by Ellen Sims
Text: Luke 18: 9-14
You may think this parable is about how to pray. But more fundamentally this is a parable about how to regard ourselves and one another. It’s true that the story’s brief “plot” concerns two men praying. But the story’s meaning is declared forthrightly in the introductory sentence. Let’s read it again:
“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
This parable was directed to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” and called them to give up their contemptuous regard for others. The Pharisee who boasted—to God, no less—of his own holiness might seem a familiar figure to us. As we near the end of a presidential campaign in a season of “contempt,” we’ve been exposed to contemptuous words and boastful personalities that may remind us of the parable’s Pharisee.
In Jesus’s culture, people believed there was a limited amount of honor in the world, so for one person to gain in prestige, another had to lose some honor points. To a certain extent, some today seem to view the current presidentially campaign—or the school playground—as having a limited amount of honor. For one person to be regarded highly, someone else has to be taken down a notch. But one of the earliest social lessons we try to teach our children is that their self-esteem isn’t bought at the expense of someone else’s dignity and worth. We explain that sometimes the school bully insults another kid because the bully is insecure and thinks he or she will feel superior by putting down someone else.
There are moments in adult lives when we, too, are tempted to look down on someone else to make ourselves feel better. We may have a hard time celebrating a colleague’s success because we let their good fortune make us feel inferior. Even if we do not display overt contempt, we may tell ourselves how undeserving someone else is in order to stoke our own ego.
In today’s parable neither the Pharisee nor the tax collector would have been admired by the Lukan audience. As Jesus continued teaching his followers how to live in ways that usher in the realm God is building, Jesus exposed the men’s character by describing how they prayed. Imagine if our own prayers were known to others, if those prayers of ours (our private thoughts and deepest longings and aspirations and hopes) were publicized somehow by a celestial Wikileaks. What would our own prayers reveal about us?
That’s the situation Jesus creates for the two whose prayers reveal their hearts. As Jesus compares the Pharisee unfavorably to the tax collector, he’s not condemning the man’s prayers; he’s condemning how that man regards another human being. And also how he views himself. The Pharisee is a religious man who “trusted in himself.” What a contradiction. His is a religion in which he’s his own god. Why is it that sometimes the folks who seem the most religious can be so disdainful of others? Surely a measure of our spiritual maturity is the extent to which we honor others and are especially careful not to look down on those who’ve become the scapegoats and the scorned.
Of course, basic human psychology teaches us that an inflated ego usually covers a very insecure person. If a person can feel good about himself/herself only by celebrating someone else’s misfortune or by putting down a rival, that person actually has a very weak sense of self—even if they are thanking God they are not like those other pitiable souls.
Contempt—the problem exposed in the prayers of the Pharisee—is different from mere disapproval and may be worse than hate. To hate an enemy at least requires the acknowledgement of the enemy. Contempt may not even acknowledge the other. The original Greek word translated as contempt here is eksoutheneo, which literally means “completely out from”—or “to cast out as nothing,” to regard someone as nothing. It is a feeling tinged with disgust, that a person is beneath one and is not even worthy of even one’s notice. How insidious is contempt—which can be just as devastating when it’s more subtly expressed not in words but with a sneer, shake of the head, the roll of the eyes, a turning away. It’s especially damaging when expressed by a supposed loved one or in a public setting.
I wonder how Jesus knew that the folks standing around listening were contemptuous. Did he know them personally and had heard their degrading comments? Or maybe he simply observed their haughty posture and scornful faces and sidelong glances and derisive laughter.
At any rate, Jesus didn’t charge them directly. He told a brief story about someone else who was contemptuous: a highly religious person who prayed: “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.” In other words: “Thank you, God, I’m so wonderful!” One commentator has said the Pharisee’s prayer sounds more like a Shakespearean soliloquy. The Pharisee is performing and preening—in order to be thought pious. And to look good, he must insult the other pray-er he sees nearby. Instead of standing before God for self-examination—he casts his glance around the temple to catch sight of someone who can make him feel better about himself. He then spies a tax collector, despised for being in collusion with the Roman authorities. The Pharisee doesn’t really know this man. He just knows a category to place him in, a label to pin on him. But here’s the best thing the Pharisee can say about himself: “Hey, at least I’m not a thief, a rogue, an adulterer, or a tax collector.” And the only virtues he names: fasting twice a week and tithing his income–presumably done for show. Does he observe the Torah’s commands to love God and love his neighbor? We don’t know.
We who read this parable now turn our eyes to the tax collector, too. What a contrast. This man didn’t take center stage to soliloquize but found instead a place to pray that was “far off.” Bent over in contrition, he beat his breast, knowing he needed mercy, confessing he was a sinner. And lest we as readers are slow to regard him with mercy, consider that we don’t know the circumstances that led the tax collector to take a job that required him to collect heavy payments to Roman oppressors from poor people. But we do know it was the scorned tax collector Jesus chose to praise. Because “those who are humbled will be exalted in God’s eyes.”
Let’s admit that everyone loves the biting satire in a Saturday Night Live skit or a snarky Facebook post. And it’s not just teens who indulge in eye rolling and a sneer at times. But Jesus is cautioning us to curb the contempt. It harms others. And it hurts our own spirit. Because when we denigrate someone else in order to feel better, we don’t feel better. Not really. Deep down we know that hurting someone else doesn’t lift us up. And if Jesus is to believed, the only way the Kingdom of God will ever hold sway is when the meek inherit the earth.
Especially because lately it feels as if it has been open season on women, and because we’ve been exposed to degrading remarks about women, and because I am a woman in a traditionally male vocation and am a mother and am the mother of a daughter who is soon to be the mother of a daughter, I need to condemn the objectification of women, the harassment of women, the debasement of women. Just as there is unfinished work for us to do to end racism, so there is work ahead to end sexism. One way to liberate women from a religion that has sometimes been contemptuous of them is to be clear that Jesus’s invitation to meekness and humility is NOT used to keep women in their place.
St. Paul and St. Augustine and a gazillion male theologians have said that the cardinal sin is pride.
But—and here I realize I’m overgeneralizing—women’s spiritual challenge may be gaining their pride and claiming—as LGBT folks do during Pride Fest—their right to be treated equally. Women who have been abased and whom the church has very pointedly called to be self-sacrificing need to gain pride and give up subservience.
That means I need to address again briefly the potentially pernicious theology of the cross.
I’m quoting from Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock’s book Proverbs of Ashes:
“At the center of western Christianity is the story of the cross, which claims God the Father required the death of his Son to save the world. We believe this theological claim sanctions violence.”
Parker then shares her long-suppressed story of being raped by a neighbor, explaining she eventually “recognized that Christianity had taught [her] that sacrifice is the way of life.” She’d been taught that suffering was redemptive, even the suffering at the hands of her abuser. She said, “I forgot the neighbor who raped me, but I could see that when theology presents Jesus’s death as God’s sacrifice of his beloved child for the sake of the world, it teaches that the highest love is sacrifice. To make sacrifice or to be sacrificed is virtuous and redemptive. But what if that’s not true? . . . What if the performance of sacrifice is a ritual in which some human beings bear loss and others are protected from accountability or moral expectations?”
She and her co-author give evidence of women whose priests, for instance, urged them to remain in violent marriages because, after all, “we all have our crosses to bear.”
Women pastors like Brock and Parker have for many decades been hearing stories from women that expose damage down by a theology of the cross that glorifies violence. Therefore, Jesus’s closing statement in today’s parable—that the humbled will be exalted—must be applied carefully. Even as we admire the humble and remorseful tax collector, even as we recognize the harmful pride in the Pharisee, we must guard against confusing humility with humiliation.
I don’t know who’s going to move into the White House in 2017. But a Spirit of compassion, gentleness, and humility—and a rightful self-regard and self-care—will reign in God’s kin*dom.