Summary: We have a human tendency towards self-righteousness and judgment of others. Christ teaches that justification comes in acknowledging our brokenness, which also means recognizing Christ in others.
A couple of months ago, Owen went through this brief period of time where he would say “hi” to everyone we would encounter. He still does it some, but not quite as regularly. Anyway, while Owen was in the midst of this phase, we were in Northern Kentucky for my father-in-law’s memorial service over Labor Day weekend. So on Saturday, Mary Ellen went with her older cousins to the Cincinnati Zoo, and Ken and I decided we would take Owen to the new riverfront park on the banks of the Ohio in downtown Cincinnati. We began our walk, and as we started across the historic Roebling bridge, we started running into a lot of people. There was a Reds ballgame that day, and so we were seeing a lot of fans on their way toward the stadium for the game, but there were others as well; runners, tourists, homeless, and so on. The folks we were running into were all shapes, sizes, persuasions, and colors. And without fail, Owen, with his cute dimpled grin, said “hi” and waved to every single one of them. It was really beautiful to see how people reacted to the enthusiastic greeting from the tiny human walking by. They all smiled. You could even tell that for some, it really made their day; maybe even their week. When we got over to the park and Owen got busy playing, Ken commented to me about how great it is that kids just see people. Owen wasn’t scared by anyone we encountered. He wasn’t judgmental in any way, shape, or form. He greeted every person with that same cute smile and friendly “hi,” and people ate it up!
Listen again to how this parable begins: “Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.” Have you ever felt like you were a pretty righteous person? I think most of us realize we’ve all got some work to do in the righteousness department, so maybe we don’t fall into that category. But I bet all of us, at some point or another, have looked on another with disgust; maybe not everyone, but at least someone. And if we’re being honest, we’ve probably looked on several someones with disgust. So, whether we want to hear it or not, this parable is for us.
That day we walked across the bridge into Cincinnati with Owen, I was distracted by what he was doing and how everyone was reacting to him. But let me be candid for just a moment and tell you what probably would have been going through my mind if I had been by myself, because the truth of the matter is, I think we all do this. I likely would have been making judgments about every person, so my internal monologue would sound something like this: Reds fan (yay!), Cardinals fan (boo!), tourist (wonder if they’re from Missouri), drunk (isn’t it only 10am?), why are there doughnuts on the ground (can’t people clean up their mess?), homeless (I wonder where all the homeless people that used to be down here went since they built the park), thug (better move over), bicyclist (can’t they see there are too many walkers on this bridge and they need to slow down!). I think you get the idea. We do this ALL. THE. TIME. For whatever reason, it’s part of our human nature (not that that makes it okay). Maybe it’s like a survival instinct, or something, as we try to measure up who is a threat and who is not. I don’t really know. All I know is that it runs counter to everything Jesus teaches us about how we should live our lives and be in relationship with one another.
To help us learn some of what that means, Jesus tells this parable. Two men are in the Temple praying. The fact that they are in the Temple tells us that they are both Jewish, and because they are praying, it’s also safe to assume that they are both pious. One is a Pharisee and one is a tax collector. Now, we might as well acknowledge here that we probably have some preconceived notions about the Pharisees and tax collectors, just as we do of thugs and Cardinals fans today. Pharisees are rule-bound, legalistic, religious leaders, and tax collectors are selfish, greedy, turncoats. But there’s more to the Pharisees and tax collectors than what we generalize from our Biblical study. Pharisees were actually pretty liberal in their interpretation of the law. As a matter of fact, their aim was to make the observance of Torah (the Jewish scriptures) available to all. And the tax collectors; they’re job was to collect the tax for the Roman Empire, but anything more they collected was theirs to keep. Often, these tax collectors would appoint their work to others, who would actually go around knocking on doors and collecting the money. These “agents” (in essence) were usually locals, a Jewish man in this case. And while we could assume that perhaps they were simply doing a job, and not engaging in any “funny business,” it is probably likely that they, too, would get caught up in the pyramid scheme and try to rake in a little extra for themselves before passing the dues on to the higher ups.