Pharisees and Tax-collectors

Two men to up to the Temple to pray, and we know them both rather well. The first is one of the elites, someone you and I might admire.  He was a regular worshipper at Temple and was there every Sabbath.  He participated in the worship services and requisite sacrifices; if there was a special festival or celebration, he was there.  He tithed the full 10% of his income and was happy to do so.  The Pharisee was a faithful man, observing all the externals of religion, but in his heart, in his inmost being, he was conflicted: “Thank you, God,” he prays, that my parents brought me up right, that I memorized key scripture verses, that I have a good income and that I can tithe and support my favorite charities and even tutor kids in reading at the local school.”

But, when he left to return home, he realized that he wasn’t getting much out of the rituals and lessons, despite his weekly attendance.  Something was missing; something just wasn’t touching his heart like he thought it would.  In point of fact, not much of anything touched his heart—but there was always next week.  He just didn’t understand how some people could be enthusiastic about going to Temple. His wife would comment afterwards about all those children who had been with their mothers in their courtyard outside the Temple that evening.  Why couldn’t their parents control them and keep them quiet? After all, when their children were young, they knew how to behave. For all that, they continued to be faithful: they went to Temple, they supported the priesthood, they paid their tithe.  As a result, they were respected in the community and when they took their respective seats in public, they always drew looks of envy and admiration from those other people.

Tucked away in the back row among the men, was another of “those” people.  The Pharisee and his wife had certainly seen him around the city, but couldn’t for the life of them figure out why he continued to come to Temple.  After all, he wasn’t from the same social or economic circles that their friends were from.  Actually, this other man had been coming to Temple for awhile now, shortly after his divorce, when he’d lost his business.  He had been coming ever since, just to worship, just to sit still for a little bit of time and get a moment or two of peace.  He wasn’t one to volunteer or get involved because he was certain that he wasn’t worthy or wanted by most of the others.  But he kept coming back anyway.  This particular day, after the rituals, he found himself strangely moved, and tears that had been stored up for a very long time, suddenly came streaming down his cheeks.  Was it joy or sorrow?  He couldn’t say.  He could not explain what was happening to him, but he was suddenly very sure that God loved him just the way he was.

Two men went up to the temple to pray. Two men came down from the temple after worshiping God, yet only one was justified. It’s obvious that one was a pompous jerk and the other a social misfit and a loser.  Although it seems odd that any God would want either of these characters, the parable tells us that God prefers losers to jerks.  Maybe it’s because there’s not much God can do for a jerk, but there is a lot He can do with a loser.

Pharisees separated themselves from other people, even at worship, so they could maintain their ritual purity.  If so much as the hem of a Pharisee’s clothing brushed up against an unclean person, the Pharisee would be rendered unclean himself.  Because ritual purity had become something good in and of itself, it could not be compromised for any reason. From their point of view, keeping themselves separate from tax collectors, gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried people, illegal aliens and socialists were a public statement of their innate holiness.  In the midst of the Temple, before the Holy of Holies, stood a huge incense table, and when the time came to burn incense on this pillar, the men in attendance would offer their personal prayers out loud.  The Pharisee in the parable is using his private prayer time to preach a lesson to the ritually unclean around him.  Because “those” people rarely have opportunities to interact or even see righteous people in their daily lives, he decides to offer them a few words of holy advice, not to mention a healthy dose of judgment!

Whether we like to admit it, you and I are sometimes jerks ourselves.  We feel, at one time or another, exactly like this Pharisee feels.  We see homeless people walking with their faces turned away from us with a trash bag over their shoulders containing everything they own, and we say, “Thank you, God, that I am not like that.”  We meet a young gay man at the dinner dance who is clearly an AIDS patient.  We can see it in his look, in the way his pale skin is drawn so tightly around his skull that his eyes are twice the size they used to be.  “Thank you, God, that I was always careful about my sex partners.”  And just today, when we saw a woman buying liquour and cigarettes at Meijer after purchasing steaks with her food stamps, we said, “Thank you, God, that I am not so dishonest as to misuse public assistance monies for my own benefit like this woman!”  Thank you, God,  that I am not like any of the “those” people…

Each of us has a tendency to play the self-righteous Pharisee, thinking that others would surely benefit from our advice on how to live, how to vote, how to spend our money and who to fall in love with.  There is a story about a Sunday school teacher who, after reading this parable to her class, said, “Now, children, put your hands together, close your eyes, and thank God you are not like this bad Pharisee!” The reality is that if we can name someone we know to be the Pharisee in this parable, then the parable is about us!  We are the Pharisee.  This parable isn’t about how we should pray, or about being judgmental or self-righteous, it’s about grace.  God was available equally to both the Pharisee and the tax-collector. God didn’t love the Pharisee more than the tax-collector. Nor, did God love the tax-collector more than the Pharisee. I have tried most of my life to talk some sense into God, to encourage him to have some standards, to no avail!  It’s because God has this ridiculous idea that every person is worthy of exactly the same measure of love, support, nurture and grace.  I have tried reasoning with God, trying to explain that we can’t help everybody, that we surely can’t embrace socialism just so a few hundred thousand uninsured mothers and children get medical care, that we certainly cannot tolerate all these illegal aliens who don’t have the courtesy to enter the Promised Land the normal way, that we can’t be too generous with drug addicts and crack whores because they’ll just go back to their habits anyway, and that we can’t possibly allow gay and lesbian people to have equality under the law because, well, they’re just different from the majority.  Honestly, God just doesn’t seem to get it!

The hard truth is that God doesn’t love the clergy any more than the atheist.  He doesn’t love the woman who tithes any more than a meth dealer.  God loves us all the same, and our problem is that we don’t love each other all the same.  This is the Pharisee’s sin and it’s my sin and it’s your sin.  It’s the refusal of the Pharisee to have a relationship, a connection with the tax collector, and his determination to maintain his superior distance that closes off the Pharisee from embracing the fullness of God’s grace.   People who are aware of their own need for grace are incapable of hating other people: it’s just that simple.  The Pharisee had enough religion to help him live a good life through following the Law, but he did not have enough of it to make him humble. 

Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One sought out God to remind God how good he was. One sought out God to ask for God’s love. Two men went home that day. The first felt justified, but wasn’t.  The second felt loved, and was justified. The tax collector recognized his dependence on God’s grace, asked for it, received it, and left with a grateful heart. The Pharisee didn’t think he needed God’s grace, didn’t ask for it, didn’t receive it, and left feeling that something was still missing.

Three years ago, a handful of people came together with a radical plan for building a new kind of Catholic church.  We had come to the realization that we were living Pharisaical lives of our own, and that we were part of a larger system of spiritual domination that was excluding many of our sisters and brothers.  Like the tax collector in the parable, we had come to embrace a moment of grace in our own lives.  We did not know where the future would take us, we did not know if anyone would join us, we did not know how we would ever get this parish off the ground.  What we did know for certain was that God was calling us to be something new: an expression of the Church where all are truly valued and accepted and loved.  A place where what we believe is less important than how we treat each other.  A safe haven where we could simply “be” in the presence of God and be loved exactly as we are.  We considered and prayed and worried and in the end, we decided it was pointless resisting God.  Holy Redeemer was born.

We cross the threshold of another year of service to the people of Fort Wayne and in a special way to all those who have been injured by the institutional churches of their past.  The grace with which we began this project continues to sustain us and to grow within us.  As your pastor, I have felt extremely privileged to minister to you through the past 3 years.  I have been blessed to share your joys and celebrations as well as your sorrows and challenges.  I know that I have disappointed some of you,  that I have let some of you down, and I can assure you that I will continue to do things that will disappoint you and let you down.  But I also hope to be open to grace, to listen to each of you as you share your wisdom with me, and I vow to continue to walk this path in gratitude, knowing that each of you has come into my life for a divine purpose.  I hope to walk with you more and more like the tax collector and less and less as the Pharisee.  And through it all, I am more grateful than I can ever hope to express.


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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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