Missing the Mark by M. Courtenay Willcox, Mid-Council Intern

“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?