In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us a parable of two contrasting figures that symbolize what it means—and what it doesn’t mean—to be righteous.
The term “righteousness” in Scripture can be easily misconstrued by how we might understand it in our present day. Often we hear the term used with the prefix “self.” I think we all have a good sense of what a self-righteous person is: someone who is smug, holier-than-thou, with an air of pride and judgmentalism. If we drop the prefix “self,” we’re left with “righteous,” which might describe someone over-the-top, “honorable” and “blameless,” almost conveying something of an ascetic quality of self-denial. It’s instructive to note that “righteousness” in Scripture is often interchangeable with “justice.” Being righteous, therefore, is closely linked with a life that pursues fairness. I think it’s helpful for us to think of being righteous as embodying our baptismal covenant: resisting evil, loving all persons and respecting their dignity, and striving to safeguard the integrity of all creation.
The two figures in today’s Gospel are an important lesson in what it means, at a fundamental level, to embody righteousness. Figure 1, the Pharisee, is the popular religious leader who sincerely wants what is best for Israel. He isn’t too thrilled that Jews must operate under the ultimate authority of the Romans. So he wants to uphold Jewish distinctives by insisting on the observance of purity laws in all aspects of life. But figure 2, the tax collector, is working in cahoots with the Romans to ensure that Jews are paying their taxes. He might not be the most well-off person, so he takes the liberty of charging more than what people owe so that he can pocket the difference and maintain a reasonably decent life. It’s no secret that he overcharges, which accounts for the disdain so many people have for him, including the Pharisee in the parable. At worst he’s guilty of theft, and at best he’s guilty of usury (charging interest)—both prohibited by Jewish law.
We’ve all heard this parable before, and perhaps we’re too quick to bash the Pharisee. But when you consider things a little more carefully, maybe the Pharisee isn’t such an unlikable person. In fact, he’s a lot like each one of us who has a desire for genuine justice. We’re all striving to follow the Way of Jesus; we desire fairness for all people; and we get upset about things that get in the way of that goal. In fact, we might even call out institutions—or even individuals—whom we believe exacerbate so much of what is wrong in the world. Here are some simple examples of what I mean:
§ We pay our taxes because we value social goods, and we look with disdain on those who try to cheat and not pay.
§ We drive responsibly and obey the rules of the road, and we’re incensed by those who brazenly run red lights or get behind the wheel impaired.
§ We do our best to recycle and reduce our use of plastics, and we shake our heads in disgust at those who have no awareness of their own carbon footprint.
§ We’re now on the eve of an important municipal election, and we might think the Christian values we hold deeply are reflected in a few choice candidates, or in a particular political party—unlike other candidates and parties that we quickly dismiss.
But what if the people who cheat on their taxes, the people busted for DUI, the people who throw out black plastic take-out containers almost daily, the people who support other parties and candidates that we’re convinced make the world worse—what if some of those people right now are confronting themselves with hard truth and praying, “God be merciful to me a sinner”? That is what Jesus is inviting us to think about in today’s parable. And the conclusion Jesus draws is that the tax collector—the one notorious for being a cheat and a sell-out—is the one who is just, not the Pharisee striving to do the right thing.
When the Pharisee and the tax collector both offer their prayers, the Pharisee recounts the good that he’s already doing, whereas the tax collector hangs his head and begs God for mercy. I think the fundamental lesson here, particularly for so many of us who enjoy lives of relative comfort, is that the pursuit of justice—the Way of Jesus—begins and ends with humility. Celebrating what we’ve already been doing, positioning ourselves over against those who represent what’s wrong in the world—which is the Pharisee’s approach—isn’t going to cut it. If we’re serious about living into the fullness of our baptismal covenant, then humility must become our modus operandi.
Why is humility so necessary? There are many reasons, but let me offer three. First, humility guards against triumphalism. No one here, and that especially includes me, has everything figured out. We don’t have all the answers. We haven’t “arrived.” St. John Henry Newman once famously said: “To live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.” That goes for individuals just as much as it goes for parish churches like this one. We have our flaws and our shortcomings. It takes humility to admit that, and it takes even more humility to move in new directions.
Second, it is in humility that we’re able to love our neighbors as ourselves. Without humility we listen with our mouths, not our ears. Humility dismantles the borders of control that we put around love, and it does away with what we might consider normative—whether our language, gender, race, economic location, or any other reality that shapes identity. We don’t know who will come across our path today, friend, foe or stranger. The Way of Jesus is the way of extending love to each and every person we encounter. It’s not easy. But it starts with humility because that makes our love genuine.
Third, humility is necessary because we need each other. The Way of Jesus is not meant to be travelled alone. That’s why this parish church is so important. We gather together, learn together, struggle together, and support each other. We do that by giving our time, our skills, and our money. Some of us give all of that, and more. We are a parish with extraordinary lay leadership. I’d like to acknowledge our wardens past and present, our treasurer, and our alar guild teams who every week get things ready for our services. All of us who are part of this parish are reliant on all these people and the essential work they do. If you’ve never personally thanked a warden here for their time and dedication, please do that. We all need each other, and when we’re humble enough to recognize that and show appreciation to one another, our community becomes stronger and more loving.
My hope is that this church will continue to learn how to be a place where humility is practiced, where everyone is welcome, where we acknowledge our failures, where we lean on each other for support, where we give freely and joyfully, and where love is everywhere abundant.