“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
Jesus makes it clear in these verses from Luke that the Pharisee misses the mark, even as he prays. As a Pharisee, he is a master of adherence to all the Jewish laws, but still he falls short. The very laws he so closely follows bind him and contain him as he claims a righteousness based on his own actions and accomplishments. The Pharisee’s behavior brings swift and almost easy condemnation from Jesus and the readers of this text. The tax collector, a guy we would not likely admire in today’s world, demonstrates a vulnerability, humble spirit, and reliance on God’s grace. What is clear from this story is that we are called to rely on God for grace, blessing, and mercy; we are called to look more like the tax collector in our prayer life than the Pharisee. We are not to assume we are better than others because of what we do or know or possess. We are all beloved children of God because God’s boundless mercy is not measured by or dependent on our achievements.
Just this week, I attended a Jeffersonian-style dinner, described as a ‘whole table conversation’ with members of the L’Arche community. For those not familiar with L’Arche, it is most simply described as people with and without intellectual disabilities living, working, praying, and playing together in community. Priest, theologian, and writer Henri Nouwen spent the last 10 years of his life living in, and as pastor to, a L’Arche community. In addition to those from L’Arche, which included a core member of the community and his assistant, we were a diverse group of individuals steeped in political, literary, artistic, scientific, philosophical, theological, and historical aspects of life. We were curious. We considered the following question, “We all live active, often hectic lives, and are known by others for our success and achievements. Share about a time/moment in your life when you felt recognized and known for who you are as a person apart from your accomplishments. When was it and what did it mean to you?” We were asked to strip away the accomplishments through which so many of us are known—a doctor no longer known as a healer, lawyer no longer identified with law, teacher no longer an educator, volunteer no longer tied to altruism, a politician not connected to the halls of power, a pastor not associated with ministering to others. It was a challenging task to strip away that lens of achievement through which we measure ourselves and others.
The Pharisee stood on his accomplishments, status, and what others knew about him. He exalted himself and was recognized in his community as someone who strictly followed the Jewish law. While the Pharisee does not speak falsely, he is not like thieves, rogues, adulterers, and even the tax collector, he is unable to see the true nature of his blessing. God’s blessing comes to us not because of who we are, what we do, or station in life, but because God is outrageously merciful. So, beloved child of God, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’” Luke 16:25
Good things. I give God thanks that I have access to so many of the world’s good things. To be clear, I do not feast sumptuously every day. And my attire is far from whatever might be the equivalent of fine linen and purple robes. But I live in one of the largest gated communities in the world, one that affords me a quality of life that is the envy of people everywhere. It is not just the easy access to material things that makes life so comfortable for many of us. But it is also those collective intangibles that are easily overlooked, such as a functioning and stable democracy, respect for the rule of law, and a police force dedicated to promoting public safety. They are all a part of the good things.
It is little wonder then that thousands of people show up at our gates each year, hoping to cross over the great chasm of poverty, violence and instability that separate them from us. I was part of the leadership team commissioned to travel to the southern border to be the “eyes and ears” of the presbytery as we think about how God might want us to respond to the crisis on our border. In a social and political climate where it is all too easy to dehumanize one another, seeing and acknowledging the humanity of the people who show up at our border is a necessary first step. As we listened to the stories of those fleeing gang violence, war, and political and social instability, I couldn’t help but be grateful I was born on the right side of the border. The side with all the good things.
What worries me is that God seems to have a preferential option for people who are lacking in so many ways. In our text from Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the parable of the great reversal indicating that those of us who experience so much of the world’s good things, while ignoring the needs of our neighbors, will experience agony and torment in the next world. And those who experience the deprivations and hardships of life now, will find in the next life, comfort. I do not believe the point of the parable is to tell us anything about heaven, hell, or how we might end up in either one of those destinations after we die. I think the point of the parable is to give us a vision of the kind of world we ought to be striving for in this life.
I am still processing a lot of what I have seen and heard at the border, and certainly do not profess to have any easy answers to the crisis at our border. I also do not believe that hardening our borders and ignoring the plight of those seeking asylum, is a viable long-term option. I believe what God wants most from us, is to work diligently, to create the kind of world, where all of us can enjoy the good things. My prayer is for our individual and collective churches to continue to work towards that kind of world together.