(Click below for podcast. It includes scripture reading at the beginning and comments from others at the end.)
On the surface, this parable is common sense. When a person engages in excessive self-promotion, talks too much, constantly sees themselves favorably compared to others or always need to be right, they are a boar. We may even call them self-righteous. In contrast, when people are genuinely self-reflective, can admit their mistakes, and ask for feedback and help, how do you view that person? Do you see them as weak? I tend to trust people who know their limits, their strengths and weaknesses, and can step back, more than people who are trying too hard at letting me know how good they are. Why is that?
We don’t grow unless we make and admit mistakes, and know our short-comings. We can also go too far with humility. We don’t have to beat ourselves up, or be devoid of self-worth to be humble, just be appropriately aware of our whole selves.
Jesus takes this a step further by playing with his audience’s perceptions of who is the good, moral person and who is the bad, immoral person. Remember, a parable always has this twist, a zinger that you don’t expect. Who is the audience expecting to be the good guy in the parable? Why? Imagine the only thing you knew about the Pharisee was verse 12, “I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income.” If that was it, I would like more Pharisees in the congregation – people who engage in spiritual practices and are generous. That is not the problem.
The problem starts with the self-comparisons. I am not like those thieves, murderers and rogues – you know the type, bad hombres. And I’m certainly not like that person down there in pew number 7. What do think they are doing here? Tax collector! I don’t think they are even a member here. I don’t see them putting anything into the plate. They don’t work on any committees. I’m so glad I’m not like them. The pecking order is a real social phenomenon. The easiest way to temporarily feel better about yourself is to see someone lower than you. At least I’m not the biggest dope in the room, or the poorest person in the room, or the worst parent in the room. When I worked at a shelter, an alcoholic said, “I may be a drunk, but I’m not like those heroin addicts, no needle in my arm – even though he had four drunk driving charges and stole $50 from their grandmother this morning.
It is in human nature that when we feel anxiety or under threat that we get some security in knowing someone else is lower than us. But, of course, it is a false security. You are not really better off, you are not improving, looking down on someone just relieves tension, it doesn’t solve anything – except for the ego. Which is why it is such an attractive solution and the best tactic for a demagogue.
Let’s get back to the tax collector. Jesus’s listeners expect him to be the villain in the story. “He collects our money and gives it to the Roman Emperor.” He is a collaborator with a foreign government, in bed with the rich and powerful against the people, and tax collectors were notoriously corrupt. When a tax collector visits John the Baptist and asks, “What do I need to do to be righteous?” John says, “Don’t take any more than you should.” How about that for a start? In reality, this tax collector is having a spiritual wrestling, and a real prayer with God. He leaves justified. Why is that? How do you feel about that? Is it fair?
We talked about this passage in Bible study on Monday, and a burning question for me from this parable is “What makes a person righteous?” Or we could ask, what makes a person good? What makes them holy? What makes them worthy in God’s eyes? I can think of three ways people try to be righteous, and I will share them with you briefly, and then open up for some discussion on why it might be helpful.
The first way to be righteous is to be pure. Do not do the things that are taboo – sex, drugs and rock and roll, and stay pure. Avoid all the bad stuff – don’t kill, steal, lie, cheat- follow the 10 commands and the rules of your community-whatever you define as a sacred cow, and you will be righteous. Engage in the right rituals and practices and traditions like ritual washing, communion, saying Hail Mary’s and Our Father, don’t eat pork, don’t eat any meat, don’t use fossil fuel as much as possible, boycott bad actors and you are righteous. Avoiding negative, destructive and annoying behavior is a good thing, it is a step in the right direction. But this alone does not make you a truly good person. Just not killing someone or lying to them is a low bar, it doesn’t mean you are practicing love. The Pharisees were excruciatingly detailed in this form of righteousness and worked all day long to follow their laws and rituals, but they had lost sight of their neighbor. Their rules mattered more.
The second way to be righteous is to be right – morally, philosophically, logically, theologically. Right belief equals righteousness. Most groups have their own lists. If you are pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, pro-gun control, pro-environment you are liberal and if you are anti-abortion, anti-gun control, and anti-gay marriage, and don’t believe climate change is real, you are conservative. And I intentionally described all my favorite positions as pro and all the things I don’t agree with as anti. God, thank you that I am not like those people, that “basket of deplorables.” This is where the parable starts to get irritating for me, and why Jesus is such a great teacher. These ideals matter to me, and I believe these because of my faith, my reading of scriptures, and my hope for the kind of world I want to live in. My struggle is what do I do as a good and moral person with the true believing Tea Party Trump voter, who I see as a threat to my ideals, who probably see me as a threat to their values? Does my moral obligation stop at only defending my values and pushing my ideals? I don’t think so.
This brings me to a third way to be righteous. Righteous can also mean living in right relationship. We might call this Golden Rule Righteousness – love your neighbor as yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Theologian Karen Armstrong writes prolifically about world religions and she notes that all religion have some form of wisdom about mutuality, respect and kindness towards each other. The Great Commandment of Jesus is to love your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. Here right relationship has both a divine and human component. You are related to everyone, you effect everything, we all breath the same air and live on the same planet, and unless we get along better we are doomed. I may need that Trump-voting plumber, and he can’t afford to live without the non-documented immigrant who is picking the crops. Like it or not we are in relationship and can’t solve the human problems with genocide or silencing everyone we disagree with.
The challenge of being righteous for me is in the tension of these three ways of being righteous, especially between right values and ideals vs. right relationship. I feel compelled both ways. I’m not giving up my values, I will resist and push back on things I disagree with and defend myself, but I also feel obligated to live with love and kindness towards those who I think are so wrong, even dangerous. It may not sound easy, but it does open up options for me. Relational righteousness keeps me from hatred and hopelessness, and makes me feel like I can do something even when there is no path to agreement.