“The Pharisee’s Desperation”
Rev. Justin Nickel
October 24, 2010
Luke 18:9-149 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13 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!' 14 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."
Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
Well, as many of you know, I am a devout fan of rock and roll music, and one couldn’t possibly make that claim without having at least a passing interest in the Beatles, and one of their tunes, “Getting Better,” seems an appropriate place to begin this Sunday. Now fear not, I have no intention of singing to you all, but the chorus of “Getting Better” goes like this “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/it’s getting better all the time.” The optimism of this sentiment, along with the undeniably catchy jangle of the melody presents a pretty persuasive argument. I mean, honestly, who could argue against this sort of glossy positivity as an entirely life affirming world-view? Yes, it would take a healthy dose of cynicism to suggest that this should not be our goal for the way we encounter the world, even if we are not feeling this optimism in the present moment. For who wouldn’t want the world to be this way, on a course of constant and steady progress, heading towards more comfort and more stability? I dare say that this sort of thing is essentially our default mode as people living in this time and place. There is nothing more seductive than this myth of progress, be it in our politics, our economic lives or our religious and psychological lives, as we constantly search out a more true and real version of ourselves.
Now, it is certainly the case that our lives ebb and flow and some periods are more full of peace and contentment than others, and I am not here to dispute that or disrupt the joy that we feel during such times. However, I would like to suggest that this myth of progress, when applied to our spiritual lives, is particularly poisonous and leads us not towards our God and neighbors, but away from them, isolating us in the coldness of our own supposed piety and virtue. God’s mercy becomes that which we must buy off with our good deeds, and our neighbors are of value insofar as they can be used in our quest towards spiritual perfection, but this seems to be what the text is arguing against. For really, this story that Jesus tells to those who believed that their relationship with God allowed them to look down on others, is not a story about what we can accomplish of our own accord, but rather the limits of our abilities, and our spiritual talents. Yes, there is a way to turn this text into a performance of our own religious sentiments, but such a reading is little more than a cul-de-sac. For, if we come to this parable asking what we can do, we will, in all likelihood, come away from today’s text saying prayers of thanksgiving that we are not like the Pharisee, that we are sufficiently humble and therefore have done the necessary work to position ourselves in the wide spectrum of God’s mercy. This, dearly beloved, is what we might begin to call a wrong reading of the text.
Which begs the question, I suppose, what then, can be called a “right” reading of the text? Well, it seems to me that the answer to that question lies not in what separates the Pharisee and the tax collector, but rather what unites them. They both go to the Temple in search of God’s mercy and kindness, and it seems to me that they both make this plea with a certain desperation. This is easy enough to see in the case of the tax collector. He, with bowed head and bruised breast, will not even look to the heavens, lest his gaze draw the attention of God’s anger, nor will he enter the Temple, for fear that he will taint the place where God dwells with his sin. He is acutely aware of the space that stands between him and the God of infinite holiness and this awareness, this desperation, leads him to one action, throwing himself on the mercy of God.
Conversely, the Pharisee’s desperation takes a slightly different form. His, one might say, is a desperation that is still in development, and avoiding the crisis that comes with genuine honesty remains his central goal. In the end, there is no difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector in terms of their need for God’s mercy, but the Pharisee will do anything to avoid that fact. To open up, to make himself vulnerable to the fact that, in spite of his best efforts, including fasting and tithing, he still cannot climb a ladder to God’s mercy, well that is just too frightening. That his spiritual health is not improving through these efforts and that he might not be in as much control as he wants to believe, well that is a thought to be suppressed at any and all costs. He wants, it seems, to believe that God is rewarding him for all that he has done and continues to do, and the only way to ensure that is to point out the differences not between him and God, but between him and others, between him and thieves, rogues, those who cheat on their spouses, and finally the tax collector whose loud groans he can hear in the distance. This space that the Pharisee is carving out, though, does not end there, nor can it. No, instead, because he cannot bear a God who does not leave him in control, the Pharisee will finally attempt to sever that relationship as well, praying not to God, but to his own good deeds, for this is the where all his trust is finally placed. All this in an attempt to avoid this one central fact, we need God, and we need God desperately.
And it is not that Pharisee was performing the wrong task where the tax collector had figured out that actively being humble was what prompted God’s mercy. No, this is not a story that ends with that neat, little take-away. Instead, what grounds this story is the same realities that ground our story, our need for a merciful God. A God whose love reaches over our notions of progress and greets us right in the middle of our lives, and a God who will not be the reward for the way we perform in our lives, be it at work, at home or in the context of our relationship to God. Really, what we need is a God who surrounds us in our desperation, our worry, and our concern. We, like the Pharisee and the tax collector, like the priest and the grifter, need a God whose presence is constant, even and especially when our living seems to consist of little more than just getting through each day. We need a God whose love is present in the morning, when the alarm goes off too soon and we are questioning whether or not it is even worth it to begin yet another exhausting day. Indeed, we need a God who will go to the cross on our behalves, so that we may know for certain that there is no place, no life circumstance, which will ever separate us from the love of God.Yes, a God who is there when we must admit that it is not getting better.
So come, dearly beloved, and bask in the mercy of God that is always present, always active, in the lives of desperate and honest sinners like me and you. Please know this, that while it may not always be getting better, God’s love, poured for you in the broken and resurrected body of Jesus Christ, will always be waiting to greet and surround you. And this love and forgiveness that grants pardon to the sinner and comfort to the broken-hearted does not depend on your spiritual improvement. The bar for next week will not be set a little bit higher. No progress reports are required. Instead, this mercy that knits together the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the con man and the pious, well, this is simply the way that God operates, freely and recklessly tossing around mercy and pardon so that we may be freed of our need to construct a self that God will love without condition, requirement or stipulation. For, in the love of Jesus Christ, God already does. Amen.