Every now and again I like to read historical fiction, great big books that make history come alive by telling the story in the voices of human beings with all their personal dramas and relationships. I am particularly fond of historical fiction about England – maybe it is the idea of all those beautiful costumes and references to places I have visited and actions that have shaped our lives as Americans and as Episcopalians.
Whatever the reason, I love those books…but there is usually a challenge with them. Invariably, they tell the story of several families whose lives intertwine, so there are many characters with similar names. Sometimes in the front of such a book there is a family tree, so I can check back and remind myself who someone was, who his forebears were, and how there might have been a lateral relationship as well as a linear one. Cousins marrying, for example, or the stepson of one family fathering a child who later wars with the child of the first family. A family tree is one very helpful way of making sure I have not lost track of the story.
Other such books might have something different in the front to guide my way, a list of all the characters and something about their roles in the action of the story. Lucius Malfoy, Son of Abraxas Malfoy, husband of Narcissa Black, father of Draco Malfoy, grandfather of Scorpius Malfoy, wealthy reformed Death Eater. Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, formerly a student, now sick and destitute, living in a cramped garret at the top of an apartment building. Thomas Cranmer, family chaplain of the family of Anne Boleyn, noted reformist in church matters, later named by Henry VIII as Archbishop of Canterbury after England broke with Rome.
These little listings, just like the family tree, give me enough touchpoints so that I can remember who these people are, what their relationships are, and how they might fit into the story as a whole.
Would that we had such lists giving us clues when we hear Jesus tell a parable to make a point!
Today we hear the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at their prayers. We can hear the pride in the voice of the Pharisee as he prays. We can hear the quiet desperation and shame in the voice of the tax collector as he prays. We think we know which character is good and which character is not so good. The Pharisee is a pompous blowhard who has no clue as to what true religion is about. He is not only pompous, he is insensitive and rude in his condemnation of the humble tax collector, who places himself in all his brokenness before God and begs forgiveness. Simple. We get it.
But in this parable, as in all parables, it is a little more complicated than it looks at first glance. Jesus turns things upside down to shake us up, to make us rethink our assumptions.
Easy to get confused when Jesus does that. I wish we had those character listings!
What would the listing for the Pharisee look like?
Levi ben Sirach, wealthy and devout Pharisee, dedicated to the temple, tithing and following all the rules for praying and good deeds, serving faithfully as all Pharisees are so called to do, and decrying the way the practices in the Temple have become so very sloppy. Because of his status as first son of a prosperous merchant, he is respected in the community, but sometimes feared for his harsh tongue. A good (if sometimes stingy) husband, loving (if sometimes stern) father to five sons and seven daughters.
What would the listing for the tax collector look like?
Saul ben Judah, tax collector, seventh son of a poor shepherd, working for the Roman government because the land on which the family had grazed its sheep for five generations had been taken to pay for food during a time of drought, petty skimmer of tax revenues, widowed when his wife died during the drought, father of one son and four daughters, two of whom had been taken as concubines by the local Roman governor and one of whom is a bit slow. Walks with a limp due to an accident with a chariot when he was walking to the next village to collect taxes early one morning.
Hmmm. Does that help us understand what is going on here?
A bit, but let me add a little color commentary here to flesh this out.
The Pharisee comes from a place of privilege. Even though the Romans have been oppressing the Jews in the time of Jesus, there is a pecking order amongst the Jewish community, and the Pharisees, who see themselves as fierce guardians of the law, are quite high in that order. They are the ones who have been reforming a broken Temple system, by enforcing those laws extraordinarily strictly, and sometimes making those around them miserable. Our Pharisee has some inherited wealth – he has inherited because he is the first son, not because of any particular skill or merit. But he is also a faithful Jew, following the one true God, and in his desire to see things done right, he has become a Pharisee, so that the law may be adhered to. He prays regularly as the law decrees and he gives generously, perhaps not only the ten percent that the Law says, but the ten percent of what he purchases from other sources, just in case those sources had not tithed. He knows there is a right way and a wrong way to do things – he tells his family this several times a day – and by the heavens, he is going to make sure that things are done in the right way.
Our tax collector is also a faithful Jew, but he has done something that causes him to be generally despised by the rest of the Jewish community: he works for the Romans. He is a tax collector, so he is viewed as someone who is supporting the oppressors who believe in pagan gods – they even call their emperor a god, for goodness sake! – and so is a traitor on several levels. He skims money from the taxes he collects, a common practice because wages for the tax collectors were so miserable, so he is also a thief to both Romans and Jews. He does not come from a place of privilege. There were several brothers who were older than him, so he got nothing from his father, and the family was poor anyway. He has lost his wife, and his children have been a mixed blessing. His son is off working somewhere – he has heard not a word from him in several years – two of his daughters were taken from him for the pleasure of the governor. Just as well, since he could not afford to marry them well. One daughter is mentally limited and will never marry, so he has the responsibility for her. The other daughter is languishing at home, helping and hoping that some day someone will marry her. He views his life as a failure in both material and spiritual ways.
Okay, that gives us a clearer picture of the dichotomy between these two characters…sort of. What if we try and relate it to our own times?
In modern society, our Pharisee might be the president of the local bank, the head of the United Way fund drive, chairman of the board of his church. He might have graduated from UVA with honors, have served on the board of several charitable organizations, been elected to the School Board but ran into a spot of trouble because he was so ardent in getting rid of books that he deemed unsuitable from the school library. He might now be active in supporting political candidates whose views he felt were congruent with his own. A pillar of society. Respected, and feared a little, because of his power in the community. Generally, though, a good Christian man. A model Christian, even!
What about our tax collector? I am going to change his story a bit, since we tend to think of tax collectors as annoying but a necessity of our system of government. Instead, since the point of the story is that this person is universally despised, we will make this fellow a low-level worker in a manufacturing plant. He is an ex-con who served time for dealing drugs. On his arms are the prison tattoos made with a ballpoint pen and a pin, reminders of who he was and what he did. One is a reminder, too, of the wife whom he left behind, the wife who died of an overdose while he was in prison. The state took his children away – just as well, since he does not make enough to support them. He is trying to live the straight life – a pastor who regularly visited and counseled him in prison has helped him find Christ – but he trips and falls every now and again. He has avoided the drugs, but he drinks too much, and he stole a fifty dollar bill he knew his friend kept hidden in his locker at work, because he really wanted to go get drunk on night of his wedding anniversary. He looks like what he is. An ex-con. An alcoholic. A small man, no model of anything except wretchedness. No wonder when he goes to church he hides in a corner in the back.
Do these men sound more real to us now? Can we imagine them sitting next to us in the pew?
And which one would you rather be?
The fine upstanding person who follows all the rules, donates, helps, does all the right things?
The messed up ex druggie and dealer who is still in the thrall of drinking and who even steals from his best friend, who drags himself into church and begs for forgiveness for the thousandth time?
Bring them in close, make those two characters in the parable people you can recognize, not two-dimensional creatures two thousand years away, and the story feels entirely different.
And here is where it gets really interesting: do you want to be either of them?
The pompous guy who is so proud of himself for following all the rules.
The broken and messed up guy who is still struggling with following the most basic of rules.
I have a hard time wanting to be either of them. They both make me ashamed and a little disgusted.
And maybe the reason we have such a hard time with this, is that we know that in some ways, we are both of them. We follow the rules. We pay our taxes, get our cars inspected, drink in moderation, donate to the church, are faithful to our spouses, and love and care for our children. But we are also the persons who may have padded our expense account, paid someone under the table because we did not want the bother of filling out government forms, started spending a lot of time on the Internet looking at content that was pretty nasty…or it may have been less egregious. We may have been unkind to our co-worker, parked in a handicapped space when it was our spouse who has the handicap, not us, lied to our children because we just did not want to take them to the movie that night.
If we look in the mirror, we see to our horror that we are both the Pharisee and the tax collector. The self-righteous and the broken. The one who does good and then poisons it by self-aggrandizement. The one who cannot seem to get past the bad things of the past.
Jesus tells us a story that seems a simple illustration of righteousness, but we cannot fall into the trap of saying Oh yes, I am the humble tax collector. Jesus loves me because I am so very, very humble.
Yup, that is rich, reveling in our wonderful humility…
Jesus holds the mirror up, surprising us with what we see. He dares us to be honest about the reflection in the glass.
Yes, we want to be good.
Yes, we want to do what is right.
Yes, we fail, in ways both large and small.
Yes, we keep coming to Him, asking forgiveness, just as we have done many times before.
Jesus is the mirror. He takes us with us to the foot of the Cross to show us how great his love is for us, that he would take that flawed soul reflected in the mirror and wipe away the brokenness and sinfulness and make us new. He reminds us that prayer is not about boasting. For that matter, it is not only about admitting our sins.
It is about praying to be better, to be the reflection in the glass that is the beautiful vision God has for us. It is about gratitude for the gift of Jesus, the mirror, not only forcing us to be honest with what we see but also showing us a different reflection, a vision of what we might become, if we ask for his help.
Jesus tell us stories not only to know him, but to know ourselves. He is the mirror. Look into that mirror. Know him, and be healed.