Two Men at Prayer
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, the other was a tax collector.
Now the tax collector was deeply ashamed. And some might say, rightly so. As a collaborator with the occupying Roman force, for whom he collected taxes, he was a traitor to his own people. As someone who gauged taxpayers with inordinate self-profiting premiums, over and above the money that would be turned over to the Romans, he was also an exploiter of these oppressed people and a damnable thief.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, was clearly shameless. He had, by his estimate, every reason to strut his stuff before God. His religious piety and his good works gave him every reason to be impressed with himself.
He had every reason to believe that God was also rightly impressed with him. Had God been thoughtful enough, he would have thanked the Pharisee for taking time out of his busy life and schedule and dropping into the temple for a visit. The Pharisee also had every reason to see himself as so much better than the tax collector and probably most of the population at large.
It seems to me that human beings are no strangers to shame and no strangers to pride. These are the extremes posed in the gospel story.
There is the child who has received those shaming messages from one authority figure or another and dutifully internalized them. That child grows up with impaired self-esteem even to the point of self-hatred, which can manifest in self-destructive and even suicidal behavior.
On the other hand there is the child who has heard those same shaming messages and thru some over-reactive and misguided effort at self-protection, gone to the other extreme, rejecting them outright and refusing to take responsibility for anything rather than feel shame or guilt. The first has a perennially guilty conscious. The second is without conscience.
Gracefully, the evolving message of the scriptures is that the God who loves us is not someone who trades in shame, and lives for judgment and retribution, as much as some religious traditions, even within the wider Christian family, would have Him be and have us believe.
Early in our common human understanding of God, we projected our dark side onto God’s identity. The God of our ancestors, absorbing this projection, was indeed a shaming God who inflected guilt and delighted in retribution. The later prophets whittled away at that until it is entirely exploded in Jesus.
The good news anticipated in Joel will come to be fully realized in Jesus. Gracefully, for us, the promised day has arrived.
“You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my Spirit.”
In the bible, shame is not the way to build character, integrity, righteousness and holiness. Character, integrity, righteousness and holiness are borne of and are the fruit and product of the loving relationship of reconciliation effected by Christ and in which we are all invited to live and from which we are all invited to take our delight. It is the spirit who dwells within us that is the source of whatever life we experience.
And this is the point of the story. The tax collector thinks himself nothing because of his sins. The Pharisee thinks himself everything because of his piety and good works.
The tax collector is far from any experience of righteousness. The Pharisee is puffed up with and wallows in his own self-righteousness.
The tax collector cannot see God because his eyes are cast down to his feet. The Pharisee cannot see God because his eyes are too filled with himself.
The tax collector is in the temple looking for something from God – he calls it mercy. The Pharisee clearly needs nothing from God – he is a self-made man as opposed to a God made man. Both are sinners – one knows it, the other is in denial. Both are dead inside.
I suppose that we can see this as a story about two strangers with whom we have little in common, who have little or no relationship to us. They are caricatures of humility and arrogance. And on most days, I am neither as self-effacing as the tax collector nor as proud as the Pharisee.
But this story is not about virtue. This story is not about morality. This story is not about good works. This story is not about a good guy with whom we might identify or a bad guy from whom we might disassociate ourselves.
The story is about all of us – who can be dead inside – who are incapable of bringing ourselves to life – but whose hope of full not just of life, but of eternal life because it is God’s first and final choice to love us rather than to shame us. May we always be as gracious and generous with each other.
On Friday, the Honorable Elijah Cummings was laid to rest. The many who eulogized him acknowledged him rightly to be a man of character, integrity, righteousness and holiness. He was a man who was neither empty because of shame nor full of him self and empty by virtue of that illusion.
Elijah was first a man of faith and a faithful Christian and only secondarily a politician. And because he gave primacy to his relationship with the Lord, he was very much a politician who lived to serve others rather than to serve himself.
Elijah’s hearts burned with a passion for justice that expressed itself in compassionate action on behalf of those were overlooked and left out. Truth mattered to him. And in all that he did, he searched for this reflection of eternity in the business of every moment.
And like his namesake the Prophet Elijah, when necessary, he was able to call down fire from heaven upon those in positions of power who were inclined to exploit and oppress the powerless and those who lied for their own gain. He did this with righteousness, that being borne of his union with God, commanded attention and respect.
This morning parable invites us to examine how we stand and how we posture our selves before God? If not with shame or pride; how about casual and willful indifference as opposed to a measure of passionate faithfulness; how about with deaf ears as opposed to an open and discerning heart; how about with an incessant demand for answers as opposed to a delightful fascination with mystery; how about with bitterness, resentment and anger as opposed to a joyful and grateful heart?
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
October 27, 2019