Sunday, October 27, 2019

Experiencing Mercy

Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. So begins one of Jesus’ most famous parables. [Luke 18:9-14]

For many, perhaps, as is so often the case with Jesus’ parables, the parable’s point is easily missed due to our over-familiarity with it and also to an excessively negative and caricatured popular image of the Pharisees, one that has been reinforced by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and contempt for Judaism.

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were a movement of deeply devout lay people, preoccupied with being holy and fulfilling God’s Law. They were among the most religiously observant and morally upstanding people in 1st-century Israel. After the destruction of the Temple later in the century, it was the Pharisees who rebuilt Jewish life and reconstituted it in its post-biblical form  (what we now call Orthodox Judaism). In effect, the Pharisees (and their followers) and those who became known as Christians were the two strains of Judaism that survived the Temple’s destruction. So they inevitably saw each other as rivals – one reason perhaps why the New Testament tends to highlight stories of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees.

Even then, the New Testament preserves the memory of the good relations Jesus had with various Pharisees and the important beliefs – like faith in the future resurrection of the dead – that Jesus and the Pharisees shared in common. In any case, we can only appreciate the parable if we understand that the Pharisee is presumptively the good guy in the story – that he is, in fact, a good, religiously and morally upstanding person. Only then will we appreciate the surprise at the end.

Now the Pharisee, we are told, prayed: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous … I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”

Presumably, he was telling the truth. The parable would make no sense if he were a phony, a hypocrite, someone who didn’t live the way he said he did. No, the whole point is precisely that he is a religiously and morally upstanding person, who faithfully and dutifully obeys God’s law. Indeed, he does even more than the minimum the Law requires. So, if anyone were going to go home justified, shouldn’t it be the Pharisee?

But the tax collector, we are told in contrast, stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Like the Pharisee, the tax collector was also telling the truth. Without knowing anything else about him, we know that, as a tax collector, he in effect collaborated with the Romans – and so for that very reason was widely seen as a sinner. God had given the land of Israel as part of his permanent promise to his people forever. So to collaborate with the Romans was widely seen as self-evidently sinful. Hence, the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

And God had long been in the habit of being merciful – all the way back to when, instead of ending their lives after their sin, God had instead made clothes for Adam and Eve. So, as surely everyone would have understood, if the tax collector were truly sorry for his sins, God might indeed be merciful even to him, and he too might go home justified. Wouldn’t that have made a nice, happy ending to the parable, on in which, so to speak, everyone wins?

Jesus, however, had a surprise in store, which must have totally shocked his audience. “I tell you, the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee.”

The shocking part was not that God’s mercy might extend even to the tax collector and that he also could go home justified. The surprise was that the Pharisee – in spite of all the honest good that he was doing, in spite of his faithful obedience to God’s law – did not! So what went wrong?

In acknowledging his sin, the tax collector acknowledged that only God could get him out of the hole he had hopelessly dug for himself. But the Pharisee, Jesus tells us, spoke his prayer to himself. For all his moral correctness, even as he prayed he remained focused on himself – as if he, on his own, were the source of his good works, as if being justified in relation to God could ever be his own accomplishment.

That was – and is – a universal human temptation – as common in the 21st century as it was in the 1st. We all want praise and recognition for our accomplishments.. Yet didn’t Jesus just recently warn us? When you have done all you have been commanded to do, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

If only the Pharisee had heard that and taken those words to heart! Then he might have understood – as the tax collector, whatever his other faults, evidently did – that God didn’t owe him anything. The kingdom of God is not about what I have accomplished. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s about God and about experiencing God’s great mercy God in my life, and so allowing myself to be changed by that experience of God’s mercy here and now, so as to share it with others and thus continue to experience God’s mercy as a community in his kingdom for all eternity.

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN October 27, 2019.

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