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The Two Doors

Homily preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, October 24, 2010

I don’t know how many of you have been to the Museum of Tolerance just down on Pico Boulevard. It is dedicated not only to remembering the Holocaust, but also many other forms of prejudice throughout history, and it’s definitely worth a visit. If you have time this afternoon, why put it off? It’s open today until 5 p.m.

The experience of self-examination begins right at the entrance to the exhibits. There are two doors. One is labeled “Prejudiced” and the other is labeled “Not Prejudiced,” and visitors are invited to enter through the door they think describes themselves.

Unfortunately, the door marked “Not Prejudiced” cannot be opened. Every visitor must humble himself or herself and enter through the door marked for the prejudiced.

In today’s gospel reading (Luke 18:9-14), we are also presented with two doors. One is labeled “Judgmental” and other is labeled “Non-judgmental.” But just like at the museum, we all must enter through the door marked “Judgmental.”

Now we all know it’s easy to demonize the Pharisee. After all, when we hear this story are we not tempted to say “I thank you, God, that I am not like that Pharisee?”

But a little context is needed to understand this parable, otherwise a story that is meant to convey a rather disconcerting message becomes way too easy. And if this story is simplified, we can miss the message.

The Pharisees were a group that strived to bring the message of God directly to the people. They believed it was important for the laity to understand their faith and to integrate it into their lives instead of just relying on Temple rituals. So the Pharisees were very popular among the common people. In Jesus’ day, they were the good guys.

On the other hand, tax collectors were basically extortionists. They would pay the Roman tax upfront themselves, and then extract from the people whatever they could to make a profit.

When Jesus set up this story, “Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector,” you can almost imagine the people cheering for the Pharisee and booing for the tax collector.

But then Jesus turns everything upside down. Like in so many other stories, the despised person becomes the hero, and the respected person is put down. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan, where the respected priest and Levite are shamed by the example of the despised Samaritan? Remember a few weeks ago how the faithful son was angered by the father’s reconciliation with the prodigal son? Two weeks ago we heard about how ten lepers were cured, and only the Samaritan returned to give thanks.

To be fair to the Pharisee, he has done much good. We cannot forget that. And his prayer, which sounds so self-centered, was probably actually a traditional prayer, in which the faithful Jew would thank God that he was not a slave, a Gentile or a woman. Paul, who was himself a Pharisee and would have used these very words before God, took this traditional prayer and turned it on its head in the Letter to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free person,
there is not male and female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

So far so good. The Pharisee has given to the poor. He has fasted. He has worked tirelessly to help people practice their faith. He is obediently saying a traditional prayer, just as we ourselves do here today and probably every day.

But he makes two big mistakes. And here is where we learn something.

First, as Jesus says, he “spoke this prayer to himself.” He did not rely on God, but on himself, trying to achieve holiness by his own effort. The great theologian and reformer Martin Luther, in a sermon on this parable, suggested that the Pharisee was actually breaking the First Commandment by putting himself above God.

Luther wrote:

For what else is it,
but to blaspheme and defy the lofty majesty of God,
when he prays and says:
I thank you, God,
that I am so holy and good,
that I never need your grace;
but I find so much in myself,
that I have kept the law,
and you cannot accuse me of anything, and I have deserved so much,
that you are bound to repay and reward me again for it
in time and in eternity,
if you would keep your own honor,
and be a just and truthful God.

This is spiritual pride. It is deadly. It sets ourselves above God.

But let me ask you a question. How did you react when I quoted Martin Luther? Were you taught to despise him? Did you feel a little angry or confused that I would quote him? Perhaps some even thought, “I thank you, God, that I am not a Lutheran.”

Because that is the second mistake the Pharisee made in his prayer. He determined his own value to God in comparison to someone else.

Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew:

Stop judging,
that you may not be judged.
For as you judge,
so will you be judged,
and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?
(Matthew 8:1-3)

This is the danger in defining ourselves by comparison to the other. But we do it all the time.

“I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like those gays and lesbians.”

“I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like those Muslims.”

“I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like those… [fill in any group of people].”

Here is the point that Jesus invites us to consider today: That no matter what the tax collector did, no matter how bad his crimes or how many people he ruined, his simple prayer is worth more than a thousand good deeds done for the wrong reason: to make ourselves look good in the eyes of God or others.

If we always define our spiritual progress in comparison to others, or even worse consider ourselves morally superior others just because we speak English, or vote, or have a job, or are Catholic, then when will we ever be able to just look at ourselves and realize we are not as great as we think we are? And even if others are more judgmental than us, we cannot judge the judgmental, or we become what they are.

When we set ourselves up as models of what is good and right, we set into motion an earthquake. The ground shifts around us. Am I better than that person? Surprise! God stands with that person. I look to my left: Am I better than that person over there? God is immediately at the side of that person. Wherever we draw the line, God crosses it.

Finally, in this crazy judgmental game of musical chairs we force upon ourselves, where we are always the odd one out, we can only stop and say, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” We throw out our model of me versus them. We stop worrying about what the neighbors will think. We stop the empty rituals that somehow make us feel better than others.

And then the clouds clear. The sky brightens. The burden of moral superiority is lifted from our shoulders. And we find a place at the table, along with all the other sinners. Because we are no longer above them, we are one of them.

We suddenly experience a great sense of freedom, freedom from judging others and constantly comparing ourselves to others once we realize we are no better than them.

For, as you know, the truth will set us free.

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