He also 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.”
Eventually, we all have to come out.
At least once in our lives, for our own good, to be who we were meant to be, we have to come out.
We hang out in our mother’s wombs and our cells develop and multiply and we grow and grow and grow until we can no longer be contained in this safe, warm, life giving space. We grow out of the warm walls that surround us. We step out or are pushed out of the darkness, into the light.
Eventually, we all need to come out--
come out of closets and prisons of ideologies and expectations and separations that trap us and divide us from each other.
And not just one time. We need to come out again and again.
At some point, Levi, my 5 month old, is going to have to start eating real food. And eventually, he’s going to have to stop pooping in his diapers.
Jonah, who’s 4, is going to eventually have to do his business in a big potty, instead of his toddler potty, and he’s going to have to accept that chocolate milk and yogurt that comes in a tube with cartoon characters on it are not acceptable substitutes for a good dinner.
At some point, I realized that my 34 year old body can no longer handle three beers and pizza and then a five mile run the morning after. And that no matter how many sit-ups I do, I’m always going to have the evidence that I’ve carried two almost nine-pound babies in my midsection.
Changes. Transitions. Stepping from one set of expectations, to another.
These transitions often come with a labor of sorts. Sometimes this is the physical panting and shaking and sweating that goes along with birthing a child. Sometimes it’s the emotional anger and stress that come along with starting school, or a new job, or quitting that abusive relationship. In a way, it’s all a coming out. It’s a stepping into the light. Into something new and different and scary. It’s often fear-filled and tear-filled and wonder-full. It’s always a tearing down or escaping from the walls of separation that divide us from something - from one another, from our old ideas, from our old ways of doing things, from milk to yogurt and peanut butter sandwiches and then to kale and garbanzo beans and pomegranates and fancy souffles and protein and fiber.
Our parable today starts with a Pharisee who is very happy to be exactly where he is. After all, he is so right. He has nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to confess. He has even gone above and beyond the requirements of Torah. This guy is an over achiever. He gets an A+ in faith. An A+ in worship. An A+ in being a follower of the law. With his 4.0 GPA, this guy is the Valedictorian of the School of Faith.
And maybe he has earned the right to gloat about it just a little bit. He’s worked hard. He’s earned his grades after all, and now he’s ready to receive the accolades and scholarships and letters of recommendation that come along with it.
And here’s the thing. We, in our contemporary interpretations of Christian Faith, often beat up on the Pharisees. They are always the counter-example, the ones that Jesus condemns, and so, we easily place them in the “other” column, unlike ourselves. We say, “Thank God we are not like these poor Pharisees!” “Thank God that we’re so much better than they. We aren’t the hypocrites who say one thing and do another! We aren’t the ones who are closed-minded and achievement-oriented or people who abuse their power! We drive Priuses! We listen to NPR! We believe in global warming! I drink micro-brewed beer! Thank God!”
Oh. Wait. Crap.
Except. Except. The Pharisees were the liberals of the time. They were the ones who were trying to open up the Jewish faith so that all could participate in Torah law. From our post-Reformation perspective, we see the Law as a burden, but for most Jews, the Law was a gift from God, and it was the Pharisees who enabled the common people to keep those laws. Compared to the Sadducees and the Essenes, they were the inclusive ones. In a lot of ways, they were More Light - they were trying to adapt God’s teachings to their contemporary cultures. They came up with the oral Torah - developing new interpretations for old laws so as to make the Torah more acceptable, more relevant, and more inclusive.
But over and over again, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees. Not for the actions themselves, but for how the Pharisees view themselves because of their actions. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because of their self-righteous insistence on building up walls, on making themselves so very separate from everyone else, for not being inclusive enough. The Pharisees have been inclusive only insofar as to say, “hey, you, join me up here, on this pedestal that I’ve erected for myself.”
The root of the word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word, “parash” which means to “make distinct,” to “separate oneself.” The Pharisee’s very identity comes from being different from, walled up, divided from, all the Others.
And don’t we do this all the time? Whether we are conservative or liberal, we tend to hang out with only like-minded people, separating ourselves from those who are different from us, those who, from our perspective, have it so “wrong.”
So here is this liberal. This inclusive member of the Jewish community who is building walls around himself. He is building walls of separation - separating himself from that poor sap over there - and - by extension - from everyone else.
His prayer is one of wall-building.
“Thank God I’m not like the others” = he builds a wall
“I tithe!” = a wall
“I fast!” = another wall
“I not only follow my superior interpretation of the Torah to the letter, but I go beyond it - fasting and tithing more than is called for” = and another wall is erected.
He has built a veritable fortress around himself. A fortress of “rightness.” And no one is getting in.
“Thank God I’m not like those people,” he thinks.
Those people who have screwed up their lives. Those people who have made poor choices. Those people who are judgmental, or flailing around, or are swindlers, or who have too much credit card debt or who watch Fox News and have those terrible political views.
He has built walls between himself and others, between himself and The Other. And he throws the tax collector under the bus just to prove how very “other” he is. He needs this tax collector to be the sinner so that, in comparison, he is the one who has it right, who has it all together. For the Pharisee, the tax collector embodies the very essence of otherness.
When we step out, or are pushed out, of our comfortable darkness and into the light, it’s a bit too bright, and we squint, and we’re disoriented and very, very uncomfortable. We see things we didn’t think were there. Some good things, like people waiting to embrace us, some not so good, like judgmental eyes and disappointing looks and obstacles that we never knew were there.
But, if we want to keep growing, we have to outgrow our ideological clothes and walls of assumptions and easy answers.
Or we could stay inside. In the dark.
If we like being comfortable, we’re going to stay small. We’re going to fortify our walls with the dry-wall of “being right” and insulate ourselves with our opinions and perspectives and justifications. We’re going to feel nice and safe because we can’t see the obstacles, or the disruptions, or the opportunities for change and painful growth.
Heaven forbid that the Pharisee see any similarities between himself and this corrupt, sinful tax collector. His walls would come crumbling down. And then, without his precious walls, without his protection from The Other, who would he be? Just another sad sap, coming in front of God with all the shame and fear and honesty of a corrupt tax collector.
I don’t think this is simply a parable about how it’s good to go before God wearing hair shirts and whacking ourselves in the face with psalters and declaring how very wretched we are. Because the truth is, neither the Pharisee nor the Tax Collector has the truth of who they really are.
They’re both in trouble if they stay where they are. The tax collector is just as stuck as the Pharisee, both imprisoned in their closets by the view they have of themselves. But the difference is, this poor sap of a tax collector knows that he’s got problems. He knows he’s stuck in his closet of darkness, and knowing you’re stuck is the first step towards getting unstuck, the first step towards outgrowing that constricting space and stepping out into the light.
But God, being God, gives them both what they ask for. The Pharisee gets a nice dose of self-righteousness. He asks nothing and gets nothing from God.
The tax collector, asking for mercy and peace, gets forgiveness and redemption.
What makes the tax collector righteous in the sight of God? It’s the opposite of the Pharisee’s self reliance. He knows he’s not enough. He knows he needs God - and he needs others. His prayer is one of confessing, and thereby tearing down, those walls that separate himself from God - the Ultimate Other - and from others.
The tax collector is asking for redemption, for forgiveness. He is asking to be re-born. Maybe even to go from “rightness” to “righteousness.”
God makes him righteous - which, more accurately, or more clearly, means to be made upright.
The tax collector knows he’s been walking around with a bent back, hunched over and staring at the ground, limping a little.
And it is the tax collector who has been made upright. Jesus tells us that he is the one who leaves the temple walking a little straighter, a little lighter, his gait a little smoother. He is the one transformed and made new.
God wants to transform us. To make us new. Not clean. Not right. Not smart. Or rich. Or all-together or valedictorians. New.
Not new like polished silver or new-car-smell or house in the new subdivision new.
New like a newborn baby. New like Levi, when they threw him on my chest, just seconds old. Covered in blood and birth and squinting at the brightness of the light all around him. New and able to stretch out his arms and shout with full lungs. New and suddenly calm when he felt his mother’s breath and heard his mother’s voice.
New because a whole world has been opened up that we never knew existed before. New because we don’t want to be trapped in the closet of our own minds and narrow perspectives and walls and walls of expectation and perfection and demands.
Why do we strive to be “More Light?” - Not because we have the answers. Not because we are “right” and those “conservatives” are wrong. Not because we have the light and they are living in darkness. Isn’t it so tempting to think that we are the source of that light - that our willingness to be open and affirming to the LGBTQ community comes from us? But it doesn’t. That light comes from God.
We are More Light because we know we need more light - more of God’s light. More of the light that shines in the darkness. That light that the darkness has not overcome.
We are More Light because we know that we can’t do this alone. We are More Light because we are looking to be reborn again and again and we are striving to find the light in all this darkness. And we are More Light because we realize that we, too, are sources of darkness.
We are the Pharisees, and at the same time, we are also the tax collectors. We are called to die to our pharisaical sides and to our tax collecting sides. That death looks a lot like houses being torn down, the walls and the foundations that we have built for ourselves to separate us from each other crumbling to the ground, leaving us vulnerable, squinting into the sun, covered in the dirty evidence of our rebirth. But also with the freedom to move around a little more, the room to grow and change, and the openness to connect with the Pharisees and tax collectors and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans and radio personalities that we never ever thought we could connect with.
Oof. That is so. Hard.
But that’s resurrection. That’s being re-born. It leaves us a little filthy, with the dirt from the grave still stuck under our fingernails and our eyes squinting at the shock of light that comes from stepping out of the grave and past the walls of separation that we have built for ourselves. That’s being More Light. That’s tearing down walls and dissolving those things that separate us from each other and from God.
May we squint at all the More Light that God is sending into our world.
Thanks be to God.