They used to call me “winner.”
Now understand, this was not meant as a compliment. My college roommates and friends called me “winner” with a great deal of sarcasm, poking fun at me because they knew that whatever the contest – whether intramural flag football, ping pong in the house, setting the curve on a test, or even things that were actually no contest at all – I wanted to win. I think I’ve managed this compulsion over the years, but it’s a classic case of what Harvard Business Review has termed the “high need for achievement personality.” I can’t tell you how much I wanted to be a Cubs fan last night.
I remember when I realized that this competitive trait so present in me was not innate for my first-born son. Like a few years ago when we were at the train table building tracks for his favorite engines with imagination running wild when I grabbed two of the trains and said, “Okay buddy, let’s have these two race…” And he sort of cocked his head, puzzled, and took them from my hands, “No, they go down the track together.”
I admit, I felt defeated. Just as I did when trains gave way to superheroes and a 3-yr-old Jack was running around with his slightly older buddy, Hudson, soaring across the room when Jack said, “We’re playing superheroes. Hudson’s Batman and I’m Robin!” And Jenny held me back as internally I said, “Son, if anybody is Batman it’s you.”
But at some point something changed, as my now 6-yr-old seems to have caught up – or been caught up, rather, in our achievement-driven, image conscious, competitive virtue world. And he can’t stop asking me about the latest football scores. Who’s better? Who’s the best? “Daddy, who’s going to win?” he asks.
He now paces himself against classmate and friends – always aware of who’s the fastest and the strongest. And on the soccer field on Saturdays, he and the rest of the Under-7 boys almost laugh out loud at us when we coaches try to tell them, “Guys, we’re not keeping score.” Because nearly everything else we’ve told them and shown them says otherwise.
We all absorb it – this rehearsed, if not innate, competitive pattern of dividing our world sharply into poles and neat dichotomies. Either/Or. Winner/Loser. Right/wrong.
Just as we do in this parable. Once again, Jesus is using stock characters to tell us something about the kingdom of God, and in this case the two figures could not seem more divided. It’s a regular split screen. “Daddy, who’s going to win?” Who’s better? Who’s going to get it right? The Pharisee or the tax collector?
But at first they’re not divided at all. They’re in the same frame. The parable starts simply with two men going up to the temple to pray. This was a common scene and a familiar path that others had walked before them and with them and still others would follow after them. Two men going up to the temple. You always go up to the temple and down from it. Up is the direction you travel for praise and prayer and offering, and down is the road that returns you to life and labor. To hear that two men are going up, without any titles or markers of identity, you could almost imagine that they were traveling together – heading to the house of God in a show of unity.
But then Jesus tells us who the two men are: one a Pharisee and one a tax-collector. And now the screen splits. There’s a clear line down the middle. The matchup takes shape between two sharply delineated figures – people we know, or at least think we know. And as they speak, they begin to confirm our assumptions about them.
The Pharisee speaks first. We’d expect as much from him as someone who knows how to pray, and what to say. He is religiously devout. A leader among the Jews and a guide for those seeking to follow God’s law, he tries to lead a blameless, righteous life. He is careful in his observance, generous with his money – and as we hear him pray, we learn he’s not afraid to tell God all about it. His prayer is a soliloquy, outlining his works of goodness. “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” Jesus will say after the story, and if you asked this Pharisee could surely tell you that his best trait was his humility.
In contrast is a tax collector. Jesus describes him “standing far off.” Why? We’re not sure, but it might have something to do with how despised he was by most people. More than misunderstood, tax collectors were on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically. It was his job to call in what was owed to the empire. He was an instrument of an ultimately oppressive system that gauged the poor and benefitted the wealthy, and filled his pockets along the way any time he wanted to collect over and above what was owed. When we hear him introduced, knowing Jesus as we do, we recognize him as one of those people that Jesus liked to eat with. He’s someone we might want to identify with, thinking that we, too, ought to be at those meals with Jesus and wanting Jesus to say to us, “I’m coming to your house today.” But we can only see that in hindsight. This was not some publican with a heart of gold. He was despised – so lowly he won’t even raise his head toward heaven.
“Thank God I’m not like that person,” the Pharisee says with the victorious tone that winners always assume. Thank God I’m better – on the right side of the temple, the correct side of the screen, exalted and justified unlike this other.
But as we observe these two, we begin to notice how smug and sanctimonious the Pharisee appears next to the insecure and timid tax collector. The saintly Pharisee parades to the temple as though he’s carrying God with him, while the sinful tax collector keeps a physical distance, as if feeling very far from the work of God in the world. The religiously devout man stands up and puffs out his chest, while the tax collector looks down and beats his breast. The Pharisee prays loudly about his own virtues, while the tax collector can barely get the words out.
“Have mercy on me, a sinner” the tax collector says, while the Pharisee’s words are, “Thank God I’m not like that person.”
I admit, I think I know the Pharisees words the best. “Thank God I’m not like them.” Have you heard anything like that recently?
We find ourselves in a divided season of political campaigns. It visits us every two to four years – some of this division over issues of great importance, and differing ways of seeing the world, discordant ways of understanding solutions. Such a division is a natural, even laudable part of democracy. But this year seems to many of us to be as bitter as ever. Our self righteousness and moral superiority are on display. Our division and conflict are acted out on screens in living rooms and basements in ads and debates, where so many statements seem to amount to “Thank God I’m not like them.”
I guess most campaigns are built on such superiority and self-righteousness. Imagine a campaign whose slogan amounted to “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” No candidate would approve. So the speech grows more and more brash, and so do we along with it, becoming as callous, angry, divided, and unable to see as any candidate for office, and all the while never asking where it comes from or who benefits from it.
“Daddy, who’s going to win?” Well some people will. And so some of us will feel victorious, too. We’ll have the chance to justify and exalt – separating our world once more into winners and losers, either/or, sharp dichotomies and a clear line down the middle, even among some people who go up to the house of God together to pray.
It’s what we do with this parable. We read along with Jesus and ultimately find the fault in the flaunting Pharisee. We side with the virtuous tax collector, setting aside his injustice in order to be with the one exalted. We distance ourselves from the Pharisee – his self-righteousness, his self-serving campaign, his puffed up sense of self, and his assumption that he’s holding the high ground in the temple all on his own.
And somewhere as we’re walking away from him, well, it just slips out, “Thank God I’m not like him.” Which is the phrase that makes us exactly like him.
This is the parable where Jesus makes us Pharisees. “Thank God I’m not like the tax collector,” the Pharisee says, prompting all of us to say, “Thank God I’m not like the Pharisee.” It happens without us realizing it, but the moment we choose the tax collector’s side in the story is the moment we settle again into either/or, winner/loser, assuming that sharply divided way of seeing the world that characterized the self-righteous Pharisee. We create the same division and assume the same distance this Pharisee puts between himself and another child of God. We stand alone, seeing only the separation, which in the ancient world, is exactly what the empire would have wanted. If people separate themselves, they’re easier to persuade, and easier to control.
How often do we stand apart from others when we pray? How divided are we from the realization that we are all in need, all sinners, all belong to God? God, be merciful to us all, sinners.
My friend Roger is one of the dearest men of faith I’ve known. The word “saint” is one I use sparingly, but I will use it for this man who is a father figure to his nephew, a faithful and quiet servant of his church, a devoted Bible Study leader to the handful of men who show up to his apartment every Monday night, and a friend and encourager who always signed emails, “You are stuck with my love.”
In one such email, he once told me about his own sense of call. Part of “Saint Roger’s” devotion comes from a call to ministry he felt as a young man growing up in the Midwest. Ultimately he was discouraged from this path by his Christian college and religious community because it came to be known that he was a gay man. This was the 1980s, and Roger experienced painful reactions and some separation from his church. But amidst that he held on to his faith in a loving God and his deep sense of call to do the will of God. He began taking classes at a small seminary a few hours from his hometown, and began looking for ways he could serve people who might be trying to hang on to their faith in the midst of challenges. He kept coming closer to people from whom others stood at a distance, because he had been one of those people himself.
Roger ended up serving as a Chaplain at a small jail in Illinois, leading Bible Studies, providing pastoral counseling to inmates and families, and leading worship services each week. He told me he labored at first trying to think of topics and sermons that would be helpful to these inmates. What could he, a young man, share with these so hardened by life? Roger wrote, “It took me a long time to figure it out, but I ultimately realized that the inmates and I needed the same help. The same message.” The saint and the prisoner needed the same prayer. And in his note to me Roger summed that message up with the phrase, “Lord, have mercy on me.”
What if as we came up to the house of God, we shared together this prayer, and with it a sense of our common frailty, or ability to miss the mark? What if we prayed a prayer that helped us see that we’re all sinners who yet belong to God? What might happen when we go back down into our lives?
Well what happens when these two men – tax collector and Pharisee – go down from the house of God? The parable says, “The tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the other.” Those we have separated so sharply in the temple are seemingly separated as they leave it – winner/loser, either/or.
Then again, let’s look more closely at the phrase “rather than.” The parable says, “The tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the other…” “Rather than” is from a Greek phrase that can be translated “rather than” or “instead of” if we so choose. But in most cases throughout ancient literature, it’s translated “alongside of.” (1)
“The tax collector went down to his home justified alongside of the Pharisee.”
Why don’t we see that immediately? Why don’t we choose to translate the passage that way? Well, Luke says that Jesus is telling this parable to people who thought they were righteous. Which turns out to be me. It turns out to be us, gathered together with the other pharisees, always looking to divide things up. Meanwhile, Jesus is always forgiving, reconciling and uniting us until the kingdom comes and all are alongside.
I wonder how often we see either/or where Christ sees side by side.
If there’s any hope to be more like Christ, it might start here and now, by going up to a place of worship to gather together and pray. And if you wonder how to pray, take a cue from the tax collector this morning: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
1. Thanks to Amy-Jill Levine for this insight in a lecture at Vanderbilt University, Spring 2006