There is a chain of eyeglasses shops in Rangoon. Burma called American Vision. The first time I saw one of the bright blue and white signs I thought, “Well, that explains about half my problems. I’ve got American vision.”
Living in Burma, or any foreign country, requires a different kind of vision. In some countries it’s easy and in others it’s more difficult, but you learn what to look for, why it matters, and your vision changes. In some countries, for example, I have learned to inspect my US currency carefully because even the slightest tear or mark will make it useless. In China, I once accidentally bought a fake computer. The fake was so good that I didn’t notice at all until several months later when the finish on the cover started to flake off and someone told me, “Oh, you bought a fake.” I hadn’t paid a fake price for it, I’ll tell you that. But, I learned how to tell the difference and now my vision is a little different. I haven’t bought any more fake computers.
It happens in the USA too. Everybody who has ever rented an apartment knows that “cozy” means small. A restaurant which doesn’t have many cars in the parking lot at high noon is no good. We look at the labels on things to see where they were made because our view of the world, our vision, tells us the things made in China are of poor quality, while things made in Germany are much better. It’s our American vision. It’s not a problem… if you are in America.
I have the same problem with the Bible. I am a modern, multi-cultural, Christian, woman — some might call me a “nasty woman” — and sometimes my vision has a hard time taking in the sweep of early first-century Jews.
I’ve felt this especially acutely this week as I ponder the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Those of us who have been in and around religion for a number of years may have reduced these two characters to two-dimensional stereotypes. No doubt there will be many sermons preached this morning which decry the arrogance of the Pharisee and extoll the humility of the tax collector.
But, what if we are wrong?
What if the pharisee is not an arrogant show-off? Through the prism of our conditioned vision, we might read the pharisee’s prayer and conclude that he’s one of those religious show-offs, and we all know the type. But, if we take off our glasses and look at him as a real person, one who may not fit into our well-defined box of Pharisees, then we can see that he may simply be grateful for God’s leading in his life. If everything is determined by God, as he likely believed, then the fact that he was not a thief, a rogue, an adulterer, or even a tax collector was because God had made it so. The fact that he could fast and give — and he fasted and tithed far more than the minimum — was a gift from God and he was grateful.
When we pray, the least we can do is be honest with God about who we are and what we have done, and I think that is what the pharisee is doing. If he is bragging, then so is the apostle Paul, clearly a saint among saints, when he proclaimed himself to have been a Hebrew among Hebrews. But, it is not bragging. It is a form of thanksgiving. I find this version of the pharisee — authentic, grateful, generous in tithes and fasting — much more interesting and textured than the boring version of the arrogant pharisee which has all too often been presented to us.
What if we are wrong about the tax collector too? He was certainly not a two-dimensional character. Working for the Roman government — a government which robbed the very temple he was standing in! — and trying to be the kind of Jew who went to temple must have been… well, not to be unintentional in my puns… it must have been taxing. The text says that he was standing far off. Maybe he wanted to distance himself before he could be rejected by others. But, one thing is clear, he knew that the temple was where you went to get atonement and that is what he was there for. The temple was big enough for both the super-righteous pharisee and the tax collector too.
If we have been wrong about these two characters from 20 centuries ago then we can be grateful for the opportunity to meet them again and know them as fuller and more robust people instead of just cut-outs from the easy-bake book of theology. It’s no sin, after all, to have been wrong. There is a dangerous sin lurking about, though, and I’ll confess right now… I’ve been guilty. You probably have been too.
The sin is not that we oversimplify and stereotype Pharisees and tax collectors from long ago, the sin is that we do it to one another. When we make Pharisees, or tax collectors, or Republicans, or Democrats, or even those wacky-but-loveable Independents into caricatures of themselves, we fail to recognize the image of God which is really present in each one.
When Donald Trump says that “They’re bad hombres,” or “She’s a nasty woman,” what he is really saying is that he does not see the image of God in them. Even a good Methodist like Hillary Clinton can fall into this trap as she did when she referred to some of her opponent’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” But, I’ll tell you, and I think you know this is true, what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have said is pretty tame compared to some of the things you and I have said.
Without knowing what you have said, and knowing that I have kept it pretty mild, I can still classify us as guilty because we are part of the divided community which has given rise to so much of the verbal violence during this election year. We can not say, “Oh, I am not like that… That was somebody else.”
This commonality — the communal nature of our lives — is why a few weeks ago during Yom Kippur our Jewish friends stood together and each and every one proclaimed their guilt for each and every sin. Nobody stood up and said, “Hey, wait a second, I didn’t bribe, ” or “I didn’t embezzle. That sin must be about you guys… I’m innocent.” For each one of us is part of the community that did those things and each one of us bears the blame of the whole.
But, here’s the good news. Commonality has a flip side. While we share in the blame of the whole, we also share in the righteousness of the whole. It’s not a new idea. One of the five things that led to the Israelites being released from Egypt was the merits of their ancestors. When teaching his friends how to pray, Jesus didn’t begin the prayer with , “My Father…,” it’s “Our Father…” Note the communal language in the eucharistic prayers. “Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins,” “We worship you… We praise you… Have mercy on us,” “We confess… We have not loved… We are sorry… Have mercy on us…” It goes on. In sinning, in turning and repenting, and in receiving grace and mercy, we’re all in this together.
So, whether you’ve sinned mightly, or only a little there is plenty of mercy for you too.
And that brings us back to our first-century friends in the temple. Most translations say that the tax collector went away forgiven and that the Pharisee did not. The New Living Translation is the most brutal: “I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.” Most use the tamer “… this man, rather than the other…”. But, the preposition used to get the English “rather than” is para and, as Amy-Jill Levine explains in her book, Short Stories by Jesus, that word can also mean “along with,” and it can even mean “because of”. So, if we remove our glasses of rugged individualism and put on our glasses of commonality we can see that the pharisee and the tax collector aren’t competing for God’s grace, they are cooperating with it!
The pharisee had done much more than the required amount of fasting and tithing. In fact, he had fasted and tithed so much that he was way over the top. The tax collector, on the other hand, might not have tithed at all. Maybe he never fasted. But, they are in it together. It’s not a zero-sum game where there is only enough grace for one. The tax collector can be justified by the righteousness of the pharisee and they can both be justified.
How would you feel if your political opposite got some of the grace you’d earned?
Are you willing to give and fast on behalf of yourself? Your family? Friends? Enemies?
If there were a persecuted minority — as were both the pharisee and the tax collector — and you had a chance to offer a blessing to someone who was participating in your oppression, would you do it?
In these days when there is so much talk of the need to build bridges of understanding and to “really listen,” it is interesting to think about what we are actually willing to do. Can you be the pharisee and do more than is necessary, asking God to credit your good deeds to the whole community, or even to your enemy?
Is that — maybe — one of the ways The Kingdom can actually come?
I have used “America” instead of USA because it corresponds to the name of the eyeglasses shop. To be clear, though, the USA is only a small part of America. I teach my students that America goes from the very top of Canada all the way down to the southernmost tip of Chile, and includes some islands along the way, including the far-flung Hawaiian Islands. Everybody who lives in those areas is properly called an American. In my own speech, and among others who should know, I am quite meticulous in this. I’m just making an exception for the sake of the essay.
Philippians 3:5… Paul, talking about himself, “…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;” — And, not only that, Paul identified himself as being from the tribe of Benjamin. His name, “Saul,” is the name of the first king of Israel. And his teacher, Gamaliel, was also of the tribe of Benjamin. He really was a little bit of a show-off about his Hebrew status.
I got my thoughts about what the pharisee believed and how to re-contextualize his prayer from Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus,
Harper Collins, 2014. Yes, you should buy it right now.
Here’s a sentence which speaks to what the Pharisee may have been thinking… “Just as Pharisees believed in a combination of fate and free will… Thus the composer thanks God for the grace that allows him to be a faithful worshipper.”
The five things that led to the release if the Israelites from Egypt were 1) their sufferings, 2) repentance, 3) the merits of their ancestors, 4) the expiration of the time fixed for their captivity, 5) God’s mercy. — Deuteronomy Rabba 2
“Just as a vine, to which Israel is likened (Ps. 80.9), requires dead branches to support and prop the living ones, so Israel requires his departed ancestors’ merits for his support.” — Exodus Rabba 43
There are also warnings against relying only on the merits of the ancestors.