I was in Goshen, Indiana this past week and stayed with my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Ron. One evening I said to Uncle Ron, “Tell me about Pharisees – without being anti-semitic.” Uncle Ron is a retired pastor and scholar; he loves this kind of thing. He started right in:
The Pharisees were faithful, they were like us. They took scripture seriously, sometimes literally though they weren’t as literal as the Sadducees or the Essenes. The Pharisees were highly educated.
You know, we are like the Pharisees.
And then Uncle Ron said, “Why do you ask?”
“Just a little sermon research,” I said.
It is a simple lesson, this parable about the pharisee and the tax collector: don’t be so self-righteous. Choose humility or it will be heaped upon you.
This isn’t the first time we have heard this idea from the writer of Luke. Think of Mary’s song in chapter 1, God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
In Luke 6, the Sermon on the Plain, Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. And then again in Luke 20, after this parable, Jesus tells the disciples that they should “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes and who love respectful greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
It is not a unique to the Pharisees, this tendency toward being judgmental; other religious leaders get called out too. And I think my Uncle Ron is right: we are like the Pharisees and not just because many of us here are highly or maybe even overly-educated. Kathleen Kern, who worked with Community Peacemaker Teams for many years, wrote a book in 1995 called We are the Pharisees. The blurb for the book says: “Why do we think of Pharisees as hypocrites and legalistic nitpickers? By identifying with the Pharisees instead of denouncing them, we can address the pride, hypocrisy, and legalism in ourselves and in our churches.”
That would be one way to stop the Christian tendency toward anti-semitism: to own that these same characteristics that we imagine Jesus is pointing out about Jewish leaders are actually present in ourselves. Self-righteousness, looking down on others, believing ourselves better than those with less power or a different kind of power, spending too much time in the imagination of (our) hearts – this is pretty easy to fall into. On the other hand, Mennonites are known as a humble people. We are proud of our humility.
We are proud of the ways that we are not hierarchal like other religious traditions. We know how to share power, giving lots of different people responsibility. The outgoing moderator (leader) of Allegheny Conference (and probably other Mennonite conferences as well) passes a basin and pitcher as a symbol of humble servanthood to the incoming moderator as part of the leadership transition.
This past July, Anabaptist World published a piece by Tim Nafziger about power and humility after Malcom Gladwell wrote on his blog about attending a Mennonite wedding. Gladwell described how the wedding party helped serve the food at the reception with the bride donning an apron over her wedding dress to dish out the mac and cheese. Weren’t we Mennonites delighted that the famous Malcolm Gladwell noticed our Mennonite humility.
Tim Nafziger doesn’t let us get away with this kind parabolic imagination in our hearts. In his research and analysis after the Gladwell piece, Nafziger quotes former Pink Menno leader Katie Hochstedler (who) describes the dynamic of what she calls Mennonite exceptionalism. “Deep down hiding under all that ‘humility,’ we know that we really are better than anyone else because we are Mennonites,” she says. “We don’t say it out loud, but we know it, and we love noticing to each other that even the brilliant Malcolm Gladwell can see how much better we are.”
Does that sound a little, or maybe a lot, like that Pharisee in the parable? Thank you God that I am not like that greedy tax collector. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on everything I earn. I do all my cooking with local ingredients, I have Hyattsville Mennonite Church and Mennonite Central Committee on autopay every month. Thank you God that I am not like those proud people.
(It may be a simple message but this is a hard parable for those of us who are competitive. How can one begin to win a contest of humility? I may not have won the Dutch Blitz tournament at the retreat last weekend, but good grief, can I at least win the crown for most humble?)
The tax collector in Jesus’ day is a scoundrel like the stereotype that some people have of IRS agents, or other federal workers, today. The tax collectors are Jews who work for and cooperate with the Empire. The tax collectors sometimes charge more than they should, skimming money off the top. But let’s be realistic, everybody lives in the Empire and does what they need to survive, even the religious leaders. You can’t keep your hands totally clean. The more things change…
As if to make the parable come to life, the next chapter of Luke names a tax collector, Zacchaeus, who encounters Jesus. This time all the people (not just the Pharisees) are self-righteous. The people mutter and sputter about Jesus talking with Zacchaeus the tax collector – and then sharing a meal at Zacchaeus’ home! And Zacchaeus, because of this experience with Jesus, is remarkably transformed. He promises to repay people four times what he stole from them.
It makes me wonder: if someone as smarmy as a tax collector can pray genuinely, what does that mean for the faithful, if self-righteous, Pharisee? If the tax collector, who cannot be trusted, can experience transformation, what about the Pharisees who always do things right? Can we also be transformed? Can we find ways to pray that connect us to God, that don’t disconnect us from our neighbors? Can we approach the Holy Mystery, as we are, without comparing ourselves to others, to the ways other people pray?
This parable reminds us that living right is good but when our healthy, faithful living becomes a way to oppress or condemn other people, well, Jesus calls us on that. There is a difference between choosing humility as a personal practice and humiliating another person, whether in private or in public.
Some people really need this message about humility. Some people, (maybe even some Mennonites?) do “Lord it over others” in ways that separate them from God and neighbor. And some people (maybe even some Mennonites) feel as if they will never be able to measure up, like they will never be enough in the eyes of their neighbors or God. So while this parable is important, really important for the people who think they are important, this parable may not be for everyone. It even says it right there in the text: Jesus spoke this parable addressed to those who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding everyone else in contempt.
The lesson of this parable is not for people whose only prayer is “God have mercy.” People who feel unable to see the GodLight within themselves may need a different parable, like the one about the possibilities and power contained in a tiny mustard seed. People who feel ignored and disdained may better connect with the parable that tells us that God keeps searching until all are found. People who think they will never measure up may need the parable that reminds us that sometimes the “beautiful” people will ignore the banquet invitation and everyone else, who might think they are not beautiful, is invited. They are enough and they are welcomed in to the glorious banquet.
This is not the last word on humility and self-righteousness, the imagination of our hearts. And that is good because speaking personally, I have an active imagination, perhaps it is more active the older I get. I find it tricky to see the world through a feminist lens or an anti-racist lens, which inevitably compares and critiques – and not get caught up, even stuck, in judgement and self-righteousness.
While I will forever be a novice, I find contemplative prayer, keeping silence, to be a practice that invites us toward true humility. It works for those of us who need to quiet our overactive imaginations and for those of us who are searching for the GodLight within.
Breathe with me. (hold silence)
As you breathe, see if you can detect a spark of light in yourself. It might be in your heart, it may be in your belly, it might be somewhere else in your body. Notice how it flickers. Is it fragile, is it glowing strong? As you continue to breathe, imagine that your breath blows on that little flame, helping it to grow, until it can spread to other parts of yourself. This is a flame that warms but does not destroy. Keep breathing on that little light within yourself. Imagine that some day that light will be strong enough that you will want to share a little piece of it with someone else, a little piece of that GodLight. There is enough. There will be enough.
Thank you God for Uncle Ron who helps explain Pharisees. Thank you God for teachers and thinkers like Jesus and Tim Nafziger and Katie Hochstedler (and Malcolm Gladwell.) Thank you Holy Mystery that with you there is always room for growth, and transformation. Thank you for the GodLight within. Lord have Mercy. AMEN