Meditation, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Sunday, October 27, 2019
In the name of the one God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.
I’d like to begin by inviting you into a short exercise. If you want, you can close your eyes. Now take a moment to allow yourself to sink into your body, to be aware of your physical body in this seat you have chosen today. Take a deep breath. I am going to say three words, and as I say each word, try to observe how your body—not your mind—responds to these words. What sensations do you experience? Here are the words.
Pious. Self-righteous. Sanctimonious.
I am sure these words stir up feelings in all of us. In my non-religious, at times anti-religious, childhood home, these words were used interchangeably to label and condemn some of my reactions to the world. They were also used to condemn prideful and hypocritical ministers of all stripes.
So you could say I was well primed to view the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel as a prim and overweening example of all that I was warned against being. And indeed, there is much commentary about the Pharisee as almost an abstraction, the practicer of external pieties who is the opposite of the tax collector who abases himself and begs God for mercy. N. T. Wright, in his book on Luke, says that last week’s parable about the unjust judge and today’s parable together “make a powerful statement about what is called, in Paul’s language, ‘justification by faith.’”
But as I reflected on this passage, I heard it less as a static theological pronouncement and more as a living, embodied invitation. And that invitation has to do with where we go in prayer. What would happen if we truly opened ourselves to God?
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a family reunion. All was going well until one of my nephews, whose politics I don’t share, baited me into an argument. He believes that only human selfishness has ever served to move us forward as a species. I believe that community and love are foundational for human flourishing. My nephew’s skill at needling me won out over my attempt to stay calm and centered. Filled with righteous anger, I could feel my heart beating very fast, my face flushing. I could feel others around us begin to back away. Even when we were blessedly interrupted by a request to tend the grill, the anger and disappointment lingered. That exchange affected our relationship for the rest of the reunion. We were distant from each other, despite continued interaction. As I thought about that day, I realized at least one thing had been missing for me. I usually spend time in centering prayer each morning. But, out of my usual routine, I hadn’t done this. I wonder if I might have responded differently if I’d started the day by reconnecting with God.
In the Gospel, Jesus points out the distancing both the Pharisee and the tax collector experience. Think about their postures. The Pharisee (the virtuous religious leader) stands by himself in pride, and the tax collector (the hated Roman collaborator) stands apart in shame. They have placed themselves outside the community, they are at the outset distant from God, one unknowingly, the other knowingly. They are out of relationship. The Pharisee’s prayer of thanksgiving seems to further distance himself from God while the tax collector’s plea for mercy helps him draw nearer.
Yet I actually have a lot of sympathy for the Pharisee. (And I can see I’m in good company—Carolyn happened to post Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s defense of the Pharisee on her Facebook page this week.) When I pray, I ask God to cleanse me, to prepare me to love my neighbor, give generously and seek justice because that’s what God wants. I yearn to be doing God’s work—and then find myself condemning my nephew for his love of money and his survival-of-the fittest philosophy. What the heck happened? I have snapped shut again.
This is how I believe it is with the Pharisee. He wants to be in right relationship with God, and to fulfill the moral code as he understands it. He knows the tradition, knows the warning we heard in Jeremiah this morning: God will hold us accountable. So the Pharisee fasts to purify himself for God. He gives to the temple and the community—including the poor. And, yes, he believes that his achievements make him right with God. But what the Pharisee has lost in his zeal to be righteous and to be armored against all that is not righteous is the ability to open himself to God.
And furthermore, though the tax collector seems to “win,” I’m not sure that is the right lesson to draw here, either. In fact, it seems a bit of a set up to take Jesus’s paradoxical statement about the humble being exalted too literally. Here’s the trap for us as readers of Scripture: I decide that, hey, I am definitely not a contemptuous egoist like the Pharisee and I am fully aware of my faults like the tax collector. I prostrate myself before God and now I am justified, indeed, I am exalted, I am better than the Pharisee. I feel all shiny and new. And so I am tempted to take pride in my exalted humility.
But the good news is Jesus knows this! He knows that the strands of the Pharisee and tax collector are woven within us. He knows we will fail and fail again. And he loves us anyway!
Maybe the deeper message here goes beyond simple “proofs” about righteousness and sin, pride and humility. Maybe Jesus is not asking us to scramble to prove ourselves, but instead asking us to stand before him in our most real selves.
During centering prayer, as we sit in silence, the intention is to open ourselves up as fully as possible to the divine. Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, refers to this as “a gesture of self-emptying.” This self-emptying involves letting go of what Thomas Merton calls “our false self.” When we can settle into the ground of our being, we move from our heads deeper into our hearts. In our hearts, we release our striving and judging ego, relinquish our masks and connect more nakedly with God.
It is really, really hard to let go of our false selves. Our ego wants the first and last say. We want not only to be righteous but to be right. We shrink from letting our weaknesses show. Correctness ends up corralling us, and our mean-spiritedness and pride creep in.
At the close of centering prayer, with the Psalmist, and the Pharisee, and the tax collector, I pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” I rise with the hope that I can work for God’s kingdom in a loving, joyful and peaceful way.
So let’s take Jesus up on this invitation to come before him in our most real selves. Let yourself settle into your body again, and take another breath. As we prepare to be Jesus’s hands and feet in this world, may we open more fully and unabashedly to God. Amen.