In my studying this week, I found this story. It’s too good to not pass on. J
Once there was a rabbi who was at the point of death, so the Jewish community proclaimed a day of fasting in the town in order to induce the Heavenly Judge to commute the sentence of death.
On that very day, when the entire congregation was gathered in the synagogue for penance and prayer, the town drunkard went to the village tavern for some schnapps. When another Jew saw him do this he rebuked him, saying, "Don't you know this is a fast-day and you're not allowed to drink? Everybody's at the synagogue praying for the rabbi!"
So the drunkard went to the synagogue and prayed, "Dear God! Please restore our rabbi to good health so that I can have my schnapps!"
The rabbi recovered, and it was considered a miracle. The rabbi explained it this way to his congregation: "May God preserve our village drunkard until he is a hundred and twenty years old! Know that his prayer was heard by God when yours were not, because he put his whole heart and soul into his prayer!"
Today’s parable is addressed to those who trusted in themselves and regarded others with contempt. We assume he’s speaking to Pharisees and Scribes, though the text doesn’t say that.
As we listen to the parable, we automatically think the Pharisee is wrong, because we know that Jesus and the Pharisees were usually at odds with each other.
But, in Jesus’ time, the Pharisee would have been the obvious hero in the story – he lived up to the standard expressions of faith, tithing, regular worship, fasting. He worked hard to discern how to live faithfully every day and to keep the commandments.
The tax collector would have been the obvious villain in the story – he was wealthy because he preyed on others, especially the poorer folks, the laborers and traders from whom he collected tolls. Even if he tithed, worshiped regularly and fasted, he would not have been seen as a model of faith expression.
When Jesus concludes the parable with the comment that the tax collector left the temple made right with God and the Pharisee didn’t, the audience would have gasped. It was just WRONG, what Jesus said. “No Way!” they would have thought.
To put the parable into modern perspective, we can change the people in the story. So, imagine if the parable started out: the TV pastor (perhaps Robert Schuller, T D Jakes, Joel Osteen, or Joyce Meyer) and the drug dealer went to church to pray. Immediately, we make a judgment call. We expect the TV pastor to be the hero, because we perceive them as models of faith for the rest of us; we assume the drug dealer will be the villain, because, even though he goes to church, it’s obvious that he is the sinful one.
Yet both – the Pharisee and the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, the TV pastor and the drug dealer in our modern version – seek to be made right with God. And that is the twist in the story. God hears the prayers of the tax collector and the drug dealer, even though they admit to being sinners. And God disregards the prayers of the Pharisee and the TV pastor in the story, because their hearts aren’t in their prayers.
With a little imagination, we can hear what the TV pastor and the drug dealer are saying to God.
The pastor might pray like this: “O Lord, I ask for your guidance, for my own life, as well as for the life and faith of my congregation. I ask you to send more people to join my flock, so I can build an even bigger worship space to your glory.”
The drug dealer’s prayers may have gone something like this, “Please forgive me, Lord. I know I am doing evil in selling these drugs, but I can’t find any other way to make money for my family. If I try to quit, the thugs who are my bosses will see that I am permanently crippled, or even killed. Who will take care of my family then? I am such a worm, and I am helpless. Please show me another way.”
It’s human nature to look at others and evaluate who they are to make sure we are safe. When I was at seminary in
, I was walking to the grocery store and saw a group of young black men on a corner. Since it was the south side of Chicago , and I was alone, I crossed the street, just to stay safe. Had I misjudged them? I’ll never know, but I know I judged them. I knew it at that moment, and I remember it today. Chicago
We judge and condemn many things, many people, without even thinking about it. For example:
Many of us care if the toilet paper rolls from the top, or from the bottom, and if the toilet seat is left up or down. We judge those who do it “wrong” as not caring about our own preferences.
I prefer music in which I can understand the words and sing along with the artist. I don’t care so much for rap because I can’t understand the words and the music sounds like a lot of noise. I remember my parents saying similar things about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. We judge those who perform, and those who listen.
I want to tell some young men to pull up their pants! And I remember my mother asking why my skirts were so far above my knees. We judge what others wear, and we judge the people who wear the unusual.
As I listen to certain politicians in their TV commercials, I want to yell at them that they sure don’t speak for me. I’m sure some of you would agree with me, and some of you would just as strongly disagree with me. We believe some and judge the others.
We judge all types of people: people of certain classes, people of certain ethnic groups, people of certain ages, people of certain faiths. We judge them as just like us, or as too different from us to be loved by God.
We assume, as did the Pharisee in the parable, that the obvious sinner – the tax collector and the drug dealer – are beneath us in status, and less righteous in God’s eyes. It’s not easy, but we are challenged by this parable to not judge one another. And we are reminded that God knows what is in our hearts. The best we can do is to turn to God with the tax collector’s prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
When we are tempted to judge others and find them lacking in something we think they should have, let us remember that others are judging us and finding us lacking, too. We can have competing judgments, or we can confess our judgments, and remember that we are all sinners, and we are all in need of God’s mercy.
Your challenge this week picks up the last two challenges and adds one more part. This week, as you notice people around you, and think about how you might pray for them, reflect also on how you judge them. Remember that each one is a child of God, and deserving of God’s love.
Please pray with me: O Lord, we thank you that you judge us through Jesus’ eyes, and not through human eyes. Forgive us. Help us to remember that all people are your children, and you love each of us. Amen