Friday, June 5, 2009

Those who humble themselves

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 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!” 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.’

- Luke 18:9-14

As in the previous two readings (of the last two days), the theme of justice continues. What is Judgment? How do we know it? How do we pray for justice? What is good judgment? I believe that all of these themes are intermingled, and above all we cannot escape the topic of the final Judgment, or judgment before God, and its relevance to all of these concerns.

The passage before last, here in Luke, introduced the topic of the final Judgment, but Jesus has extended this over the following two readings, including today's - and we, I believe, must take all of these passages within that context. We have been taught that we must always pray for justice. We must have faith in the knowledge of Judgment. We must remember his word and his teachings, and continue to pray to keep our faith strong in this inner kingdom, after the crucixion and the coming of the Advocate. And here, in this passage that continues these themes in Luke, we have the story of the Publican and the Pharisee, which is another elaboration on the theme of justice and Judgment. How do we know good judgment? How do we set judgment in God's hands, rather than our own? This is the topic of this reading.

The Pharisee in the story is, of course, the paragon of spiritual virtue according to the teaching of the Law. He is perfect in terms of his obedience to the things taught in the Law, taught in the Temple in terms of what he must do to be a devoted worshipper of God. By human standards of worship and understanding, it is the Pharisee who is for certain the one on whom God will shine his approval. In his prayer, the Pharisee names all his virtues, and his strict obedience to all that is considered good and proper and exemplary. The Publican on the other hand is rather a notorious type of sinner, one of whose type is even generally despised by the people for the work he does on behalf of the Romans.

But the twist in this story comes in terms of just what each of these men is praying for and to whom each man seems to be praying. The Pharisee has decided that he's done everything right. He's followed all the rules to the letter and he's quite proud of himself - to the point of boasting to God about his great achievements. In a sense, the Pharisee is telling God about himself, thanking God for making him a great man in his own judgment and by his own reckoning of his achievement. There's no door open for the Judgment of God here. The Publican on the other hand, acknowledges a judgment that is beyond his own. He is able to stand outside of his own perspective, and to ask forgiveness. He acknowledges God's reality, the Judgment that exists beyond the world and the appearance that he makes to the world. And of course Jesus tells us that it is the Publican who walks away justified, reconciled to God. What it took was the acknowledgement that there is a place beyond our awareness and our knowledge from which we seek judgment and all that goes with it: guidance, discernment, understanding. Repentance, in my estimation, is our ability to reconsider; to hold the door open to the question that maybe we might change our minds and need to do something differently than the way we've been doing it. But without that, true judgment is just not possible. The door is closed, once we decide that we already have all the answers in spiritual terms.

Often I find myself thanking God that I've been spared some hardship that others go through; this is in a sense that I wonder if I'd be competent to face it well. It is with a sense of relief that at least I have not been tested in ways in which I think I'd fail to cope. I admire endlessly those who do and extend my sympathy for something that I would find so devastating. I don't think that's the same as this arrogant prayer of the Pharisee. The Pharisee thanks God that he's a great man. When we place our faith in our own judgment, and then leave that as the judgment of God, I think we're in great trouble. This story teaches me today, as importantly as it did 2,000 years ago, that we're not to rest on our own judgment about what makes us good people. We have always to turn everything over to God. In prayer, we should always be reaching out to that great Other that is God for right discernment, right judgment, and especially for an understanding of where and how we need to go forward, and what we might need to change and open up to within ourselves that we just don't know. I think this is the great thing, to recognize that there are things we don't know, ways we're not capable of judging ourselves and how we're doing - especially spiritually - and we need always to be open to that judgment that comes from beyond our own particular box. I think this is true for each of us regardless of who we are and where we find ourselves. It just might be our saving grace.

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