Sirach 35:12-17+Psalm 84:1-6+2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18+Luke 18:9-14
On our recent cruise down the Danube River, we received a daily leaflet containing the schedule for the day, information about where we were, and, in a small box on the back bottom corner, a nautical term definition. On our final day on board, that word was ‘booby trap.’ I did not know that this was a nautical term, but it comes from a door on the floor of the deck, and I suppose if you aren’t paying attention, that door could become a problem for you.
This week’s gospel is loaded with booby traps, because just when we think we have found ourselves in this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we realize that may not be where we really want to be or who we really want to be.
It may not sound like it given how our reading opens with Jesus talking to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9), but the Pharisees were the good guys, the churchy types, the ones who showed up whenever the doors of the temple were open. They followed the rules and studied scripture and did their best to live faithfully.
Tax collectors, as I have told you before, were the tools of empire, collecting taxes for the oppressive Roman government while skimming a little – or a lot – off the top for themselves. No one in her right mind would want to be like a tax collector.
And so, here we are, in a reading loaded with booby traps. We don’t want to be that self-righteous Pharisee who looks down his nose at everyone else and counts the number of ways he is a good man, justifying himself before God. But once we critique the Pharisee’s brand of piety, we have become just like him. “God, thanks for not making me a self-important Pharisee!”
And if we get over our distaste for the tax collector and decide that we’ll just learn to be humble and throw ourselves at God’s feet, we’ve fallen into another pit. We’ve made it about how we’re going to behave and not on the unmerited grace of God.
The problem with the Pharisee is that he doesn’t need God. He’s got it all figured out, and he’s giving God his resume just to prove it. It’s all about him.
The tax collector knows he has nowhere to go but to rely on God’s mercy. We can’t just say, “Oh, I’m going to be like that,” because then it’s all about us, about what we’re going to do.
Most of us are not very good at throwing ourselves at God’s feet and asking forgiveness and mercy, anyway. Most of us have life and the way to get ahead pretty much figured out. The closest most of us ever get to this kind of humility and powerlessness is when the diagnosis comes, or the bottom of the bottle is just too deep to escape without a higher power, or the unexpected death rocks your world. And then, at least for a while, we realize that we have nothing else to hold onto. Just God.
The tax collector in our parable knew that he was a miserable wretch inflicting terrible hardship on his fellow Jews. There’s a part of us that wants him to promise that he will change, that he will mend his ways, that he won’t come back next week or the week after that in just as sinful a state. We want him to tell God how much better he has been, maybe stealing a little less than before, but, as the late Robert Farrar Capon asked, “Why are you so bent on destroying the story by sending the tax collector (publican) back for his second visit with the Pharisee’s speech in his breast pocket?” Another booby trap.
To be righteous before God like the Pharisee is to be in right relationship. For a Pharisee, that meant performing certain rituals, studying, praying, fasting, and observing Sabbath. But to be justified has nothing to do with us. It’s all on God. We cannot earn God’s love any more than we can lose it. It is ours unreservedly.
Still. Still, we are more often than not the Pharisees in our parable, not the ones on our knees. If you don’t believe me, replace the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collector from the Pharisee’s list with some category of your own.
Thank you that I’m not like one of these Evangelicals.
Or trash collectors.
Or ‘fill in the blank.’
It’s just one more booby trap that gets us every time.
Back in the 4th century, there was a huge controversy about whether or not those who had renounced Christianity in order to avoid execution at the hands of the emperor were worthy to serve as priests. During the tenure of Diocletian, Christians could either pledge allegiance to Rome, burning all books and symbols of their faith, or face the wild animals or the executioner’s sword. Once Christianity became the official religion of the empire under Constantine, many of those who had fallen away came back, including priests and bishops. There were those who thought that anyone baptized by one of these fallen priests had to be rebaptized, that the priests should never be permitted to serve in the church. Thankfully, the side that triumphed in this dispute, led by St. Augustine, said that the validity of the church and its sacraments is not dependent on the worthiness of the clergy or anyone else. It is all a gift from God who can make right – justify – the worst that we can be.
So when we create our list of those we don’t want to be like, or those we can’t associate with, or those who are wrong about politics or religion, or anything else, we are, in a sense, reliving this old heresy. We don’t get to say who’s outside of God’s love and mercy. Only God does.
I’m not sure how to respond to the kind of unearned love and grace and mercy that God is offering free of charge than by returning some measure of that love in whatever feeble fashion I can muster. I have devoted my life to serving the Church, and yet God’s love draws me further, and I dig ever more deeply into my pockets, my time, and my work. To receive such love from God puts a claim on us. We can only receive it with gratitude, throw ourselves on God’s mercy, and say yes to God’s extravagant invitation. In Paul’s words to Timothy, fight the fight, finish the race, and keep the faith. No more more booby traps, just abundant life. And thanks be to God for that.
 Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace. Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans), 343.