This past Thursday afternoon I went to Evanston Hospital to visit a member of the congregation who was very sick. I arrived moments after her death, and the family welcomed me into the room where I said a prayer as we released her to God and prayed for their comfort and courage to go on despite their grief and loss. As I left the room and walked down the hall, I carried in my mind the image of the faces of the family members with their fatigue, their overwhelming sadness and their look of a kind of wonder at how in the world they were to carry on.
Death is a real leveler for all of us, and when you see it face to face in a hospital room it brings you face to face with your own death. What will matter to me if death doesn’t come at me quickly and I have time to sit and wonder about my life? Would I think about what I was grateful for and what I regretted? What might my impending death make clear to me, at a new and deep level, about what really mattered in life? Could I say, with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race and I have kept the faith,” and if I could, what would keeping the faith have looked like for me?
As I continued slowly walking through the corridors of Evanston Hospital on my way to my car, I also thought about the two men from our Gospel story this morning – the Pharisee and the tax collector. I wondered if they had been there with us at that deathbed could the great gap that existed between them psychologically and spiritually have been narrowed? Would they have been able to see beyond the social and religious laws and mores of their time and find in the experience of death a common bond, a sense of empathy, and a love for the other?
This story that Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector was a parable, an example story that urges us to act in a certain way. These two men are caricatures, and Jesus uses the extremity of their actions and attitudes in this literary hyperbole to make a point. Paul Duke in an article in The Christian Century says that the parable, “neglects to mention that the Pharisee was singing “Amazing Grace” on his way to church that day or that as he said his prayer, there were tears in his eyes. He feels this stuff. He is awash with religious emotion, truly moved to gratitude for the life God has blessed him to live. Ask him on his way out what he thinks of the tax collector and he will tell you, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ He will even think that he means it.”
Everyone hearing this story from Jesus would have known that the Pharisee was the good guy. Through Josephus, a first century Jewish historian we know that Pharisees were known for their excellence in the interpretation of scripture, their modest lifestyle, strong faith and prayerful practice. However, their name Pharisee meant “separated ones,” so they kept very much to themselves and were aloof to both gentiles and other Jews. The Pharisees’ prayer, according to one commentary, “is actually an attempt to embody the separateness preached in Psalm 1.” ‘”Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked or take the path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the law and on his law they meditate day and night.”
“The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”
I don’t imagine that in Jesus’ day they had Hanukkah letters, but if they did this is a man that could write one that would make the rest of his friends hang their heads. It might have gone something like this. The family is doing well. We have prayed three times a day all year – never missing a day. The boys and I have worn fringes at the corner of our garments daily. We have not sewn different kinds of seeds together nor have we eaten the fruit of a tree less than three years old. I am also proud to tell you that no one in the family has touched any of the eight creeping things that the law considers defiled. We have lived righteous lives all year long. The community of Pharisees believed that only by keeping themselves separate and by living by an extreme observance of the law could the community that God promised to Abraham be preserved.
The life of the tax collector would have been very different as Paul Duke describes it. “The parable also neglects to point out that the tax collector, when he has wiped his eyes, blown his nose and gone home, will not be quitting his shady job. He can’t see any options; it is a nasty business, but he’s stuck in it Tomorrow he’ll again take money from his neighbors, hand some of it over to the empire and put some aside for himself.”
Everyone hearing this parable would have known that the tax collector was the bad guy. His occupation would have been at the bottom of the latest Harris Poll of undesirable occupations. The tax collector made his living by collecting the taxes imposed by the Roman occupying forces. Because he received no wages for his work from the Romans he made his money by charging more than was required and pocketing the money – something that was absolutely prohibited by Jewish law. This man wouldn’t even have sent out a Hanukkah letter.
Theologian Roberta Bondi tells how, as a young seminary student, she taught this scripture lesson to an adult Bible study. She says there were people there who had never heard the story and they hated it. “What do you mean,” they said, “’one man went home justified and the other did not?’ Didn’t the Pharisee do all those good things? Are you telling us they don’t count for anything with God? And that tax collector; did I hear you say that God doesn’t judge sin?” The story does leave us wondering what Jesus was thinking. If the Pharisees were the good guys and the tax collectors the bad guys how could it be that the tax collector was the one whom Jesus said was justified at the end of the story?
Bondi found an answer in the writings of a sixth century sermon by a monastic teacher Dorotheos of Gaza. Apparently there were monks in his community who were “making everyone miserable by inflicting a lot of self-righteousness and judgmentalism upon each other.” So Dorotheos preached about this passage in Luke 18. He said that the “Pharisee was doing the right thing when he thanked God for giving him the ability to do good – as they, the monks should. The Pharisee only did one thing wrong: he passed judgment on the whole person of the tax collector and with scorn dismissed him and his whole life as worthless.” Paul Duke puts it this way, when the Pharisee stopped praying his litany of gratitude and “started peeking” at the tax collector, he “coolly measures himself against his neighbor and is quietly pleased with the difference. It is his competitive sideward glance that distorts his prayer.”
Competition – it too invades almost every area of our life. Our lives seem built on competition from the very beginning. As a mother of young children I would be asked, “Is Annie a good sleeper? What weight and height percentile is she in? Then it was on to academic and athletic competition. I remember the sinking feeling I felt when Annie’s best friend taught herself to read at age 4. I immediately bought the book her friend had used and tried to encourage Annie to learn to read. Luckily she would have none of it. And of course she learned to read just fine at her own pace. Then it’s on to what reading level they are in at school, what team they have made, what college they get into, what job they have, where they live and how well they live. We are all a part of the never ending circle of competition that we pass on to our children and in which we ourselves swim. It is as though we can only define ourselves by comparing ourselves in order to see who we are and who we are not. .
This competition feels very natural to us. Many philosophers and psychologists have identified a trait in most living organisms that drives the particular organism to compete. This trait, called competitiveness, is viewed as an innate biological trait that coexists along with the urge for survival. Competition between species is the basis for our understanding of evolution and natural selection -–where those species which are best suited for survival in their environment crowd out other species or force them to adapt. We certainly see it in our children where there seems to be a natural urge to compete. Just look at a field of 3rd graders playing soccer. We experience it as well in ourselves as adults. Just imagine the adults coaching that soccer team from the sidelines. When my sisters and I get together we always “check each other out.” It is always interesting to observe how we casually comment about what each other is wearing and notice a new piece of jewelry one of us is wearing. Yes, we are interested in each other and care deeply for one another , but I would argue with anyone who said there wasn’t some serious comparing going on between us.
Competition is the driving force behind our economy. Seen as the pillar of capitalism in that it may stimulate innovation, encourage efficiency, or drive down prices, competition is touted as the foundation upon which capitalism is justified. Competition on a personal level certainly has its positive effect in that it pushes us to grow and learn and innovate. But there is also a side of competition, often subtle and hard to recognize, when taken into our personal and religious life, that is truly death dealing to our own spirit and to those around us. An attitude that says “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” drives us apart from each other and God.
During a recent email exchange someone wrote to me that the Christian life can feel like capitulation – surrender to God. That is exactly what it is. Look at the life of Jesus – that is exactly how he lived and spoke. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45) Capitulation to God is actually a win-win, not a win-lose proposition.
As a servant of others we are called out of relationships driven by competition and into ones where we live in harmony and work for the benefit of all.
Servant leadership, a leadership philosophy and style that emerged in the 1970’s, describes a servant leader as one who has a desire to make a difference for other people and will pursue opportunities to impact other’s lives – never for their own gain. A servant leader is willing to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of others. Some would say that this is a characteristic that can’t be taught. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. The Bible makes it clear that as Christians we are expected to live with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – all the fruits of the spirit. And we are to live this way, not only in relation to our family and friends but everywhere we walk in life.
What, we ask ourselves, might have helped the Pharisee break out of his narrow and highly proscribed religious viewpoint to see the tax collector as brother and fellow life traveler? What, we might ask ourselves, could help us to abandon our tendencies to measure ourselves against our “neighbor” and instead see them and ourselves as equally flawed but also equally loved by God? Maybe we can remember that eventually all that we cling to that keeps us apart will be of absolutely no importance. In death, stripped of all that has defined us, we will come before God just as empty handed as the next person.
So while we are here and while we have time, let us live with love for all; let us live in peace with all.