Out of the Boomerang Trap: A Homily

"Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:"
 This Gospel lesson gives me the willies, and I’ll tell you why. 

A Homily for the Green Season

Margaret D. McGee

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”   —  Luke 18:9-14

This Gospel lesson gives me the willies, and I’ll tell you why.

Jesus tells a story, and he directs it particularly to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” His story has two characters. Each comes to the temple to pray. They stand far apart, at opposite ends of the temple from each other.

The first, a Pharisee, standing by himself, thanks God that he’s not like other people. Sinners. Thieves. Rogues. Adulterers. He’s not like them, thank God. In the midst of his prayers, he catches sight of the other character in the parable—a tax collector. The Pharisee offers God special thanksgiving that he’s not anything like that tax collector. The Pharisee reminds God that he himself fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of his income. He follows the rules, and this, he believes, makes him righteous.

In our modern ears, the word “righteous” has come to sound so much like “self-righteous,” with all its negative connotations, that it’s easy to miss what the word really meant to the Pharisee and to Jesus. In the Bible, to be “righteous” means to be in right relationship with God or with another person. Different relationships have different rules of behavior. I don’t relate to my mother in the exact same way I relate to my father. And it wouldn’t work if I did.

When some relationship of mine is broken, or unfulfilled, then using today’s words, I might say that things “aren’t right” between me and that other person, or that I want to “get right” with them. And when I’m in spiritual pain, afraid, or ashamed, troubled by a sense of my own brokenness, my soul lost in the desert—when, in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, I “look for peace, but find no good; for a time of healing, but there is terror instead,” then I might say that I long to “get right” with God.

This, as I understand it, is how Jesus means the word “righteous” in his parable. We’re righteous when all is well between God and us, when our relationship with God is whole and sustaining and on its right footing. Then, in the words of this morning’s psalm, we can say, “Happy are [those] … whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.”

The Pharisee prays in the temple, thanking God that he’s not like all those unrighteous sinners all around him. He follows the rules of relationship with God as they’ve been given to him—fasting, tithing, and so on—and he trusts in himself to get it right—and to be right—with God.

In stark contrast, standing far off on the other side of the great hall, the tax collector cannot even look up, but head bowed, he beats his breast. With no indication that he thinks he can get anything right, he prays, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And yet, Jesus says that this man goes home justified—that is, acquitted, set free, restored to right relationship with God—rather than the Pharisee.

This parable gives me the willies, because when I read it, the first words that spring into my mind are: “Oh that self-righteous Pharisee! What an unpleasant person. Thank goodness I’m not like that. Thank you, dear God, that I’m not anything like him!”

And I hear those words in my mind, and a mouse runs up my spine, because Luke says that “Jesus … told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” In an instant, a twinkling, I realize with horror I am the Pharisee, standing right in his shoes! So in the next instant, the next twinkling, I’m the tax collector, beating my breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Here the real trouble starts. Because I’m not all that comfortable in the tax collector’s shoes either. In Jesus’s day, tax collectors were numbered among the most despicable class of sinners because they were thieves. They commonly collected more than was owed and pocketed the difference. And they were protected in their thievery by the empire, an occupying force that enriched itself on the land and labor of ordinary people. Tax collection under Rome worked something like a state-sanctioned protection racket. So the tax collector, besides being a traitor to his people for his collaboration with the empire, was also the lowest thug on the ladder, the one who comes to your house or storefront and demands payment, or you get your leg broken.

Okay, fine, I’m a sinner. But surely, Lord, I’m not as bad as all that. Thank God—at least I’m not like the tax collector.

And so the mouse runs up my spine again, and I’m right back in the Pharisee’s shoes. That’s why this parable gives me the willies. Caught first in the Pharisee’s shoes, then in the tax collector’s, and then back to the Pharisee’s again—what’s the way out of this boomerang trap?

Jesus says that the Pharisee stands by himself to offer this prayer, and indeed, it is a lonely prayer—full of self-praise and contempt for others, empty of love: the life blood, the sustaining rain, that gives life and meaning to God’s rule.

The Pharisee’s pride in his clean and spiffy outward behavior reminds me of a Miss Manners column that I read years ago. I like Miss Manners. To her, manners are not empty rules to make us look good, but ways to show mutual respect and honor mutual dignity, so that we can maintain good relations with each other.

So. A woman writes to Miss Manners complaining about the poor manners of guests in her home. This woman recently re-decorated her guest bathroom, and she bought special decorative towels to match the new wall color. Her problem? Guests keep using these towels. The towels are delicate. If she has to wash them every time someone comes to visit, they’ll be ruined.

So, on the counter right beside the sink, she tried laying out ordinary towels for her guests to use. But her guests still used the decorative towels. So then she put out a roll of paper towels. They still didn’t get it, but kept thoughtlessly using the delicate new towels. What can she do about these rude people?

From her reply, it was plain that Miss Manners could hardly believe her eyes when she read the letter. She made it abundantly clear that any towel in any guest bathroom was there for the use and comfort of any guest. Period.

Though I’m completely with Miss Manners on this one, still, I can’t help but sympathize with the woman who wrote the letter. After all, this lady followed the rules as she saw them for proper guest relations. Like the Pharisee offering God his sparkling behavior, she offers her guests a bathroom cleaned and decorated just for them. If her house was anything like mine, the guest bathroom was probably in better shape than the one she used herself.

And yet, to draw the analogy back into today’s parable, it seems that the guest bathroom, all cleaned up for show, is not the room where God feels welcome and at home. Instead, it’s the tax collector—the messiest, dirtiest, most unlovely soul in the temple—who shows the way. And how does the he pray? He speaks the plain, unvarnished truth about himself. Beating his breast, he cries out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And he goes home right with God.

How to make God welcome? Throw every door open, right down to the inner sanctum, the bathroom that doesn’t get cleaned for company, its towels used and worn.  I don’t have to carry the Pharisee’s virtues or the tax collector’s sins—my own virtues and sins are enough. Because it turns out that we ourselves, our own pain and messy state, are the very offerings to put us right with our Maker. And that it is in this way, the story shows, that the trap may be sprung, and the drought ended, and the cooling waters come pouring in, and out of death comes new life.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.

Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington on October 28, 2007.

The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost


Jeremiah 14:1-6, 7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

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