A reflection the readings for Proper 25/C: Luke 18:9-14, by The Rev. Margaret Rose
Standing in the Need of Prayer
The Gospel text from Luke today--Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple reminded me of a children’s story called I’m Terrific. It is the story of Jason Everett Bear, who indeed in every way is terrific. He sweeps the floor and cleans his room regularly, always makes his bed, does his homework and gets enough sleep, and even eats spinach without complaint. He is very aware of how good he is and gives himself gold stars to mark the fact. Indeed his tongue often has a gummy feel to it due to licking the gold stars he offers himself for his daily good deeds. He reminds his schoolmates and neighbors of how terrific he is and give thanks to his mother that he is not like other people. Soon, however, it begins to dawn on the bear that he is rather forlorn and isolated in his greatness since no one can measure up to him. He thus decides to go the opposite route: never make his bed, pick fights with his friends, no more spinach , kick over nut piles carefully laid up by the neighborhood squirrel, tie knots in the fur of the Raccoon. This behavior gains him no less isolation than the former. And he finally understands that life is about give and take in relationship, Jason Bear then goes to each neighbor to ask forgiveness and friendship. The storybook character is neither a perfectly good bear nor a perfectly bad bear. He is in fact pretty much like his buddies--in need or forgiveness, redemption and love. This is a rather moralistic story, written to teach children about self absorption and showing off. But it does relate to Luke.
In the text for today, the Pharisee really is terrific. He is a solid citizen, a faithful hard worker. You really would want him on your vestry. Though we often tend to dismiss him as we read this text, since he is certainly arrogant and self-righteous, but he really is a good man. He has faithfully done what the temple required. He prays regularly, fasts more than the law requires and tithes, not just of the foods and animals that religious law requires, but of all his income. That is nothing to sneeze at. It would be as if we not only gave away a tenth of all Before Tax dollars and a lot more besides. The Pharisee is faithful and righteous.
The tax collector is not. This man who comes before God and stands far off to ask forgiveness, really does need it. He is not an IRS worker as we might know it. He is not a nice guy--maybe not as bad as the thieves and robbers that the Pharisee prays about-- but one who is known for collaborating with the Roman government. He comes, beating his breast, knowing his desperate need for God. He goes away with his prayers heard and deemed righteous.
It would be easy to dismiss this text as simply an attitude thing. But if I am truthful, I admit that I often identify more with that Pharisee than with the tax collector. I spend a lot of time and prayer on doing the right thing. And in the secret of my heart I have sometimes congratulated myself on the avoidance of really bad deeds. I have come close to deeming myself righteous and not quite like those miserable sinners so much in need of redemption. It is a subtle seduction. For we really are called to do good deeds and follow Jesus faithfully in tithing, praying and fasting and caring for others.
I remember some years ago, working in a soup kitchen at a Church in Boston. It was a place where many poor and homeless people came to hang out, so we began to know some of the folks fairly well. We regularly had lunch together and from time to time went on field trips. The big event of the year was the annual Lobster Fest which took place at a beautiful retreat center north of Boston. It was a great time and required an enormous amount of work on the part of volunteers. One year when the party was over and some of the volunteers returned to their cars, it was discovered that the cars had been broken into and money had been stolen--in all I think about 45 dollars though not much else. The convicting words came to the lips of those who had been wronged. Quick to accuse one of our group, the interrogative looks went round. It could have been any number of people who had been milling around the parking area and picnic grounds of the retreat center. But two of our number were identified as potential thieves though there was no real concrete evidence. “Why would THEY do this us after all we have done for THEM. Our money, our cars, our things have been violated. Of course they had. No question about it. It is wrong to steal. But how quick we are to assume that the one who wrongs us is not someone who looks or acts like us. How quick we are to deem ourselves and those like us as righteous--and to separate ourselves from those in so much need or even from those who are indeed miserable sinners.
How often does each of us thank God that we are not like other people. I do it when I read the local paper which seems to delight in front page embezzlements and the misconduct of sports and political figures. I hear myself from time to time thinking self-righteously that I would never be involved in such a thing.
But you know, though I do not like to admit it, I am the tax collector too. I am in my daily life as participant in sin as that man who made no pretense about his worthiness. And there are those moments I am so aware of my need for grace that I know that I am indeed like other people and standing before God in need of prayer. A message I no doubt need to hear.
The point of the story,of course, is that the Pharisee, as good as he is, really is also like other people. We are all in need of forgiveness. More important, we all stand empty-handed before God. We know this, in our hearts and minds and bodies, from time to time—often in our moments of suffering when we realize that no amount of good deeds can make things okay again. We simply ask God to hear our prayers--not because we have tithed or because we have been to church, but because we know our need for forgiveness and God’s love and power in our lives.
People who have battled the demons of addiction know it. Those who have been a part of 12 step recovery programs have it repeated over and over in the first three steps of AA--a recognition of one’s powerlessness over the addiction and the need of a power greater than ourselves to renew us to health.
In point of fact there is a bit of the Pharisee and a bit of the tax collector in us all. One Sunday, as we come to church to pray and worship we are patting ourselves on the back about how good we’ve been this week. And another week we come as miserable sinners, knowing that there is nothing left to give and that we have not done or been much this week worth being full of pride about.
Jesus calls us to confront the attitude of the Pharisee in our own hearts, this misplaced pride in obedience and to recognize that boasting of our virtue, however subtle, separates us from one another and from God. And to receive the fullness of renewal, love and forgiveness when there is nothing left in us but misery. His life, his death, and resurrection were for all of us, tax collector and Pharisee alike--all called to prayer and repentance. All offered forgiveness and renewal of life. AMEN