Mind the trap

RCL Year C, Proper 25

I don’t know if you noticed it, but there’s a trap in that reading. Did you notice it, or did you fall right in it?

It’s such a simple little parable. Two people go to pray. One, the Pharisee, is all self-righteous and high on himself. The other one, the tax collector, throws himself on God’s mercy. The tax collector, Jesus says, did it right. The end.

So what do you think? Who do you identify with in this parable? Do you like the Pharisee and identify with him? Do you feel like he got a bum deal? Probably not – probably your sympathies were with the tax collector…because Jesus praises him and we know he’s the one we’re supposed to like. After all, he’s not like the Pharisee. And thank goodness we’re not like the Pharisee either. But wait – isn’t that exactly what the Pharisee said? Thank goodness I’m not like the tax collector? Aha, Jesus says. Gotcha.

Oohhh, the temptation toward self-justification. It runs so deep for us. How many marital disagreements run aground on that temptation – Well, I’m sorry for being so sharp, but you really did screw up and I have a right to be mad. How many friendships are lost there – It was her fault, not mine! How much time and space in our heads are taken up with it – I can’t believe those people. Boy, are they off base! But not me!

It’s been a basic spiritual problem for a very long time. As soon as Christianity became an established religion, in the 4th century, several Christian men and women left the cities and went out to live alone in the desert, to spend time in prayer and fasting to purify themselves for a life in God. Their path was attractive enough that others followed them out to the desert, seeking their counsel. So, many of their teachings were written down, what we now know of as the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers – most of them short little Zen-like sayings and stories that say a lot in a few words. And no small number of them are about just this problem – judging others and justifying ourselves. Here are a few:

  • One of the elders said: A monk ought not to inquire how this one acts, or how that one lives. Questions like this take us away from prayer and draw us on to backbiting and chatter. There is nothing better than to keep silent.
  • Abbott John used to say: We have thrown down a light burden, which is the [reprimanding] of our own selves, and we have chosen instead to bear a heavy burden, by justifying our own selves and condemning others.
  • [One man asked an elder,] Tell me how I can become a monk. The elder replied: If you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say: Who am I? and judge no one.
  • One of the brethren had sinned, and the priest told him to leave the community. So then Abbot Bessarion got up and walked out with him, saying: I too am a sinner! (from The Wisdom of the Desert,  Thomas Merton)

There’s lots more, but that gives you a sampling. These were people who had left everything to follow Jesus, who lived on little and owned nothing, and they struggled every day with this same problem – they were all too aware of their own righteousness and all too ready to condemn others. It took them immense effort to grow past this. And it takes us a lot of work too.

Because when it comes down it, we are most of us Pharisees. We are good citizens, we obey the laws and the customs of our country, we come to church, we pledge, we are kind to other people. We do all the right things. We aren’t tax collectors – we don’t shake people down for a cut of the taxes they must pay to the occupying regime, we aren’t despised by others of our society, we don’t do anything that’s obviously morally wrong.  It is easy and understandable for us to feel pretty okay about ourselves. And easy and understandable for us perhaps to be critical and down on others who are more obviously at fault – the people who just burglarized our neighbors, or the political party who’s really causing the problems in our government, and so on. And if we’re really honest, we’ll admit that it feels good to know we’re several rungs up from those people. We all like having someone else we can look down on.

But we know that’s the wrong path – that’s not the path of real humility, and we know Christians are supposed to be humble. Especially if we’re people who spent some time in Protestant churches we’ve had it drilled into us that we don’t earn our salvation, it’s all God’s grace. We know we aren’t supposed to put a lot of stock in our own good behavior…so we’ll stop doing that. And so we pray to God as a miserable sinner, and we stop getting so caught up in our own selves. We get advanced in our spiritual maturity. Like the desert fathers. Not like those other Christians. Not like that annoying pastor on the radio who seemed so smug and sure of himself. Not like that guy who’s always boasting about his triathlon times. Not like those elitist organic food people, or like the crazy Tea Partyers, or like – whoops. How did we get here again? Hurtling down the slippery slope of judging other people and justifying ourselves.

Is there any way out of this endless loop? As one writer said, we can be ‘prisoners of our own small righteousness.’ The only way out, I think, is to stop regarding ourselves at all. I’m reminded of my 4 year old Benji: whenever he rides a tricycle or a Big Wheel, he likes to turn his head and watch his feet pushing the pedals, the wheels moving round and round on the pavement as he zooms along until suddenly – crash! he’s run himself off the curb. We do better when we watch where we’re going. We’re better off focusing on ourselves less and on God more – and focusing on others, without doubling back to glance at ourselves in comparison once more. The people who really break free are those who lose all their self-consciousness, who see that whole process as simply a waste of time and deeply uninteresting compared to adoring God and serving others. When you meet one of those people, it’s extraordinary. You realize you’ve encountered holiness. It’s the way any one of us could be.

So what this parable is really saying? get over yourself. Ask God for God’s help and thank God when you get it. Pray more, but pray less about your self. That’s how we begin to see all that God has done for us – and that’s how we begin to be grateful for all that we have. It’s the starting place for realizing how much God loves us. The beginning of right relationship with God and our neighbor. So much can happen when we ask for God’s help. Amen.