Perhaps you have heard the story of the man who came to the gates of heaven to be greeted by St. Peter. Peter asks the man if he can give a brief history of his life with an emphasis on the good deeds he had done in order to gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven. "You will need 1000 points to be admitted," Peter tells the man.
"This will be a cinch," the man thinks to himself, "I've been involved in church from the days of my youth." Then he begins to list his activities for Peter. He was an officer in his youth group, served in every possible position he could as a youngster. Was on the Church Council and every committee the church had to offer. His list was extensive.
"Very impressive," Peter smiles at the man. An angel standing with them also smiled and nodded as he tallied the points and then whispered in Peter's ear. Peter tells the man,
"This is quite striking -- we seldom see men of your very good works. You will be pleased to know that you have 327 points! Is there anything else you can think of?"
The poor soul breaks into a cold sweat and begins to reach deep for every single act of kindness he could think of. He listed them as the angel scratched furiously on his angelic clip board and nodded his head in admiration. Peter looks at the clip board and says, "This is quite exceptional! You now have a total of 402 points. Can you think of anything else?"
The distressed guy strives to recall good deeds -- like the time he helped a little old lady across the street. He finally arrives at a grand total of 431 points and cries out... "I am sunk! There is no hope for me! What more could I have done? O Lord, all I can do is beg for your mercy!"
"THAT," exclaims Peter, "Is a thousand points!"
So also, the tax collector in Jesus' parable finds his hope in the grace and mercy of God.
Not so long ago I met a person, now a judge, who had spent much of their career as a criminal lawyer. I said, "I don’t know what that would be like. I assume that in doing that work you must have met with some of the worst of society." His response, "well, yes, but in our society they deserve a decent defence the same as everyone else."
I was being pretty judgemental. It is easy to get that way, isn’t it.
Recently, I read about a lawyer, Andrea Lyon who has been called the "angel of death row" for her fourteen years of service in the Cook County (Chicago) Public Defender’s Office, where she eventually became Chief of the Homicide Task Force.
Lyons has become a defender of convicted killers. In a recent book she introduces a dozen or so defendants who make the "robbers, evildoers and adulterers" of Luke 18:11 look like boy scouts.
Lyons never romanticizes her clients, excuses their crimes, fudges the truth, or idealizes her work. But as a defender of the unrighteous whom the righteous love to hate, she believes that "every person amounts to more than the worst thing he or she has ever done." She has argued more than 130 homicide cases. In nineteen cases she defended clients who were found guilty of capital murder, arguing that they be spared the death penalty in favour of a lesser punishment. She won all nineteen cases.
Lyon’s story fits alongside Luke’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. By contrasting two characters as polar opposites, Jesus sets in bold relief two ways of being religious. One way is death-dealing, the other is life-giving.
The Pharisee was religiously righteous, the tax man extorted revenue for the Roman oppressors. The religious ‘expert’ was smug, holier than thou, and confident, the outsider was anxious, insecure and timid. The saint paraded to the temple, while the sinner "stood at a distance" as if his physical distance from the sacred temple expressed his spiritual alienation. The righteous man stood up, the sinful man looked down. In an act of shocking narcissism, the Pharisee prayed loudly "about himself"; the tax collector could barely pray at all. The Pharisee puffed out his chest in pride; the publican beat his breast in sorrow.
Parables are like fishing lures: they are full of attractive features—feathers, bright colours—and they end with a sharp little barb! The punch line ends in a reversal. The respectable, reputable believer, so competent and accomplished, the one who had done everything right, was rejected, whereas the secular sinner---disreputable, inadequate, and incompetent---"went home justified before God."
What a keen, conscientious, religious person the Pharisee was. He prayed often, fasted regularly, and he gave generously to help the needy. His spiritual routine was impeccable. But he made two tragic mistakes in his religious life, one about himself, and one about other people, the combination being toxic to authentic spirituality.
First the Pharisee looked down on everybody else. Contempt for others lurks in the human heart, bubbling up all too easily and frequently. "I’m glad I don’t have tattoos like that guy….Thank God I’m not as narrow-minded as that conservative fellow." Somehow, we can imagine that in putting down others, we validate ourselves. To disparage criminals like those in Lyon’s book (or those featured on our television screens) might feel good, but that’s a dark place that Jesus warns us to avoid. We harm people when we do this to them. And worse still, while imagining that we elevate ourselves, we actually harm ourselves.
We all come up short. What we all need when we flounder and fail is not moral condescension but human compassion, not humiliation but empathy, not shame but hope. St. Maximos of the seventh century said, "The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone…He knows that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress."
The flip side of condescension toward others is justification of yourself. This was the Pharisee’s second mistake. The Pharisee thanked God that he was "not like other people"---a thief, an evildoer, or an adulterer. His religious narcissism was a form of spiritual self-justification, of which there are endless variations. It’s scary to think about the many ways we try to justify ourselves before God, others, and ourselves.
We use intelligence scores, education, net worth, family reputation, enlightened politics, work status, address, you name it-anything that equates net worth with self-worth is also commonly used.
To live without self-justification is to make oneself vulnerable. But when you think about it, living without self-justification is extraordinarily liberating. As soon as you accept that you’re accepted by a good God, you never, for any reason, need to prove yourself. To get to that place, Jesus says that we need only seven words---those mumbled by the tax collector as he stood at a distance and stared at the ground: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The moment we breathe those words and cast our very selves upon God, we experience his love without conditions or limits.
Balance is key. We cannot trust in our ability to fulfill the law to save us (to buy our way in by good works), yet we do not abandon the law (our responsibility to do the right thing). We humble ourselves before a merciful God yet are confident in the Lord’s promises. Whether Pharisee or tax collector by nature, all find welcome in God’s temple. Thanks be to God!
Acknowledging inspiration from:
eSermons, Illustrations for Luke 18
Clendenin, Daniel B., Lord Have Mercy, Sunday, October 24, 2010 webzine for the global church