“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Luke 18. (The full readings for today can be found here.)
In the name of our Living God, who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining us.
Well good morning, good morning.
You know, I love today’s gospel, and every time I think about it and about the spiritual danger of comparing ourselves to others, I remember a story my great grandfather used to tell. It’s a story about two brothers, who like my great grandfather, came over from Ireland, from the old country. And the Flanagan brothers, well, they weren’t very nice men. In fact, they were terrible men. Although they were filthy rich, they were very stingy. They were terrible drunkards and beat their wives and children. Even the neighborhood dogs were afraid of the Flanagan brothers.
Well, one day Tommy Flanagan died, and his brother Michael went to the parish priest. And Michael proposed a terrible bargain to the priest. He said, “Father, I know my brother wasn’t a good man, but I want people to think well of him. And I will give a million dollars to the church orphanage if you will tell people he was a saint at his funeral. But you must use those exact words, Father. You must tell them that Tommy was a saint.”
Well, this caused a terrible crisis of conscience for the parish priest. He knew that the orphanage was deeply in debt and the children of the parish had a terrible need for that money. But he just couldn’t imagine lying about Tommy Flanagan and losing all moral authority with his parish. Well, the day of the funeral came, and the priest rose to the pulpit to give the homily.
He said, “I knew Tommy Flanagan, I knew him all my life and I knew him well. He was a drunkard and a cruel man. He beat his children and his wife, and never came to Mass. He was stingy, and a bully, and a lout. But,” the priest said, “compared to his brother Michael, Tommy Flanagan was a saint.”
Like I said, I love this gospel because we find at least three aspects of this passage that are classic Luke. The first of these is the way in which Luke uses pairs to tell a story. Not long ago, we heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man, and last week we heard the story of the widow and the unjust judge. Luke begins the story this week: “Two men went up to the temple to pray….” The opening echoes with the resonance of another story from Luke: “A certain man had two sons….” And just like in the story of the prodigal son, when we hear that these two men went up to pray, we suspect there’s going to be some trouble.
Another aspect of this story that is classic Luke is the notion of inclusion. Luke’s gospel is the gospel of radical inclusion. In Jesus’ time, it was clear that there was a circle of holiness and some people were inside that circle and some people were outside of that circle—including women, lepers, those who were sick, especially tax collectors.
Tax collectors were particularly despised because they did not simply collect the amount of tax owed. Because the position was unpaid, they had to collect more than was owed to support themselves. They often used violence and extortion to collect the taxes. And most importantly, they were seen as collaborators, working with the occupying Roman government to suppress the people of Israel. Tax collectors were dreaded, and they were despised. But in Luke’s gospel, everyone is invited into the circle of holiness, and that includes tax collectors. Jesus eats with them; he even calls them his friends.
The third aspect of this story that marks it as squarely fitting into Luke’s gospel is the way it upends our expectations. Luke constantly does that. Jesus constantly does that. This story is sort of like one of those mirrors at the circus where our reflections are distorted. They’re still recognizable, but not at all what we expect. We’ve already talked about one of these, and Jesus upends our expectation that the tax collector would be the villain of the story.
A second expectation that is frustrated is the place where this story occurs—the temple. For most good, devout Jews in first century Palestine, the temple was the holiest place on earth. It served as the fulcrum of the world, the place where heaven and earth intersected. And I suspect if you asked Jesus about how he felt about the temple his feelings would have been richly and profoundly ambivalent. While he knew of its scriptural importance, he also knew of the ways in which the temple system had been compromised and corrupted.
So, the temple was traditionally a place where sacrifice was offered. Yes, it was a place of prayer, but one could pray most anywhere. The temple system was built on sacrifice and a transactional approach to washing away one’s sins or having one’s prayers answered. In Jesus’ story, however, rather than a place of sacrifice, the temple becomes a place of mercy. And rather than a system of merit, mercy seems to rain down upon some shockingly undeserving people.
And then Jesus capsizes our expectations about the Pharisee. He’s a fine specimen of a faithful churchgoer. We get the feeling that he prays often, he fasts regularly, and he gives money to the church. Honestly, that’s a good, solid spiritual regimen. He’d probably fit in well over at St. Elsewhere Episcolopolus Church; he might even fit in well here with us.
I suspect he really was a good guy, a decent sort, and a fine churchman. But he was blind to two critical issues: the source of his blessing; and the purpose of his blessing. He cannot see that the source of his blessing was not his own good character. And he cannot understand that all of his blessings were to be used for God’s purposes. Luke offers us a sharp contrast: the tax collector’s focus is inward (on his own sins and his failure to live a holy life), but the Pharisee is focused on others, and how they live.
We so often attempt to summarize our brothers and sisters in one glance, as this Pharisee does. And therein we find ourselves mired in a spiritual quicksand: the sin of dismissal. It points us to one of the greatest risks to our spiritual lives—comparing ourselves to others. I want us to examine the many ways we might compare ourselves to others: the books we’ve read, what we do for a living, where we went to school, the car we drive, our exercise regime, who we vote for, the neighborhood we grew up in, and where we go to church.
The Pharisee is convinced that he’s in good shape with the Almighty. His claim to righteousness is based upon his own accomplishments while the tax collector realizes his only chance is God’s mercy. Without that, he hasn’t got a prayer. In a classic upheaval of expectations, Jesus says “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” It’s a close parallel to the idea that the first will be last and the last will be first.
Jesus tells us that the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, went home justified. In the Greek, that word “justified” carries a lot of connotations, including the connotation of having gone through a judicial proceeding. It means having been acquitted, restored, forgiven, made right, or rebalanced. Here, we find another inversion of what we expect because the Pharisee offers a number of justifications for his life and his goodness. The tax collector offers no defense. He can rely upon nothing other than God’s mercy.
In one sense, learning to live without self-justification is a terrible burden. It leaves us vulnerable to the judgment of others, and vulnerable to our harshest critic, ourselves. In another sense, it’s terribly liberating because we come to realize that our justification or our salvation depends upon God’s mercy rather than our merit. And one of the things we can let go of, one of the things we must let go of, is keeping score. We don’t need to keep score against our brothers or sisters, or against God, anymore. It’s a hard lesson, my friends. But this parable teaches us that in the spiritual life if you are keeping score, you have already lost the game. Amen.
James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2022