“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
A text for our time.
This is a very simple story on the surface. It is about humility, right? It is told specifically to “…some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” The Pharisee congratulates himself in prayer, not only for his dutiful fasting and tithing (nothing wrong with tithing, that’s part of the point of the story, tithing is a right and good and even joyful thing to do). He is pleased with himself not only for his outwardly righteous works, but also that he is not like them. “Thieves, rouges, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” He very glad that not like them.
And he is not. The Pharisees get a bad rap because Jesus often took them to task. One take on this is not that the Pharisees were so terrible, it is that they were not so terrible, they actually shared some key beliefs with Jesus, such as the concept of resurrection in the last days. However, they still made some poor decisions, still had some wrong ideas, misplaced priorities. Maybe Jesus prods them because he knew they could do better; he had higher expectations of them. Like a Green party person haranguing a Democrat or a Tea Partier pushing a Republican. They are kind of on the same side in many ways, but the more extreme (or pure or dedicated – it’s all perspective) were disappointed that their more conventional/moderate/compromising friends weren’t fulfilling their potential.
The Pharisee here in the parable is doing what he is supposed to be doing. Tithing, (again, a very good thing to do), fasting (another highly commendable practice), and not being a thief, rouge, adulterer, or worse, being like a tax collector. There was nothing worse than a tax collector.
The tax man will always attract the ire of the taxed. But the tax collectors in first century Palestine were not civil servants, not by any stretch of the imagination; they were predatory opportunists of the worst kind. First and foremost, the tax collectors were collaborators with the Romans. Collaborator like scab, is a word with ugly connotations. The tax collectors were Jews who served the forces of Roman imperial occupation. They were a critical piece of the oppression machine, collecting the all-important tribute to the treasury at Rome. And not only did they serve the imperial masters by extorting their countrymen, but they were in general swindlers, extortionists on their own behalf. They had the power of Rome behind them, and the levied whatever tax they could raise, keeping the difference between what Rome demanded and what they collected. Imagine that: for profit tax collection? (I’m sure someone has imagined). These tax collectors were enemies of their own people, enriching themselves under the shadow of Roman wings on the backs of their brothers and sisters.
So we have the Pharisee on one hand: shorthand for a generally decent guy, at least socially respectable. On the other we have the worst of the worst, a tax collector, a symbol of corruption, reviled and usually rightly reviled. And then Jesus does His Jesus thing and turns it all around, teaching that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The bad guy here in the parable is the decent but self-congratulatory Pharisee, not the predatory, collaborationist tax collector.
Wes Jackson is one of our great agrarian thinkers, he is working on perennial grain systems to replace the disaster of modern grain agriculture. He is a long-time friend of Wendell Berry, another of the great agrarian thinker of the age, though from a poetic, philosophical perspective rather than that of a plant geneticist. I read a letter that Berry wrote to Jackson about a conversation they had with another friend, in which the friend (who I think I remember being a physicist) commented that the path of a raindrop making its way from the sky, through the canopy of a tree and disappearing into the ground was random. The path was random. Berry’s observation in the letter is that it might be random, but we don’t have enough information to say that for sure. What we know is that the drop of water emerges from the mystery of the cloud. We observe it slip from leaf to leaf, then it returns to the mystery of the ground. From our very finite, very limited perspective, it appears random. But from a broader perspective, from a God’s-eye view, it very well might be part of a pattern, or a phase of a cycle beyond the scope of human understanding. You would need infinite data points to be sure something wasn’t part of a pattern. Just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. God is the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
I remember a couple of years ago, Windy and I were disagreeing about something. We’re not arguers, that’s not a major relational sin of ours, but obviously disagreements happen. I don’t even remember what it was, certainly it was of grave importance, but I remember starting to get kind of aggravated. I knew I was right about whatever it was, and that seemed important. Not what I was right or wrong about, but that I was right (or wrong). You know that feeling, you hold on to something because you are holding on to it? And then, out of nowhere, I got this flash message inside: “maybe I am wrong”; I think it actually went, “what if I am wrong?” I wasn’t, let’s be clear about that, but there was a chance (there is always a chance) that I could be wrong.
Sometimes being right is important. I want my pharmacist to be right when they fill a script; a teacher to be right when they pass on knowledge; the plumber to be right when they connect the water main; the administrator when they propose policy. But what is not so important is you being right. Truly, the fact of being right, the need to be right far too often outweighs whatever it is we are right about. I think this is the center of Jesus’ teaching to “…to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” A posture of existential humility is what is required of us by God. Or better said, is required, existential humility is required of us if we are to actually know God. To even approach God, we must remember that we are human, beautiful and blessed with memory, reason and skill; we are God’s favorite children, but we are children, in the big scheme of things we’re toddlers walking on the pitching deck of a ship in a gale. At night. And there are ice bergs. We don’t have the whole picture.
This parable is not about being right or wrong. It is not about being righteous or wretched. Leading up to this moment, the Pharisee was doing it right, living the right life, but it is the good-for-nothing tax collector thast is the hero of the parable. That would have been outrageous to the ears of the first hearers. The Pharisee’s morality and piety were right on and the tax collector’s business model and ethical core were corrupt. This parable is about how we approach God, how we approach life itself. The Pharisee came before God certain of his own righteousness (and the tax collector’s sinfulness). And the tax collector wouldn’t even look up as he beat his breast and prayed what would become the model for one of the most frequently used Christian prayers, the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Say that 10,000 time and your soul will likely be on much more solid ground.
After I had that revelation in my disagreement with Windy that I might have been wrong, or that I could at some point, sometime in the way distant future be wrong about something, truly my perspective changed. I can be wrong about most anything. My understanding of the world comes through a specific set of lenses, viewed from particular angles, and each lens and angle has a vested interest in being right, and in turn we have a vested interest in our point of view being right, and we can stick with it to the end! We are a tenacious species.
So when we disagree now, I am more likely to predicate a statement (at least on the inside) with “Maybe…” or “Perhaps…” or “What if…” as opposed to “X is…” or “I’m sure…” or “Be that as it may…” (I do like that one). And it has changed things. We disagree about as much as before, but I at least am a lot less disagreeable. No matter how certain that I am right, knowing that I just might not be, sort of takes some of the responsibility away from me, gives me fewer corners in which to back myself into and raise the barricades. Because like the drop of water passing from sky to leaf, leaf to branch, branch to trunk to earth, we don’t know nearly as much as we give ourselves credit for. Certainty is a declaration of omnipotence. It is an expression of which deadly sin? Pride. Yes, Pride. We spoke about pride a few week ago.
Even if you are right – like that Pharisee was – approaching God in a posture of hubris just doesn’t work. You can’t. You can’t be right here, right now, open to the love and life of God in Christ if you are behind the fortifications of your certainty when it comes to the big things. We need to keep doing what we know in our heart-of-prayerful-hearts we should do, but always with this knowledge that we might be wrong, that from a different perspective we just maybe could see it different. At the very least, if you feel called to make a final stand on something, consider the question, “What if I were wrong?”
This is a perfect parable for our political moment. Left, right, center, other… we all are equally convinced that our way of seeing the world is the only way, and that all the other ways, and more importantly, everyone who sees the world in any different way is not only wrong, but are “…thieves, rouges, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (I think I heard each of those accusations on CNN this week). But it is not about being right! That is not the hazard Jesus is cautioning us about. The moral hazard is thinking, being convinced that you are right, and, in turn, that they are wrong. Because you might be, right. But what if you are not? What is the price of certainty? What is the cost of pride? What is the danger?
We are justified, that is aligned with God like the words on the left margin of the page when we understand and live as if we do not, in fact, know it all, that we are not, in fact, right about everything, and that thinking we are right about everything actually negates our righteous in the big, God-sized scheme of things. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” AMEN