is making. In fact, the parable has trapped us, because in that moment, we ourselves become the Pharisee.

Luke says Jesus’ point is that disciples of Jesus should not despise others because we think they aren’t righteous enough.  And here, “despise” or “hold others in contempt” means to put ourselves in the position of God and decide who is or is not worthy of God’s care, God’s love or God’s forgiveness.  And that’s a theoretically easy theological point that everybody, including Jesus’ first disciples, could nod and agree to.  But parables drive home the point by making it uncomfortable.

So maybe this is how Jesus would have told the same parable today, as we’re in the final weeks before a mid-term election:

Two people walk into church to pray on Sunday morning.  One is you.  And as Danielle is playing the prelude, you silently thank God for all that you have and you recite to God all the ways you tried hard to do what you think God wanted you to do in the past week.

But then, as you’re looking around, the most outrageous, obnoxious politician of the OTHER political party (not yours!) comes in.  This person sits down in the front row (because in a Lutheran Church that’s where you sit to be “far off” from other people!) and simply prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  But you have no idea what “sins” that person thinks they’re guilty of.  (Maybe it’s not being partisan enough!)  They don’t renounce being part of their political party.  And they don’t say they’re changing their views on (insert whatever issue is most important to you.)  They just get up and go home, before the service even starts.

And then Jesus says, “that person went home justified.”  That person is loved and forgiven by God. That person is still also your brother or sister in Christ.

OK Jesus, BUT… I don’t like it.  And that’s the rub of the parable.  That’s what makes all this stuff about God’s unbounded love and forgiveness a hard thing for us.  It’s perfectly fine when God’s unbounded love and forgiveness is shown to us and those we like – or at least feel sorry for.  It doesn’t usually feel so good when it’s promised and shown to those we deep down despise. And I think that’s a primary reason why Jesus told this parable to his disciples – then and now.

Jesus told parables like this one so that we’d realize that God’s love is not just a warm, fuzzy that we feel in our hearts.  Instead, it’s an active thing by which God includes us and also people we don’t like.  Jesus told parables like this one so that we’d understand that forgiveness isn’t a reward we get for at least trying to be good, but is instead a free gift God gives to us and to others who we don’t think deserve it.  And Jesus told parables like this one so that we can begin to experience the reality that God’s acceptance is wide enough to include not only us and those we like, but even people who have committed acts so outrageous that we can’t even imagine how God could accept such people.

But that’s the reality of God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance.  It’s the reality which includes us, but also even the “tax collectors” in our lives. It’s the reality to which Jesus invites us.  And it’s the reality Jesus calls us to grow into each and every day.