a Lilliputian prayer

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Luke 18.9-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016

Sometimes one can be good and inspire intense dislike or bad and dislikable, yet, perhaps paradoxically, useful.

the-pharisee-and-the-publican-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

Jesus tells a parable of two who prayed. One, a Pharisee.

Historically, Pharisees haven’t fared well. “Pharisaical” is a synonym for the hypocrisy of outwardly doing of all the right things, but inwardly being less than true to the values the actions symbolize.

All Pharisees weren’t bad. Indeed, their “job” in Judaism was to know and do God’s Law – all 613 ritual imperatives of Sabbath observances and feast days, dietary rules and tithing. They were to be embodiments of the heart of the Law: love for God and neighbor. Yes, Jesus condemned the Pharisees as legalistically obsessed with externals; more concerned about correct conduct than love or justice.[1] Nevertheless, their role in the life of the community was important, for all of us need outward and visible, at times, living symbols of the values we cherish if we are to know and remember them.

All said, Pharisees were respected, admired, but not well liked. Hard to like someone who rises above us and perhaps looks down on us.

The second actor in Jesus’ two-person drama is a tax collector. A despised collaborator with the hated Roman Empire. A desecrator of the Law, taking money from his own people on behalf of the enemy. A thief who often levied higher amounts than were owed, pocketing the difference.

Tax collectors, seeking to repent, came to John the Baptizer, asking, “What should we do?” John said, “Collect no more than is due!”[2] Zacchaeus, a tax collector, overwhelmed with gratitude that Jesus would come to his home, joyously declared, “If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’ll repay fourfold!”[3] Clearly, tax collecting was profitable; the prosperity often the spoiled fruit of the misery of others.

Nevertheless, the disrespected, despised tax collector was useful as one who falls beneath us and perhaps upon whom we can look down.

So, the Pharisee. In his prayer, his hubristic litany of self-praise, he saw himself as morally superior to the tax collector. And he hadn’t lied. He had done everything he said. But he hadn’t lived the Law. He hadn’t loved. Thus he fulfilled Paul’s sad commentary on a loveless life; blessed with ability and achievement, but lacking compassion for others: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels…if I have prophetic powers…understand all mysteries and all knowledge…and faith…but do not have love, I am nothing.”[4]

The tax collector, in his contrite confession, had gotten nothing right, but everything real, for he hadn’t fallen prey to the temptation of comparison. (Whenever I measure myself against another, I know the risk. Whenever I, by my standards, look for some lesser mortal over whom to exalt myself, I will find that person. Yet inevitably I also will stumble into shadows cast by giants whose Brobdingnagian achievements by comparison make my accomplishments appear Lilliputian.[5]) The tax collector, judging himself only by himself, found himself lacking, compelling his cry for mercy.

As we interpret this tale, it is good for us to remember that Jesus was an intuitive story teller who taught in parables because he wanted us to think for ourselves. I believe Jesus ended the story with the tax collector’s plea: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Luke, writing a generation after Jesus, added the moral to the story, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I guess Luke didn’t trust us with our own ruminations.

I think this because the ethical line that Luke draws is too solid and too straight. The Pharisee, outwardly righteous, inwardly flawed. The tax collector, outwardly flawed, inwardly righteous. Nothing in life or human experience is that clear!

So, taking up the story where I believe Jesus left it calls us to recognize that a Pharisee and a tax collector abides within each of us.

Like the Pharisee, we, at times, compare ourselves with others. The cost is that our self-perception and esteem can rise or fall in relation to how we view others. At the same time, we need to claim the pharisaical promise that we are “not like other people”. Each of us is created wonderfully, differently, uniquely, individually. Therefore, there always is something each of us can give to others and receive from others.

Like the tax collector, we earn much of our profit, yes, our material treasure, yet also the wealth of our personalities at the cost and through the giving of others. Therefore, forgetting that, we always are in danger of believing somehow we did it ourselves and, thus, need to remember to pray like a Lilliputian, in gratitude, always in mind and heart of our need for mercy.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Pharisee and the Publican (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). The Pharisee (left), as described in the parable, “standing by  himself”, his bearing erect, hold his hands aloft in prayer. The tax collector or publican (right) also stands alone and, “far off”, his posture abject, leaning against a pillar for support, his head bowed in his hand, unable to “look up to heaven”, his other hand grasping, “beating his breast”, all signs of contrition. (Note: publican was a title given to a public contractor who served the Roman Empire in a variety of roles, one of which was tax collection.)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 23.1-36 and Luke 11.42-44.

[2] Luke 3.12-13

[3] Luke 19.8

[4] 1 Corinthians 13.1, 2, my emphasis

[5] A reference to peoples, respectively great and small in size, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

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