Today we hear another parable from Jesus, in which we are meant to ask, where do we find ourselves in this story? Before I share it, let me offer a lens, in case it’s helpful. You know the concept of a caricature? Like- you have such and such qualities, but I will BLOW them out of proportion to prove a point. Okay- I like to think of the two people in this parable as caricatures of our own pride & humility. Remember the question: where do you find yourself in this story?
“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I love paying attention to the caricatures of religious people and moments on TV. Has anyone seen the TV show called Ted Lasso- new last year? (no one at text study had either). An American football coach (Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis) moves to England and coaches soccer (or Futbol) for the first time. We also meet this side-kick of an assistant coach, Coach Beard; now he’s always getting into some type of personal drama- especially romantic. On and off again with a woman named Jane. In one particular scene, he’s sad after losing a big game, wandering the streets of London, somehow lost his phone… when he has this epiphany: Jane is the one! Trouble is, when he finally finds his phone, he also sees several angry texts from Jane who thinks he’s ignoring her after she (for the first time says), “I love you.” See what I mean? Personal drama. Coach beard is UPSET! He thinks his chance with Jane is over. He’s drunk & drenched from a downpour, and in a final display of exhaustion, he slips into a church door lit by a neon cross. Slumped into the pew, he bows his head awkwardly and says, “Are you there God, it's me, Margaret's little boy, long time listener, first time caller.”
I love that line. It’s a fairly common trope in TV- someone on the sidelines of religion their whole life now attempting to connect with God in a moment of desperation. It also makes me laugh because it suggests God is a radio show host or something. But when I read Jesus’ parable, I think of Coach Beard as the Tax Collector…and I wonder: what in his past has stopped this “long-time listener” from actually making the call to God? Maybe as important- what made him do it now?
The tax collector KNOWS he might find God in the temple (it was, after all, thought to be the physical place God dwelled)... but he also acts like he doesn’t deserve it. “Standing far off, would not even look up to heaven.” I hear in those words a deeper truth. Many of us haven’t felt worthy of being in God’s presence, so we’ve not risked prayer. We’ve not dared to make the call. Maybe we’ve been listening to God our whole lives, but haven’t had the right words to say anything back. You know what happens when this tax collector takes a risk and goes for it? He goes home exalted. He makes a connection with God that transforms his self-understanding.
Are you the tax collector today? If so, are you willing to risk making a call to God? “Long-time listener, first-time caller.” God, in such merciful kindness, is waiting to hear from you. You ARE worthy of being in God’s presence–here in this sanctuary and in your own heart. Harness that humility and use it to create a new relationship with your God.
And what about that Pharisee, that caricature of our pride. Let’s examine his posture for a moment. He too finds himself in the temple. He too is calling out to God. But he’s got a very different attitude. Here’s his prayer in a nutshell: “I’m really good, God! In fact, I don’t actually need you, I just called in to say how nice it is to compare myself with others and come out on top.” Okay, so if that’s a caricature, let’s make it more personal. When have you regarded someone not as good as you with contempt? I probably won’t believe you if you say you haven’t. It’s a human thing to do- that’s how Jesus knows we need this parable.
It’s hard to admit when this happens, right? You know where I let pride get the best of me? When I start regarding another with contempt? It’s when I think about the parents whose kids are in foster care. This is a vulnerable thing to admit, because I absolutely know there are complex factors affecting every family- the pastor and social worker in me sees the systemic & psychological reasons why people are simply unable to parent their children. But the tired mom in me, the one who has overextended time and again to care for my little ones, that part of me gets real judgy. In fact, my own prayers sometimes sound a little more like the pharisee than I’d want them to. I don’t think Jesus wants me to be a worse parent- Jesus wants me to stop comparing myself with other parents. Especially when it leads me to feelings of contempt. Here’s the truth, no one has lived in the skin of anyone else, period. And making comparisons of who’s good and bad at this or that is simply not our job.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I’m a firm believer that Jesus doesn’t make rules for the sake of rules. Jesus isn’t into religion so much as he is all about relationships. Jesus wants what is BEST for us, and what is BEST for all of us, is to stop comparing ourselves with others. Regardless if the comparison leads you to think you’re better OR worse, Jesus says, “not today, friend.” Today you are all worthy of my presence. Not only that, but you will automatically receive it when you open your heart in humility rather than pride. That’s what it means to be justified.
The minute our religious actions make us think we’re better than someone else, we’ve forgotten what it’s all about! So let’s be present with God in our own reality and trust others to do the same. God knows our hearts. That’s enough! We don’t have to pretend to be anything or anyone we’re not. In fact, it’s a disservice to our spirits to think we could somehow attain righteousness on our own.
Yesterday I was with the foster kids from our WRAP team, carving jack-o-lanterns; I got a chance to cuddle each of them & make them laugh by speaking in a silly voice; I altogether enjoyed the morning. At one point, I heard the 4 year-old shout, “Emily, look!” showing me his halloween costume; It was one of the first times I’d heard him use my name, and something in my heart shifted. Relationships have a way of transforming our spirits. Sure, I spend time with them because I think it’s a good thing to do…but I am becoming more aware that I need those kids as much as they need me. The more fun we have together, the less I focus on judging their parents. At the end of the day, it’s about the love we share, not the judgment we hold. It’s about showing up for each other, knowing we’re ALL in need of grace. Together on the same journey, doing the best we can with the resources we’ve been given. Thank you Jesus for the gift of humility to counter our pride. May we find the grace we need for ourselves and others this week. Amen.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.