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Pharisee and Tax Collector – Br. Curtis Almquist

Luke 18:9-14

He also 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.”

Pharisees get bad press, but they were not bad people. To the contrary, Pharisees were scrupulous in their fidelity to Law of God, they were faithful in worship, they were observant in matters of diet and deportment. They were good people who lived and worked and worshiped with the same. (They could be like the kind of folks who might go to a monastery to pray or worship or retreat!) Very good souls. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were not known to be good sorts of people. The bad press they got was the bad press they deserved. Tax collectors had a reputation for being extortionists. They most likely got their jobs through bribery. And then they procured their own salaries by skimming a percentage of the tax they levied. Tax collectors would be expected by the government to produce a set amount of income for their particular locale; anything they could procure above that pre-determined amount they could pocket, which was a nasty business. Tax collectors were the dregs of society who could live with the prowess and opulence of today’s drug lords in Central America. Pharisees, on the other hand, were not bad souls. Pharisees simply had it right, and they knew it. As we heard in today’s gospel lesson, when they prayed they would say, “God, I thank you that I am not like [these] other people.”

I don’t know if you’ve got any version of “having it right” or of being better than others… whether there are certain people, particular kinds or classes or groups of people whom you judge uninteresting or ignorant or insufferable… because of their appearance, or habits, or beliefs, or age, or education, or ethnic origins… or dress… or tattoos… and where you can find yourself being dismissive or disgusted or damning? And you’re not a bad soul, either.

I don’t think that Jesus is ‘down’ on our being judgmental, per se. I seems to me that it’s quite necessary to exercise judgment in life, most every day. All of us must be quite judgmental people. Our “critical faculties” are an essential part of life. Some of this is simply pragmatic, like our “judging” whether it’s safe to cross the street or “judging” the weather, if we should wear a jacket or carry an umbrella. But at a deeper level, perhaps many of us regularly find ourselves having to judge people, whether we can trust someone; judge whether we can support their desires or plans or aspirations or requests; judge whether we will say ‘yes’ to speak with someone, to be seen with someone, to lend our name or word of support to their cause, to sit at table with them, to socialize with them, to vote for them! We have to make judgment calls about confrontations and interventions, when someone has done too little or gone too far, pushed a boundary or an issue too many times, whether it be on the job or in a relationship, and we decide – we judge – that we have to face it or end it… even if we risk being misunder­stood and therefore having to pay our dues twice. On such-and-such, what do you think? What do you feel? What will you say or do? What’s your judgment?

In judging other people, however, if we only get so far as damning or distinguishing or distancing ourselves from these various other souls, separating ourselves from them, then our judgment has probably not gone deep enough. It seems to me that our “critical faculties” which are used unavoidably and essentially in life are a domain within our soul that invites an ongoing conversion to Christ. The real invitation for our own judgment of others is for us to faithfully reflect the nature of God’s own judgment. This judgment is the grace of being to see not through someone but to see into someone, the conditions that make them happy and fulfilled, what gives them a sense of belonging, what plagues them with suffering and doubt, what at some moments cripples or consumes them. It’s to see into someone as God would see into someone – no matter who they are, friend or enemy – someone for whom God has an eternal love. This judgment is the grace of being able to see deeply, which is wisdom: deep vision.

Jesus preaches one gospel and opens his arms very wide, for all. In Christ there is the movement away from separation from others, to compassion for others, to identification with others. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, spoke not just of living for another person but living in another person. This person whom you may be quick to discount or disown or reject: you are this person. This person who gets under your skin belongs there. They are closer to you than a brother or sister. I would call this the “grace of identification,” the healing of our judgmental faculties to see ourselves in the face and form of the other, which is the conversion of judgment… and which opens us to the grace of humility. You’ll recall Jesus’ saying, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The grace of humility is the movement away from comparing and contrasting, differentiating ourselves from others. It’s the movement away from relegation: relegating someone, by our judgment, to being our inferior, seeing another as being stupid or unsophisticated, or uncharming or unbeautiful, or unworthy; relegating them to the status of being “a conservative” or “a liberal”; seeing them primarily as an irritant or impediment or a burden. I would say the discovery of the grace of humility is a movement away from this kind of mean relegation to a spirit of identification. It’s to presume, in some deep way, “I am this other person.” And what could otherwise evoke our poor judgment of this other, rather than to use that judgment to reject or condemn, to use that perception of this other as an insightful invitation for mercy. Someone who has a way of getting under our skin in some significant way probably belongs there. Being able to see this is the fruit of the grace of humility. T. S. Eliot writes in his poem “East Coker”: “…The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” I would say that the grace of humility is informed by our knowing ourselves to be the object of God’s judgment of love.

Some days, some of us may judge ourselves, and judge ourselves quite harshly, where we come up short in terms of productivity or dependability or accountability. It’s when our own character flaws can get the best of us and the best of others. Where our life’s preparation seems inadequate for the tasks at hand. Where the burdens we bear are intolerable and unacceptable and yet also unavoidable. When it comes to judging ourselves at the end of the day, we may consistently score a poor mark. And we likely judge others the way we judge ourselves… which may not be too well.

At least for this poor sinner – and maybe this is also true for you – if I were to ponder where I figure into this gospel story about the Pharisee and the tax collector, I would have to say I identify with Pharisee. I am the Pharisee, with very high demands and expectations of myself and others. I am also the tax collector, with many failures and disappointments. Where I want to be, where I feel invited, is someone in the middle, with Jesus, who has come to break down the dividing wall of hostility between us and within us and to open a bridge of humility, real manifestation of God’s generous grace.[i] Charles Péguy, the 19th century French theologian, says that “ grace is insidious.” [ii] Grace is insidious. “When [grace] doesn’t come straight it comes bent, and when [grace] doesn’t come bent, it comes broken. When [grace] doesn’t come from above, it comes from below.”

In a few moments we will be invited to pray the Lord’s prayer, where we offer our plea to God: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others….” This is the fruit of the grace of humility, something to ask God for in our prayers: the conversion of our critical faculties from a rejecting meanness to a generous mercy, the judgment of love and the grace of identification with others. We belong to one another: one God, one world, ultimately one table at the great “messianic banquet” to come.

[i] A paraphrase from Ephesians 2:14 : “For [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

[ii] Charles Pierre Péguy (1873-1914).

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