One of the things that used to happen in the school where I taught just bugged the hell out of me. You see, we had the best office staff you could possibly imagine. Without them, the school simply could no have functioned. They typed all the letters going home. They filled the supply orders. They translated things that needed translating. They took care of sick kids who ended up in the office when the nurse wasn’t there. They kept an eye on the kids who were in the office for disciplinary reasons until the principal could see them. They fielded telephone calls from parents. They were simply the best.
And yet, many of the teachers and administrators looked down upon them. They behaved as if the mere fact that they had a few letters after their names gave them the right to look down upon these people. And these “professionals” didn’t limit their downward nose glances to the office staff. They also tended to look down upon the paraprofessionals, otherwise known as teachers’ aides in the same way.
These brave souls are often shared by two or three teachers, spending not much more than an hour in each classroom helping to keep it organized and working with kids who are having a hard time with the work. In many cases, these aides are a bridge to the community. Most of them live near the school. They are invaluable in the classroom, and yet many teachers and administrators barely speak to them. And this is sad.
Because, were it not for the custodians, the cafeteria workers, the aides, the nurse, and the office staff, we, the teachers and admins, would be up shit creek. It takes everybody to make a school run. I’m sure the same situation exists in every line of endeavor. Where would you be in your office if the custodians didn’t do their job? People might complain about illegal immigration, but you can bet they would complain if the price of their produce skyrocketed. I wouldn’t want to do their job. Everybody is important.
And it seems to me that some of the people who are the most guilty of looking down on people are the very people who should know better. Church people are notorious for condemning others. Look at the way the Episcopal Church is on the verge of splitting over the issue of the ordination of gay ministers. And for most other Christian churches, gay ordination isn’t even a matter for discussion. And these “holy” people seem to always have a lot to say about a lot of people, the drug addicts, the rock music fans, single parents, divorced people, scientists, and (gasp) liberals. I guess the easiest way to raise yourself up is to put others down.
A lot of people really slam the church for this type of attitude and I can’t say I blame them for being angry. But the things these people do and say have nothing to do with what Jesus taught. Jesus taught just the opposite. Jesus spent most of his time in the company of those people the rest of society scorned, the prostitute, the libertines, the tax collectors. Jesus was always pointing out that as far as God was concerned, it wasn’t following rules and rituals that interested God as much as a humble spirit and a desire to be in harmony with the divine.
In the Gospel According to Luke, we’ve been looking at the way Jesus talks to the people about prayer. Jesus reminds us to be persistent in prayer and thankful for the blessings we have. And then, while talking to the people, he points out a group of Pharisees, the officials of the temple, the forerunners of the rabbinical movement of today, and begins to tell them another story.
“He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else:
‘Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. “The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ “But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
“I tell you, the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
Now the Pharisees were great rule followers. The followed every single law Moses devised. And they had even found some very clever ways to get around those laws without breaking them, too. No doubt, the people who were listening to Jesus speak were well acquainted with this type of person, standing with his arms outstretched upwards to the heavens, speaking to God in a loud voice so that everybody could hear his words. And this one makes sure that everyone can hear just what a great guy he is. He does more than most people. He fasts twice a week, instead of the usual once. And he pays a ten- percent of his total income, not just the profits. So as far as following the religion goes, he is better than most.
But you notice he doesn’t just remind God about how good he is, he has to point out that he is better than others, and in particular, he points out a specific man, a tax collector.
Nobody likes a tax collector, but the people in first century Judea had even fewer reasons to like them. Tax collectors bid on certain districts. They paid the Romans the money they wanted and then set about to collect the money from the people who lived there. If they should happen to collect more than the legal tax, well that was so much profit for them. So, in other words, they inflated the tax bills to make a profit. And when someone didn’t pay, then the tax collector called for Roman troops to enforce the tax codes. They were probably the most despised men of all, and one of them was one of Jesus’ followers, Matthew.
So when this Pharisee was thanking God that he wasn’t like this horrible tax collector, someone he would have tolerated by the way, since he worked for the Roman government to whom the temple owed it’s very existence thanks to Roman tolerance, the tax collector, meanwhile, stood far away from the temple and instead of looking up to God, bowed his head and averted his eyes. He beat his chest and cried for God to have mercy upon him, a sinner.
And the Greek word used here is not the word that indicates compassion, but rather forgiveness from one wronged. He isn’t asking God for compassion; he’s asking God to forgive him for the things he has done to Him. That tax collector came to realize that he was hurting the people of God and through them, himself.
Just as Jesus contrasted the corrupt judge with a just God in the previous parable, now he is contrasting the pious Pharisee with the penitent tax collector. Here’s this guy who follows all the rules and observes every tradition. He has probably never overtly hurt anyone. He’s probably never stolen or murdered anybody. He makes a point of letting everybody know how good he is. But Jesus makes it clear that God isn’t interested in the following of any specific set of rules or rituals. God wants people to care about people. It is the tax collector who knows how he has hurt the people, who knows that he is no better than anybody and worse than most, who is considered justified. The Greek word means, “to be found in the right”. Jesus says that anybody who thinks s/he’s hot stuff will be brought down, and the people who know what jerks they are will be lifted up.
Whether this story ever really happened, or if Jesus ever really told this story doesn’t matter. The lesson is the same. We’re all important. We’re all a part of the divine story. And following a bunch of rules doesn’t make anybody better than anybody else. Rules are good. We all have rules. And it’s important that we follow the rules we have set for ourselves. But we shouldn’t expect anybody else to follow our rules and we certainly shouldn’t look down upon anyone because they choose to follow their own set of rules instead of ours.
We’re each travelling our own paths and the way is difficult for all of us. The only rule that really matters is that we recognize the divine in each person and treat him or her accordingly. It is better to thank God that I am who I am and that you are who you are. That way we have a beautiful diversity in the world.
And I know that I stand in need of justification, just as that tax collector did, because I know that I fall far short of treating everybody I meet with the type of respect and kindness they deserve. I know that if I want to live my life in total harmony with the Tao, that I have to let go of selfish feelings and desires. And I try; but I fail, often. In my failing, I am the same as every other person on earth.
And when I think of those poorest of the poor around the world, in those countries we think of as third world, who give to others out of their want, who do more each day living out the message of Christ regardless of their faith, without dogma, without ritual, my failings become even more apparent, and I am shamed. Because the truly humble do not look back to see if they were humble. In that light, I stand before God, just as that tax collector did and cry, “Have mercy on me, a miserable sinner.”
So I go about my life every day, and I try to do the best I can. I try to do what good I can do. But I won’t fool myself. I am no righteous man. And I have no cause to set myself above anyone else, or think that I am better than anybody. Every person is just as much a part of God as I am and deserves the same respect and kindness. Perhaps when I finally reach a stage where I don’t have to remind myself of that, I will have really attained something. I do things because I know it’s what I ought to do. But a lot of other people do things because it’s just what they do, without any special thought about it, just because it needs doing. They don’t go to any special church and subscribe to any particular philosophy. They just are loving, giving, sharing people. They are far holier than I could ever hope to be.
So you don’t have to be a churchy person to find God. You don’t have to look any further than the mirror. And you don’t have to believe everything in the Bible is absolute fact to find value in it. That’s really been the point of all these Sunday stories.
It’s sort of funny to me, and I am guilty of this as well, that we look at all these other books for guidance. People look at astrology and tarot cards and the I Ching. But most folks don’t want to open the one book that for better or worse, is a cornerstone of our culture, The Bible. There is a promise that Jesus makes that all who look for truth will find it. And if you look for truth in the Bible, you will find it there. You don’t have to believe everything written in that book happened just as it is written. Just because a bunch of fundamentalists claim that doesn’t mean that all people of faith believe it. This story is just as true as if Jesus did tell it, and who knows, maybe he did. Either way, the story has a lot to teach us. I used to look down on people who read The Bible. I don’t anymore.