ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OCTOBER 23, 2016
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Micah 6: 6 – 8; Luke 18: 9 – 14
Chest thumping is a long and honoured practice. We can easily envision Tarzan declaring himself to be King of the Apes by beating his chest with his fists and bellowing a war cry that echoes throughout the jungle. It’s an act of pride and power that declares his superiority over all. Chest thumping also has other traditional meanings. In the classic poem Idylliums from Moschus we read that the cherubs or “little loves” of Venus, respond to the death of Bion in this way, “The little Loves, lamenting at his doom, Strike their fair breasts, and weep around his tomb”. Here chest thumping is an act of grief. In the Ancient Middle East and in some churches today, chest thumping has a third meaning. In the Roman Catholic Church “during the liturgy, a triple tap symbolizes the beating of the breast, a Hebrew expression of guilt and sorrow for sin.” Chest thumping in this case is a sign of contrition.
In Jesus’ parable there’s a fair bit of chest thumping. Two men go to the Temple to pray. The first, a Pharisee, is like Tarzan; he thumps his chest out of pride and power. Standing by himself, so as not to be contaminated by the sinners around him, he prays: ‘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’ (Luke 18: 11 & 12). His prayerextols his own virtues. He addresses God but boasts of his own righteousness. Four times he uses the word “I” making himself the subject of his own prayer. Although he doesn’t yodel like Tarzan he certainly sees himself as superior to all. In the other corner of the Temple, tucked away at the back was a tax collector. He too is standing far off because he sees himself as unworthy of coming into the presence of God. He too beats his chest but for him it’s an act of contrition and repentance. Looking at the ground he prayed a simple prayer of only 7 words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (vs. 13) God is the subject of his sentence while he is the object. He knows his need for God’s forgiveness. Jesus ended the parable saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…” (vs. 14)
To the listener of Jesus’ day this was a shocking tale. It was like saying a repentant Mafia hit man is more acceptable to God than the Pope. Understanding the role of a tax collector in Jesus’ day helps us appreciate the parable’s impact. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the hated Romans. These unclean, gentile, oppressors occupied Israel and ruled through brutality. A tax gatherer was told to raise a certain sum of money. How he did this wasn’t an issue; how much he pocketed didn’t matter as long as the Romans got their share. Tax gatherers got rich exploiting their neighbours and so were detested. Imagine if someone had cheated you with a Ponzi scheme, and then came to church to repent. That would be hard to take. On the other hand the Pharisees were moral, upright, devout, law-abiding folk who lived what they believed, set a good example and prayed for you if you were in need. So when Jesus approved of the tax-gatherer, his listeners would have been stunned.
We get that. If we had to choose a neighbour in heaven we’d likely prefer an arrogant but decent person over a swindler and a crook. We too believe nice, moral people are better than wicked ones. The fact Jesus extols the swindler is confusing. To conclude Jesus preferred bad people to good ones would be to miss his message. Jesus didn’t talk about which man had done what. He wasn’t impressed either way. He focused on the attitude of their hearts. One was proud, the other humble. One felt justified, the other ashamed. One felt superior and self-satisfied, the other was conflicted and in need of forgiveness. One boasted, the other repented. Both men need forgiveness yet one is blind to his need. When it comes to the core of who we are, there really is only one type of person – the type that needs God’s grace. A while ago my extended family were discussing “bullying.” I asked who had been a bully in grade school and who had been bullied. While most of us told our sad stories of being picked on, my niece, who is a lovely, thoughtful person admitted she’d been a bully. I was shocked. She responded, “Well, I think at different times we’re all guilty of being bullies and we’re all victims of being bullied. Each of us does both.” Pharisee or tax collector, each of us needs God’s grace. And so Jesus concluded, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (vs. 14) To be justified before God, we need to see ourselves as God sees us, humble ourselves and repent.
As Christians we value humility just as Jesus taught, yet often we confuse real humility with the appearance of humility. We think of ourselves as virtuous, but we’d never say that. We’d never pray like the Pharisee yet at times we remind God of our faithfulness to him and that we expect the same from him. We don’t boast about our goodness because it’s not polite to boast. We wouldn’t chest thump like Tarzan because we’re more subtle about our superiority. And although we shouldn’t think of ourselves as better than others or keep apart from them, we do. How often do we say in our hearts, “Thank God I’m not like other people!” (vs. 11). Real humility is found in the recognition that we are like other people. We really do need forgiveness. Humility recognizes that both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector live within us.
Like the Pharisee we may arrogantly see ourselves as superior to others. It’s easy to lose sight of grace and think our goodness earns God’s love. We take pride in our salvation and pity those who “just don’t get it”. Compared to people who swear, cheat or don’t go to worship we see ourselves as just a little less sinful. Or who doesn’t think their way is the best way, the right way, the only way of doing a task? All other ways and those who do them, fall short. Do you ever pity yourself for being the hardest worker and wish others would pull their weight? Or does your pride keep you from acknowledging your human vulnerabilities? Like me, you may be quick to support others but reluctant to share your own needs. We comfort someone else in sorrow but hide our own tears. Like the Pharisee we can also be quite narcissistic. We don’t listen to others. We keep people waiting. We talk about ourselves non-stop. We’re impatient. And when something happens and we think we’re in the right we can end up cutting people out of our lives, calling them names, turning others against them. Our pride can tear relationships apart and creates no end of injury and our response is “Thank God I’m not like her; thank God I’m not like those other people”.
As we look honestly into the mirror we also find we’re not such perfect people. A little tax collector lives in each of us as well. Every one of us has hurt or betrayed someone. We all have secret sins. When we want to get ahead we can use someone to get there without batting an eye. Many of us have done less than our best at home or wasted time at work or cheated the government by “paying cash” for a service. Each of us would sell out our own grandmothers to save our necks. We all carry guilt and shame. Just as both men in the parable are equally guilty, so we are equally guilty of their shortfalls. We don’t need to identify with the behavior of one over the other because they are us – both of them.
Thich Naht Han received a letter about a 12 year old Thai refugee girl in a small boat who was raped by a pirate. She jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. As Han reflected on this horrifying account he easily felt sorrow for the girl and rage towards the man. He wanted to take a gun and shoot him. Realizing that would make him no different from the perpetrator, he sought to find compassion for the pirate. It wasn’t easy. He concluded that if he’d been born into the same circumstances as that man, he too would likely have grown up to be a pirate. He wrote, “I am the 12 year old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving. I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda. I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people, dying slowly in a forced labour camp.” I read those words 25 years ago and was horrified as you may be now. Like me you may be thinking, “I could never do such evil. I could never rape or sell arms or imprison people”. The truth is that given the right circumstances any of us are capable of anything. This is extremely hard for us to admit. The truth is, “I am the Pharisee, standing apart, reciting my virtues and thumping my chest and I am the tax collector who has deliberately cheated my people for my own gain and cannot look God in the eye”. And both of me, all of me, needs to beat my chest in utter remorse and humbly say, “‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (vs. 13).