Proper 25, Year C
Luke 18:9-14 - link to NRSV text
Back in August, I blogged (and preached) on spiritual pride, a subject that today's gospel addresses directly.
Spiritual pride is among the most insidious of sins. Fight it successfully for a moment, and it's tempting to start saying, "Hey -- I'm being really humble! I'm WAY more humble than Bill over there. Maybe I should teach a class on humility at church." Or have you ever found yourself thinking along these lines?
"I can't stand those conservatives/liberals. They think they're so much holier/better informed than everyone else. Well that's PRIDE! If only they'd be like me, the world would be a much better place."
Frederick Buechner defines humility as thinking of yourself as neither better nor worse than you are, and I like that definition. I think, though, that it may be even closer to the mark to say that the humble person is the one whose energy is so occupied with serving others, with exercising the kind of spiritual leadership that calls all into deeper maturity, with seeking God's will and enjoying God's fellowship, and with enjoying all of God's good gifts that s/he just doesn't have all that much left over to devote to assessing whether s/he is more or less virtuous than others.
One of the difficulties I find in preaching on a passage like this Sunday's gospel is that while it's easy to say that we should be more like the humble and penitent tax-collector and less like the Pharisee, the reaction I observe to saying so often doesn't seem very humble. That game of competitive virtue is just too seductive. Point to the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple, and people often do two things: identify with the tax collector, and start talking about how much they hate those proud and hypocritical Pharisees -- whom they usually identify with whoever is on the Other Side of whatever issue is hottest.
Here's one test of whether we're reading one of Jesus' parables correctly: if it doesn't surprise, shock, and challenge us, then we should probably go back to the drawing board. If our reading of this parable mostly says to us, "I thank God that I'm not like that awful Pharisee," we're in trouble.
So, what to do?
It might be helpful to start with trying to understand where the Pharisee is coming from. We're so accustomed to Pharisees being used as stock villains without any redeeming qualities that the shock of the parable is lost to us. Of course Pharisees are awful people who are zealous about superficial rituals but don't love God, and certainly don't love their neighbors.
This reputation has got to go -- not only because it's insulting to today's Jews, who trace their spiritual heritage to the Pharisees (there's a reason that Jewish campus ministries are called "Hillel"!), but also because it's inaccurate.
For starters, the Pharisees were not the fundamentalists of their time. They did not read scripture literally. They understood that the laws given to Moses while the people were nomadic herders needed to be interpreted to suit changing circumstances. And the Pharisees were remarkably INCLUSIVE. They were well known for their enthusiasm for evangelism (as Matthew 23:15 reflects, albeit with a negative comment added), and they received Gentile converts (i.e., those who joined the people of Israel by being baptized, offering sacrifice in the Temple, promising to follow the Law, and for men, being circumcized) with great joy. As for justice issues, we pretty much owe it to the Pharisees that the prophetic works like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos are in the canon; the Sadducees saw these works as newfangled innovations and not canon, and other groups (like the community at Qumran on the Dead Sea that produced those famous scrolls) that accepted them were too isolated to have much influence. The Pharisees longed for what Christians long for: God's will done on earth as it is in heaven, and all nations streaming into Zion to enjoy God's just and compassionate rule.
The Pharisees weren't perfect, to be sure; like Christians, they didn't do everything they professed was God's will. That's why Jesus, in Matthew 23:1-3, tells Christians to do what they say, but not what they do. I think this particular Pharisee in today's gospel is being presented as one of the good guys. Fasting was a sign of penitence; tithing ensured that those in Israel who did have land provided for those who didn't. However, the Pharisee's prayer betrays something that may characterize his fasting and tithing as well.
This guy (let's give him a name, to make clear that we're not talking about a category, but a person. Let's call him Eli.) is busting his butt to further God's kingdom, and he's succumbed to something that a lot of us struggle with. Eli knows that the world could be powerfully transformed in his lifetime, if only everyone would just GET WITH THE PROGRAM. He does his best to persuade them to sign on -- a move that would introduce them to experiences of God's presence in community as powerful as what he's experienced dining at a pure table with his family or studying Torah with his fellow-travelers in the Pharisaic movement.
It's a generous impulse, but when someone doesn't sign on to such a program, it becomes tempting to start seeing people on the other side as the problem, and it's practically impossible to proclaim something that will sound like Good News to your audience if you're doing it from a position of resentment. So his passion for God's prophetic word degrades into distaste for a fellow Israelite, as Eli finds himself focused more and more on others' perceived shortcomings and less and less on their commonalities -- both Israelites, both seeking, both sinners. Eli might have found himself more concerned with understanding the man praying next to him than he was in persuading God that they he was different from his neighbor.
The report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion is out. I'm reading and rereading it carefully. The diversity of those on the commission coupled with the unanimity of the report says to me that it ought to be taken very seriously and considered very prayerfully. There is much in the report that is challenging, but I am particularly encouraged by the report's call for the world's Anglicans to finally address the most-neglected mandate of the 1998 Lambeth resolution on sexuality, to "commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and ... assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ." I favor proposals that will invite deep listening on all sides.
In the end, the best test of the report's success is this: does it move us beyond pointing to others' perceived sins and shortcomings, and allow all of us sinners -- all of us who know what it means to be rendered invisible, shut out, and discriminated against -- to work together to proclaim God's love and extend God's justice to all?
The Spirit is speaking; may God grant us the inner quiet to hear, and the courage to follow.
Thanks be to God!
Just as relevant as we go again to preach this gospel tomorrow as it was when you wrote this three years ago Sarah.
Posted by: Bosco Peters | Oct 26, 2007 7:47:30 PM
Thanks for de-othering the Pharisees. Very helpful.
Posted by: Jim Merritt | Oct 19, 2010 11:52:03 AM