The scene is laughable. Like last week, Luke gives us the set-up: this parable is told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
He sets the scene with two men, a Pharisee – an established religious leader, someone to whom the community turns for guidance on matters of wisdom and practice, someone they know will uphold the highest standards themselves. The Pharisee, away from the crowd but not too far because he intends to be heard, prays aloud, and it seems like a joke: “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.” I do all the right things. Thanks for making me me.
But we pause. This is worth exploring, because I don’t know if I know anyone like the Pharisee.
People who pride themselves on doing the right thing, in the right ways. People who work hard to give the right answers and solve the right problems, in a way that is thoughtful and measured and wise. People who follow up, work hard, come to the meetings, put in the time.
Lord, I thank you that, in this political season filled with nastiness, I’m not like those people, those protestors who don’t get it, those people who get all worked upon Facebook, those people who think every media clip is an incomprehensible miscarriage of justice.
Lord, I thank you that I am not like those people at church, those folks who have been around a long time and may not be as welcoming as they think they are, those new folks who come because of a program they like and don’t seem ready to fully commit to being part of the community.
Lord, I thank you that, in this stewardship season, that I know we’ve got some generous people around here, so I can pull my punches and be reasonable with my pledge, knowing surely someone else, maybe these folks right beside me who seem like they are doing well, will give sacrificially themselves. They’ll do it, so I’ll just keep things the same as last year.
Lord, I thank you for such a nice a pleasant church, filled with pleasant people, who don’t get all riled up like people in other churches, folks who don’t quite see the big picture the way we do.
We don’t know anyone like any of these folks, do we?
The tax collector, standing far off, head bowed, pounds his chest in anguish – this is a gut-level, visceral prayer. Be merciful to me, a sinner! The contrast is powerful. The very good person who looks down his nose at the seedy tax collector. His prayer is perplexing, but we sense there’s a vulnerability, a rare honesty, that we don’t often see. We spend our lives protecting ourselves and the tax collector lays it all on the line. Jesus turns the screws: “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his home justified – made righteous, rather than the [Pharisee] – for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“Without any question,” Fred Craddock writes, “the parable was a shock to its first listeners. If anyone within the community of Judaism would not go home from the temple justified, it would be a tax collector. Working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people, a participant in a cruel and corrupt system, politically a traitor, religiously unclean, a [tax collector] was reprehensible. While his prayer is in the spirit of Psalm 51, his life is offensive.
As for the Pharisee, his recitation of his performance is that of one exceeding the law’s demands. His prayer of thanksgiving is a modification of a common rabbinic prayer (‘I thank thee that I am not…’) joined to the spirt and content of Ps. 17:3-5. He strikes us as arrogant, to be sure, but no one can doubt his disciplined adherence to the moral and ethical code of his faith. He is the faithful, dependable, tithing type who pays the salaries of ministers so they can preach on the parable of the Pharisee and the [tax collector]!”1
Here, my friend Pen writes, “… if Jesus tells parables not to make a moral claim, but to reveal something of the reign of God – what if [this] is what God’s reign looks like?”2 Jesus tells us that the least expected one, who also happens to be the truly honest one, goes home justified, rather than the other one, the morally upright character, but the one who, it seems had decided in his pursuit of God that he didn’t really need God anymore. That his own efforts and competence were enough. Because in the reign of God, this parable seems to say, it’s all mixed up. Maybe people who do the right things, and people who do the wrong things, and all of us, really, who are some combination of both, get mixed up, tables turned, roles reversed, so those distinctions, those boundaries, those categories don’t even mean anything anymore, and God binds us ALL – not a token ALL – but really, ALL. You and me, white and black, who grew up in all sorts of places in all sorts of families, of all sorts of political persuasions and socio-economic circumstances, young and old, gay and straight, single and married and divorced. Not in a way that flattens or avoids our differences, but strengthens us through them, surprising us, stripping away all of the perfect images of ourselves we love to project, revealing something that is closer to the heart of who we really are. Who God made us – made YOU – to be.
This week I finished reading an amazing book by Bryan Stevenson called, “Just Mercy.” Stevenson is a lawyer who has spent his life wading into the systemic racism and inequality in our justice system. Toward the end of the book he tells the story of Avery Jenkins, a death row client with severe mental illness. Every time he visited, Avery asked for a chocolate milkshake. Every time. Where’s my milkshake? Did you bring me one? But the rules would not allow it.
Avery’s father had been murdered before he was born and mother died of a drug overdose when he was a year old. He’d been in nineteen foster homes before he turned eight. He suffered heartbreaking abuse. By fifteen he was having seizures and experiencing psychotic episodes, in and out of jail, when at age 20, in the midst of one of those episodes, Avery wandered into a strange house where he stabbed to death a man he believed to be a demon. Prior to trial, his lawyers did no investigation of Avery’s history, and this mentally ill man was quickly convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Every time Stevenson went to see Jenkins he encountered this one hostile prison guard who aggressively strip-searched him the first time he came to the prison. This guard reveled in being intimidating, mean, and rude. Months later this guard was made responsible for transporting Jenkins to court for his hearing. Afterwards, Stevenson went back to the prison to visit, bracing himself for another difficult encounter with the guard. Instead of violence, the guard said:
“You know I took ole Avery to court for his hearing and was down there with y’all for those three days. And I…I want you to know that I was listening… It was kind of difficult for me to be in that courtroom to hear what y’all was talking about….I came up in foster care, too.” After a long pause, the guard’s face softened as he admitted, “Man, I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me. They moved me around like I was wanted nowhere. I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse…I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s good what you’re doing. I got so angry coming up that there were plenty of times when I really wanted to hurt somebody, just because I was angry. I made it to eighteen, joined the military, and you know, I’ve been okay. But sitting in that courtroom brought back memories, and I think I realized how I’m still kind of angry.”
The startling confession continued, the two men shook hands. As Stevenson walked toward his client, the guard sheepishly said one last thing: “Listen, I did something I probably wasn’t supposed to do, but I want you to know about it. On the trip back down here after court on that last day—well, I know how Avery is, you know. Well anyway, I just want you to know that I took an exit off the interstate on the way back. And well, I took him to a Wendy’s, and I bought him a chocolate milkshake.”3
Sometimes, Luke writes, in the kingdom of God, all of the roles we fill – whether we do all the right things or all the wrong ones, or we’re just all in our brokenness together. I tend to think we’re all in this brokenness together. What if God’s grace strips all of that stuff away, all the roles, all the posturing, all the self-protection? What if Christ strips it away, so we might love God with all of ourselves, and we might truly begin to consider really loving one another?
All praise be to this one who created us and claims us and frees us to be more than we are. Amen.
1. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 211.
2. From the Rev. Pen Peery’s paper on this text at The Well, Baltimore, 2013.
3. Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” (New York: Spiegal and Grau, 2014). Avery’s story is found in chapter ten. I am grateful for the Rev. Heather Shortlidge’s consolidation of this story in her paper for The Well, 2016, Birmingham.