“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:”
If only I knew when that was!
For some strange reason when I read this parable an episode of “The Twilight Zone” pops up in my mind. “All the Time in the World.” It told the story of a mild mannered bank teller named Harold Bemis, who wore thick coke bottle glasses and was a devout reader. So devout in fact, that he was distracted by anything in print. He snuck a book at his bank teller position and read it, making mistakes in his accounts.
He read at home, and neglected conversation with his spouse in deference to having a conversation with characters in a book, or discourse with a poem.
His solace was found in sneaking into the bank vault every day to read in quiet solitude, until one day as he is reading about a new nuclear bomb to be tested, his world is rattled and the vault slams shut on him.
When he emerges, he is the last person left alive on earth.
Finally, no one to interrupt him in his pursuit of the great literature of the world!
He makes his way to the library, and stacks up his reading by month. All the great works, all the things he has always wanted the time to read. He has “all the time in the world” with no one to distract, disturb, or nag him about doing things.
Solitude is a blessing if you are a reader.
And just as he is reveling in his fortune, he trips and his glasses fly off his face and shatter against a stone.
“That’s not fair.” He mutters as he picks up the broken pieces. “That’s just not fair…..”
Mr. Harold Bemis, suddenly aware of how much he needs an other… at least a lens technician!
That episode pops into my mind because of the isolation experienced by both the characters in the parable, even as they both inhabit “Holy Space.”
When it is that I am trusting too much in myself, in my own righteousness, and regarding others with contempt?
When do I cross the line between living in a way that is an example to others, or consistent with expectations, and playing “na-na-na-na— Boo—Boo?
That’s the trouble with this parable, it’s a bit too transparent.
As Jesus begins to tell it we have a pretty good idea of who is going to come out looking bad from the get-go.
The Pharisees have taken the brunt of more than one pointed comment by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, so it’s not a big surprise that we can see who is being commended here, and who it is that is being cautioned.
Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!
But here’s the thing. Most of us are!
We are exactly like the Pharisee, because we are the ones who often pay particular attention to the commands and the demands of the law, of proper etiquette, and the rules of society, either expressly written or implied.
We’re in church here.
We give offerings, maybe even tithe.
We pray, we volunteer in the Pantry, we quilt, we lead book discussions or attend them, we serve and take part.
We are doing exactly what we should be doing as followers of Jesus.
The Pharisee is also doing exactly what he should be doing.
He’s in the temple.
He’s fasting, praying, worshipping, confessing his sins, praising God.
He’s doing everything that was expected of him at that time and place.
And yet, the one thing he cannot seem to avoid or refrain himself from doing is adopting a self-righteous attitude.
The one thing he can’t avoid, the one temptation he can’t resist, is to regard others with contempt…. particularly that “sinner” right over there, to which he feels compelled to compare himself.
Maybe his motivation was more noble than we give him credit for.
Maybe by speaking out loud in this fashion, he is hoping to be overheard to cause contrition in the other who is occupying Holy Space with him. “Here, let me just lay out for you what you should be doing.”
I’m sure we’ve never done anything like that, listed off to someone else the expectations they should be meeting? Dropped hints to children or family, co-workers or even strangers of what they SHOULD be doing instead of what they are currently doing, how they are currently living.
This is part of the parable that trips us up.
We begin to recognize how easy it is to do everything right only find out only too late that our attitude is all wrong.
The parable is told about us.
The parable is told as a warning.
The parable is told to make us stop, to make us think, and to help us measure our own actions against the spectrum of humility, and that is particularly hard for us.
It’s hard for us, because it requires a level of self-examination and self-deprecation that is hard to come by or to swallow.
In the Lutheran Church we are coming up on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In 2017 we’ll mark the anniversary of an Augustinian Monk’s actions that set off the political and intellectual movement than created the modern world, and we’ll no doubt have great celebrations and much fanfare around it all.
But we will do so in midst of what is by all accounts a dwindling institution.
We will celebrate actions taken 500 years ago that once served us well, and insist that continue to hold steadfast in these practices because they are “right.”
The Lutheran church, mainline denominations in the western world, are dwindling.
But the Church on the world-wide scale is growing, it’s just doing so in places where the Gospel rings differently.
It’s growing in places where some of the things that we assume as being the “right” things do aren’t in force.
It’s growing in third world countries.
It’s growing in Africa, and Asia, and in places where repressive governments and practices have been the norm, and the church is a counter to the predominant culture.
Thank God, we’re not like those African churches, where poverty and struggle for water and enough food are a daily undertaking. We are beyond all that.
Thank God we’re not like those in China, where they live under communist rule, where life may be hard but where the good news of a Savior is cherished all the more.
Thank God…. Oh wait…. That’s where the church is growing! So just who is “thanking God” in the right way?
I’m doing everything right. Everything I was taught in Seminary. Everything that was expected of a “good pastor.” Everything that is still expected of a good pastor in this institution of American Lutheranism that enjoys a privileged role in society still, even though it is slipping away, and sometimes I can get really smug about that.
Thank God I’m not doing Mission Development anymore, where we didn’t own a building and had to pack up and move into rented space every week.
Thank God I don’t have to go door to door looking for new members or meeting people in the neighborhood.
Thank God we have a big enough endowment that could be tapped to keep the lights on and the building heated if we had to.
You see how easy it is to find yourself on the wrong side of this parable, even when you’re doing everything “right?”
So today I’m wondering how we dwell in these words of Jesus here at the end that remind us that the humble will be exalted, and don’t have to exalt themselves.
What do I need to learn from my African and Asian friends and co-workers in the Gospel?
What do I need to let go of that I find myself holding so dear and treasure so near?
What does it mean to be humbled? What could or should I let go of for the sake of doing things differently?
No, that’s not quite the question.
Not just to do things differently, for that has the smell of me figuring things out on my own, and continuing in the way of the Pharisee, trusting in myself.
Rather, how do I adopt the attitude of regard for the other instead of contempt?
This is what stings most in the parable. That the one for whom the Pharisee had only contempt is the one that goes home “justified” by God.
The Pharisee has something to learn from him!
This is problem with cautionary tales and parables like this one, and Harold Bemis. We quite often don’t get them until the twist at the end is made, and the point of the parable or story falls on us hard.
If only I knew when that was going to happen.
If only I could live with such a regard for the other, no matter who they may be or how much I may disagree with them, that we might learn from each other how to share Holy Space.