The Gospel reading for this Sunday is a parable of Jesus—perhaps a familiar one for many of us, perhaps not. On the surface, this parable is fairly easy to understand. But, today, you may see some themes from this text that aren’t so self-evident. You might see how you and I can live lives alienated from God’s love. And this state of alienation from God’s love leads to alienation within ourselves and from others.
Before I knew this text was the Gospel reading for this week, I had already been thinking about this state of alienation because of how it feels in America right now. Powerful forces of division are at work in our world. So, I believe this text is very timely and has a lot of important things to say to us today.
In this text, Jesus tells a parable about two men praying at the Temple. The two main characters are very specifically chosen to be polar opposites with inherent conflict in their identities. One is a member of a group called the Pharisees. The other is one of many in Jesus’s day who have become tax-collectors for Rome. The two characters also represent these two groups.
The Pharisees were devout Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day. They had a particular understanding of how the Reign of God was going finally going to arrive in the midst of the present occupation of Israel by Rome—a foreign, Pagan, military empire. Their belief was that the only righteous response to God’s people being under the control of unclean Gentile overlords, was resistance through purity. If Jews in Israel would just maintain the purity of their Jewish identity by keeping the Mosaic Law meticulously, and especially remaining pure by not associating with ‘sinners’ like Gentiles or tax-collectors, then God would return to Zion in power through his Messiah and liberate Israel once again (like a new Exodus from Egypt).
But there were other Jewish approaches to the dilemma of Roman occupation besides resistance through purity. Other devout Jewish people felt equally strongly that the only way the Reign of God was going to arrive was if they met this invading, violent force called Rome with equal and opposite force. Only difference between Rome’s violence and the violence of these “Zealots” (as they were called), was that the violence of the Zealots was religiously-justified because “God is on their side”! (Ever heard anyone talk like that? I have!) Jesus Barabbas, the man who was released instead of Jesus of Nazareth on that first Good Friday, was this type of Jewish revolutionary—someone the Gospel authors say participated in a violent rebellion for which he was imprisoned awaiting execution when his life was exchanged for Jesus of Nazareth’s.
Then there were Jewish people whose approach to the Roman occupation was to compromise with them—even to get rich from their violent reign over Israel. That’s what a tax-collector was doing. I’m currently reading a book with New City’s men’s group in which the author compares first-century tax-collectors to modern-day IRS agents. That is an terrible misunderstand that makes me want to demand whatever seminary he went to give him his money back! First-century tax-collectors weren’t pencil-pushing bean-counters like IRS agents—they were ruthless extortionists who profited from the oppression of their own people! If you think that the Pharisees disliked tax-collectors the way we dislike paying our taxes, you don’t understand just how much of a betrayal it was for a Jewish person to become rich by taking even more money than a person owed Rome, under the threat of violence against their own fellow Jewish people. Tax-collectors weren’t like IRS agents at all. Tax-collectors were like gangsters who you had to pay protection money to, and you hated them because they were supposed to be your brothers! In fact, tax-collectors were so hated that the Zealots would often assassinate them.
Jesus chose these two types of Jewish men for his parable because their identities as members of their respective groups were in direct opposition to each other. They had polar opposite ideas about the Reign of God, their ruling Gentile overlords, and what righteousness looks like in response.
(This is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names of groups) Who do you think Jesus would choose for his parable if he were telling it to Americans today? Without calling out any group names, think to yourself about who Jesus would have starring in his parable today?
There are dozens of fault lines in our society and world today, between groups who have as much hostility against one another as the Pharisees did with tax-collectors. It’s nearly impossible to tune in to any form of news or media without the headlines centering around the conflict between two of these groups.
Jesus’s choice of these two group representatives is very deliberate. Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” (v.9 NRSV) The Pharisees would fall into Jesus’s intended audience. They regarded tax-collectors as unclean “sinners,” formally excluded from the synagogue—the center of Jewish religious and social life. Pharisees regarded their way as the only righteous way.
So, what does Jesus do with this parable? He flips the script, of course! That’s what Jesus does!
It’s the despised tax-collector who throws himself upon the mercy of God who is counted righteous before God, not the self-righteous Pharisee!
This parable isn’t a challenge to those who you and I “regard with contempt;” it’s a challenge to us. You and I are in danger of considering ourselves part of the in-group, and those people we despise as part of the out-group. You and I have made up our minds who the “bad guys” are. You and I have already counted ourselves as part of the “good guys” group. And no one can tell us otherwise!
But Jesus’s parable challenges you and I directly, on how we view ourselves and our judgment of others.
Our view of ourselves and judgment of others is warped by something that may not be obvious in this parable. But a slight reframe might help us to see how this challenge applies to us, even now.
The setting of the parable appears obviously religious (the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem). But the setting beneath this setting is a Stage.
A place of worship like the Temple was a place where the focus is centered around God. But the Pharisee’s prayer betrays that he imagines himself as the main attraction, the star of the show. He’s putting on a performance.
Did you know that when Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites” in the Gospels, that term didn’t yet mean what it has come to mean for us today? “Hypocrite” was a term for an actor. It literally means “before the critics,” like someone on a stage performing for an audience. It describes someone who is putting on an act, or wearing a mask.
When Jesus calls out the Pharisees for being performers, he’s calling us all out! We’ve all grown up in a world where we’ve come to understand that people are watching us and judging us. So, in return, we watch them and judge them. We’re all critics and we’re all performers! We’re all hypocrites!
My friend Morgan Guyton is a campus minister in New Orleans. He recently wrote a book called How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity. In a chapter called “Worship Not Performance,” he reframes the familiar Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin as not about disobedience and punishment, but about the loss of authentic delight in God alone and the fall into self-conscious performance for God and others. He writes,
“Adam and Eve don’t gain the wisdom that the serpent promised as a result of eating the fruit [of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil]; the only ‘knowledge’ that they gain is the fear and shame of their nakedness. They receive the curse of self-consciousness, the death of innocent wonder, which turns a life of worship into a life of performance.” (1)
These two ways of living are in conflict with each other. We can’t live in authentic delight in God alone and also live in shame and fear, performing for God and others. What happens when we live in this performance mode, is that we become alienated from God, alienated from ourselves, and alienated from others. God calls out to us, “Where did you go?” And our only honest answer is, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” To which God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” or, to put the question another way, “Who are these critics you’re performing for?”
The fear and shame that comes from self-consciousness shows up in a lot of different forms. It can show up in self-righteousness like in the Pharisee in Jesus’s parable. For some people, it shows up in cynicism or self-destructive behavior designed to say to our critics, “You can tell me what to do!” Some people’s performance is in their morality. Others’ is their correct beliefs. Others in their correct political opinions (I’m sure no one here knows anyone who thinks they have the correct political opinions in this highly contentious election season). Others justify their existence through their aptitude, their productivity, their wealth, their status, or their celebrity. This life of performance under the critics is a curse!
Not too long ago, I heard of a young woman in Australia who got headlines for quitting Instagram, which to most of us is nothing newsworthy at all. But, what made it interesting to many people is that when she announced her decision to leave social media, she had over 600,000 followers. She had so many followers, that she was getting paid to post pictures of herself with products or in certain clothes. Here’s what she’s quoted as saying in one article I read, “I’m the girl who had it all and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means nothing to your real life … Everything I did was for likes and for followers.” “I was surrounded by all this wealth and all this fame and all this power and yet they were all miserable, and I had never been more miserable.” (2)
She was alienated from her own true self. She was wearing a mask, performing for her Instagram critics and dying inside. You and I don’t have to be Instagram models to understand what that feels like. We have our own ways we perform for the critics.
Let me ask you this: What does it profit us if our performance for God or others gains us everything we think we want, but the fear and shame of putting on an act cost us our very souls?
This performance life that we can live due to shame and fear not only alienates us from God, and alienates us from ourselves, it also alienates us from one another.
Part of the Pharisee’s performance is to heap contempt on the tax-collector as a way of reassuring himself that at least he’s better than someone else.
Did you know that “Satan” is not a proper name, but is instead a description of a role in a law court? Ha-Satan means “the Accuser”. It speaks of the person in an ancient law court who brings charges against another. When we heap scorn upon another person or group of people in a self-righteous attempt to justify ourselves, we are taking on the role of the Accuser. We have the attitude, or “spirit,” of the Accuser.
In the Genesis story of humanity’s fall into sin, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they become afraid, ashamed, and hide themselves. Then God asks them if they’ve eaten of the fruit and their immediate response is to start accusing others. It’s Eve’s fault; it’s the serpent’s fault; it’s your fault, God!
The Performance Game we play when we live in the fear and shame of self-consciousness, “before the critics,” leads us to the Blame Game that divides us from one another. That’s why Jesus has the Pharisee self-righteously say “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (v.11)
The curse of self-consciousness that we live under not only alienates us from God because we feel afraid and ashamed so we hide from God—and it not only alienates us from ourselves because that fear and shame leads us to perform for God and others, wearing masks, and seeking to justify ourselves—it also alienates us from one another because we use the knowledge of good and evil to judge and accuse one another. Self-consciousness and the compulsion to perform leads to accusation and division.
(Again, this is a rhetorical question, so please don’t shout out any names) What are some of the divisions we can see in our society, and our world today, that come from us judging and accusing one another? I’m sure we can all think of several.
Recently, I began reading a new book by a pastor named Jonathan Martin called How to Survive a Shipwreck. In it, he talks about his own experience of “shipwreck”, when he had to step down from leading the church he planted and pastored for several years because of a moral failing. In one section of the book, he talks about how for so long he thought of himself as above such a failing, like it could never happen to him. He judged others and thought himself pretty righteous. But he discovered through his own shipwreck that we’re all in need of God’s mercy—like the tax collector in Jesus’s parable. Here’s what Martin writes,
“One way or the other, through illness, divorce, calamity, or death, we will be stripped away from the things that made us feel other than/apart from our fellow humans. And life itself will plunge us into the sea of our own shared humanity.
Ideally, the primary function of religion will be to loose us from our illusions of individuality and self-reliance and deliver us from the toxic fruit of ego development. But instead of equipping us to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we make entire religions out of worshipping around the tree instead. Rather than breaking down the illusory boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ insiders and outsiders, sacred and profane, religion often underwrites these boundaries, reinforces them, gives us a sense of being good guys over/against the bad guys. Instead of subverting the lie of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ religion is often a tool to make us feel special, set apart. No wonder Jesus tells the Pharisees of his time, practitioners of these kinds of judgments, that they make converts ‘twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.’ ‘Us and them’ religion is poison to the soul, and it often takes a lifetime of humiliation to detoxify us from it.” (3)
One of the ways this parable hits me right in the gut is in how I think about those with different political opinions from mine—especially my fellow Christian sisters and brothers. The temptation to judge and accuse them has been strong this election year. I know I’m probably the only one. I read an article the other day that didn’t necessarily present the arguments for why someone would support alternative policies or another candidate, but it presented how our nation has become so divided culturally between those who dwell in small towns, suburbs, and rural areas, and those who dwell in cities. And it gave me some much needed empathy for my sisters and brothers in Christ who have a different outlook on things because of where they’re from. I recognized that my outlook is also colored by where I’m from, and we all need God’s mercy.
This passage also challenges me to think about the ways I perform for the critics. It caused me to really recon with the reality that I have some critics I’m performing for from my past. Part of my drive in life is to show them I matter—to justify my existence.
How does this parable of Jesus challenge you? Take a moment to process these two questions between yourself and God. In what ways are you playing the Performance Game? And in what ways are you playing the Blame Game?
Humanity has a serious problem. We’re born into a self-conscious world. We’ve all eaten the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and so we’re afraid, ashamed, we hide, and we accuse one another. As a result we’ve become alienated from God, from ourselves, and from one another.
The Good News in this parable is the solution Jesus gives to this experience of alienation. By God’s grace, we can exercise courageous vulnerability, by throwing ourselves upon God’s mercy, and humbly accepting God’s unconditional, transforming love. No more hiding! No more performing! No more masks! No more accusation!
When we do this, we are freed from self-consciousness to live in wonder and worship of God like a child freely dancing—without any concern for how they appear. Morgan Guyton writes,
“When we’re performing for the critics, we are living the opposite of belovedness. Belovedness means living under the gaze of a God who watches us with such warmth that we stop worrying about what to do with our hands when we dance. That warmth, if we allow ourselves to embrace it, can fill our hearts with the true, genuine worship that we lost when we were children.” (4)
And Jonathan Martin writes,
“You were created in the image of God. Before you knew anyone or did anything, everything was in you necessary to live at home in divine love. However buried that image of God is within you, that part of you that knows what it is to be perfectly loved, held, and known—it is still very much there.” (5)
That’s how Jesus ends his parable: with the tax-collector, the “sinner,” formally excluded from Jewish religious and social life, “going home” right with God.
Today, we can all “go home” right with God. The Good News is that God is making all things new, recreating the world through Jesus and the Spirit. Jesus has made a way for you and I to be reconciled to God, reconciled to ourselves, and reconciled to one another. That experience of being rescued from the domination of self-consciousness and invited to participate in God’s Reign on earth is what we call salvation and what we celebrate in this meal we share together called the Lord’s Supper, or “Communion,” or the “Eucharist” (which means thanksgiving).
May this meal be our coming home today, freed from the watching critics to live under God’s loving gaze of grace. If you are willing and able, please pray with me.
Most Merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you and sinned against one another,
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors or our brothers and sisters as ourselves.
We humbly repent.
Just as your Son Jesus did, have mercy on us and forgive us;
That we may delight in your will and walk in your ways,
To the glory of your Name.
- Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity (WJK, 2016), p.10.
- Rheana Murray, “Instagram star quits social media, reveals her ‘dream life’ was all a sham,” Today (Nov. 4, 2015) [ http://www.today.com/news/instagram-star-quits-social-media-reveals-her-dream-life-was-t53721 ] (accessed Oct. 19, 2016).
- Jonathan Martin, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is On the Way and Love is Already Here (Zondervan, 2016), p.48-49.
- Guyton, p.15.
- Martin, p.70.