Most of you know that I’ve just returned from a mission trip in South Africa. Heidi and Marcia return later this week. I’m sure that the others and I will talk and write more about all that we saw and felt, but one aspect of my own experience helps me approach today’s Gospel.
In South Africa, from the moment our plane landed, I was aware of my tendency to make comparisons. My impulse was to see what was different and what was similar. It’s a kind of default for me. I guess I feel that if I can identify how things are in relation to what I’m used to, then whatever new place I’m in will begin to make better sense to me.
And so I notice: I notice they drive on the left side of the road like Europeans; we drive on the right. They speak of “robots” at intersections, whereas we call them “traffic lights.” They have eleven official languages. We (sort of) have one. And then, there are lots of similarities.
Both countries struggle to figure out how a particular group of people who have not always had a fair chance in the past might best be given equal opportunity for the present and future. Both countries struggle with immigrants who arrive from other countries and are willing to take the worst jobs. Both countries deal with diversity and difference. And churches in both places deal with many of the very same issues.
On and on, the comparisons went, until I began to realize that I was wasting a whole lot of energy playing this mental and sometimes verbal game of “notice what’s similar or different in this picture.” I began to realize that I was missing some of what was right in front of me.
Perhaps South Africa, and especially the people I was meeting, might better be enjoyed, might better be understood, by my simply receiving them as they were and not trying to fit them into my view of the world based on where I come from and what I perceive as the norm.
It was the diplomat and economist, Dag Hammarskjöld, who wrote, “To be humble is not to make comparisons.”
He wrote, “Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exaltation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe.” (Markings).
While I certainly don’t claim humility, I do think Hammarskjold’s words speak to my own experience in South Africa, and also speak to the point of today’s Gospel. If we were to take Hammarskjold’s advice, I think we would be very careful in our reading and hearing of the parable in today’s Gospel from Luke. Jesus is not calling us to compare ourselves with either the Pharisee or the tax-collector. Instead, he wants us to try to move beyond comparisons, and begin to depend upon the grace of God.
Perhaps the Pharisee seems familiar from what we’ve heard in church before. Since Sunday school—even in popular culture—the Pharisee is almost always typecast as the “bad guy.” It’s hard to imagine a good Pharisee, one who is kind or generous. It’s perhaps hard to imagine a female Pharisee. But the fact is that the majority of the Pharisees were probably good folks—hardworking, law-abiding, giving, praying, “doing” believers who tried as best they might to follow the ways of the God of Israel.
The Pharisee in today’s Gospel says as much in his prayer. I don’t think his prayer is as boastful as it is factual. He’s simply repeating what he’s done. He’s undertaking a kind of spiritual examen, reviewing his day, reviewing his week. Where did God show up? Where did God not show up? He has fasted twice a week, he has tithed (giving at least a tenth of all he has). He’s an upstanding member of the community.
In our day, the Pharisee would most likely be in church on Sunday morning, serve on community boards, attend PTSA meetings, maybe even coach soccer, and probably volunteer for a local charity or run in a money-raising marathon. If you can picture respectability, then you can picture a Pharisee. And it’s wrong for us to assume that this respectability is just a veneer. The Pharisee feels strongly about his beliefs, takes his commitments seriously, and lives out his values.
The tax collector, on the other hand, is a traitor. Palestine at this point is under Roman occupation. And so, the tax collector is a Jew who is collecting money from his own people to give to the Roman state. Tax collectors in the popular imagination were no good. They were thought to be liars and cheats, greedy and only interested in themselves.
In our Gospel, the Pharisee thanks God for the gifts God has given him. But the tax collector—strange even that we might have wandered into the temple—the tax collector asks for nothing but the mercy of God. There is no indication that the tax collector has quit his dirty-work. He hasn’t suddenly decided to take a new job or follow a different course. And it’s not even clear that the tax collector expects to be heard by God, much less answered by God.
The issue here is not that Pharisees are bad and tax collectors are good. It’s not about comparing the good, honest, upstanding folk who might be in church on Sunday with the folks who partied so hard last night that they’re still in bed this morning. The point of the Gospel come out in the prayers of the two characters.
The prayer offered by the Pharisee was very close to a common prayer offered by any faithful Jew in the temple, with one exception. There’s one little word that pops out, translated in the English as the word, “like.” The Pharisee gives thanks to God that he is not “like” other people, especially the tax collector. For the Pharisee, gratitude has crossed over into a sense of elitism—something that happens easily whenever we get into “we/them language.” The Pharisee’s prayer is false prayer as he compares himself with the tax collector. And had the tax collector in some way compared himself with the Pharisee, whether favorably or unfavorably, it would have been just as false. Neither person is any more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than the other.
Effective prayer reminds us of our complete dependence upon God. Faithful prayer is not a listing of what we’ve done right, or even what we’ve done wrong. The tax collector never loses sight of that. He knows that he really has nothing going for him but the grace of God, and so it’s for this reason that Jesus says the tax collector left the temple “justified,” or “in line with God.”
Those words of Hammarskjöld come back to me: “to be humble is not to make comparisons.” Earlier I spoke of how my making so many comparisons in South Africa obscured what I might really see and what I might really experience.
And I think the same dynamic plays itself out in our relationship with God and with other people. Though we are created in community and God loves us as God’s children, each of us is unique. Each is incomparable. Each lives and dies by the breath of God.
As Paul writes, each of us is “rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue [us] from every evil attack and save [us] for the heavenly kingdom.”
May we resist the temptation of making comparisons. May we rest in the grace, mercy, and love of God that sustains us and keeps us alive.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.