October 28, 2007
Looking in the Mirror
by Julianne Stokstad
I want to look at the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector from three perspectives: first looking at what is in the text, then from historical perspective and finally from what it might mean for us right here in FCCSR. It's actually a pretty simple text contrasting the prayers and behavior of two different people. The pious Pharisee presumably went right to the center of the synagogue to pray. In his prayer, he stated he carefully observed religious rules, fasting and tithing. Then he thanks God that he isn't like other people-thieves, rogues, adulterers or tax collectors. The tax collector, in contrast stood at the edge of the synagogue to pray. In his prayer he beat his chest, signifying his repentance and would not even look to God. His simple prayer is only"God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Presumably both are Jews as they are praying in the synagogue.
Historically, those listening to Jesus, would not have heard this as we do. The negative views of Pharisees were those of the Christians several generations after Jesus who were persecuted by Pharisees like Paul. But the Jews, to this day, think highly of the Pharisees. Jesus was closer in his theology to the Pharisees than to any other Jewish group. Pharisees were remarkably inclusive. They were known as evangelists, who received Gentile converts. They did not read the scripture literally. They took Jewish tradition and the Torah seriously and tried to live their daily lives according to their faith. Those listening to Jesus would have considered the Pharisee to be a "good guy." Tax collectors were classic outsiders. They were only able to get work, doing the abhorrent, collecting tolls for the Roman oppressors. Quite understandably, they would have been seen as having few scruples. Hearers then would not expect the tax collector to be good hearted guy, but rather someone who was a "bad guy." So when the parable ends with the tax collector being held up as the example, can you imagine the shock. What? that awful guy?! If Jesus' parables don't leave us shocked, surprised and literally seeing something a totally different way, then we haven't understood it.
We tend to hear the story quite differently. We think of the Pharisees being the bad-guys, the hypocritical religious enemies of Jesus, while the tax collector's humility is exemplary. It is even clearly stated at the end of the story. So if this story is meant to shock us into some new insight, perhaps the last line ought to read, "the bad guy who knows he's bad and repents is better than a good guy who thinks he's good and doesn't have any need to repent." What? What does that say about us?
The parable doesn't actually tell us what to think about these two characters. In fact maybe the parable is about who it is told to? Not the Pharisees, but to some people who thought very well of themselves and their self-sufficiency.
All we know about the two characters is how they pray. Prayer is our relationship with God. The parable is set up in opposites- the good guy and the bad guy; the arrogant one and the humble one; the hypocritical one against the honest fellow. To see the story this way is to be pushed into a position of judgment: of others and ourselves. Maybe that is the point of the parable, to see ourselves in our relationships: with God and with other people.
The judgments we make come from our assumptions and the parable presents us with a challenge to our normal assumptions. Yet learning to make distinctions is a process of our brains development. Judgments can keep us safe, recognizing danger and keeping away from it. We all do it all the time.
Let me tell you about a time when I had to reconsider: On my trip to India, we were quite a small group of people thrown together for an intense two weeks. One of the fellows was continually puffing himself up, always being expert, always taking all the attention on to himself. I found myself developing quite a dislike for this fellow and I tended to keep away from him. But when I got sick, who was it who sat up all night by my bedside, nursing me in the most tender manner? You guessed it, him. After recovering, his behavior still irritated me, but I had to enlarge my understanding of who he was. There was much more to him than his mask of arrogance.
We are all complex beings, like jewels with many different faces. I contend among the many facets each of us has, we all have a Pharisee and also a tax collector. We are challenged by this parable to reflect how we regard others as well as ourselves. It is time for us to look into the mirror.
What do you see? Do you say, Thank God, I am not.....arrogant, closed minded, stupid, like so and so? Do you find yourself looking at others who are different from you and thinking "I can't stand those conservatives or liberals. They think they're so much holier/ better informed than everyone else." Pride says if only they'd think or I do, if they understood my better way of looking at the issue, then the world would be a much better place." Hmmmmm.
The word humility comes from humus, meaning of the earth. Frederick Buechner says humility means as thinking of yourself as neither better nor worse than you are and of course the challenge is to see ourselves with clear eyes. I suspect each one of us here thinks we are humble and that our opinions about different people, issues are the right ones. After all, why on earth would we take on a position that we didn't consider to be correct. We all have made choices about how to live our lives, why would we make choices we didn't want to make? But my friends, lives and opinions vary greatly around here.
So how do we talk to each other? This church is a place where most people feel that they are heard, that their opinions matter. Caryl Hodges, long time member, long time leader of FCCSR, says one of the reasons she joined this church is that everyone listens to each other here. There are several things I trust very deeply about this church. First I trust that all people here love the church and want only the best for this church and for all the people here. I trust in good will. I also trust that God is good, God is trustworthy and God's grace and abundance is much more than any of us ever will need.
Looking in the mirror, I see that we are all human. Let us take a clear eyed look at our human condition. For any of us to live without a measure of self-justification makes us feel vulnerable, naked and no one likes that feeling. When I got sick in India, I was indeed most vulnerable. Maybe I needed to be vulnerable for the tenderness to come forward from the fellow I spoke about earlier. In order for each of us to protect ourselves we develop our ego. We need to feel safe. The statement of the Pharisee, "Thank God I am not like......" is a strong ego statement. Fear as well is from our ego.
There is more to each of us than that. . Every human being is a child of God and has this imprint of God in us, some call it a soul, others call it heart Our soul is truly who we are, unique to each of us; beautiful, good, created in God's image and yet unique to us. Our soul never leaves us, it is never harmed, just hidden away, protected and safe within us. When we listen and act from our soul, we are truly humble, we are speaking our truth to others, we are not afraid. Here in our church, let us learn to speak from our souls, let us listen with deep respect to each other.
Here is a list of principles to guide us to this kind of communication a friend recently shared with me.
1. Suspend assumptions
2. Speak from your soul/heart not from your ego
3. Suspend status and hierarchy
4. Ensure confidentiality
5. Listen for understanding, not agreement
6. Honor silence
7. Show appreciation
Speaking our truth from our soul is told best in stories. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector has many different meanings. We need to listen respectfully, with curiosity, not knowing what the other person is telling us. When we express our opinions, they will never all agree. But each person deserves to be heard. That doesn't mean that each person's agenda will be accepted. What a gift each person here is. Of what great value is each of you. What a beautiful garden is our church and believe me, there is great wisdom and strength in our diversity.
The more we are able to listen from our souls, the more God will be among us and the more blessed we will all be. I thank God for each one of you here. I hope you do the same.
[HOME PAGE] [SERMON INDEX]