Luke 18:9-14 – The 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, October 27, 2013
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector…” (Luke 18:10)
Jack Reacher is one of my guilty pleasures. He is author Lee Childs’ fictional hero of numerous best-selling mystery novels. Strong and self-assured, Reacher travels America with his wits, the clothes on his back, a toothbrush and saves the day by the conclusion of each novel. The former military cop goes where hitchhiking or a bus will take him. With Reacher, author Childs has created pure reading escapism; there’s not much thinking and lots of action.
Last month I finished Childs’ Never Go Back (2013). Perhaps halfway through the novel, one of Reacher’s decision strategies began to irk me. In scene after scene, he claimed the choices he faced were 50-50 propositions. Yes or no. He’d go this way or the other way. The bad guy will appear now or he wouldn’t. The next action will be correct or incorrect. And yet, as irritated as I became with tough guy Reacher depicting such a black-and-white world, a nagging corner of my mind agreed with his logic.
(Or, maybe—dare I say it—his faith?)
Jack Reacher’s stark worldview also crept into my wondering about Jesus’ parable of the bragging Pharisee and lowly tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
The Pharisee touted his accomplishments in the synagogue. He was loud, proud and darn happy to be overheard in a crowd. The tax collector, “standing far off,” simply cried for mercy. He confessed he was a sinner. Or, if you’d prefer fancier language, he’d fallen short of the glory of God. He felt a failure.
As is oft the case after reading Jesus’ stories, I wondered . . . which one am I like? Mr. Pharisee or Mr. Tax?
The Bible does this quite often. Cain or Abel? Joseph or his brothers? Jacob or Esau? Moses or Aaron? Thomas or the rest of the disciples? Judas or the rest of the disciples? Peter or Paul? (And, since an inordinate number of This or That choices in the Bible are men, another 50-50 decision for modern readers could be: do I think the only worthwhile examples for faithful/faithless choices are found in the Bible’s male-centric worldview? But that’s an exploration for another day.)
Today, with a catch in my throat, I persist with my question . . . am I more like the haughty Pharisee or the humble tax collector?
One, or the other?
I’ll resist a quick answer and recall the niggling thoughts that gripped me several hundred pages into Never Go Back: life is NOT 50-50. We live in a gray world. Choices are bountiful and complex. There are many doors to open for the next step, multiple paths to walk in life’s journeys and a host of people to learn from every day.
For a serious example, the United States government is currently “shut down.” Republicans and Democrats are tussling over a debt ceiling limit that is linked to the Affordable Health Care act that is part of the ongoing tension between moderate Republicans and Democrats versus furious liberals on the edgy left and angry Tea Partyers on the self-righteous right and those that feel the government spends and controls too much and those that feel there’s a need for more revenue from taxes and toss in libertarians and Luddites and a thousand other points on (or off) the political map that are all irritatingly confident the position they hold dear is the only position worth having.
For a silly example, traipse over to your local grocery store and choose a package of mac & cheese. If Jack Reacher represents one of my guilty pleasures, then mac & cheese is my wife’s pleasure, or comfort food. Since I’m our family’s supermarket hunter and gatherer, she’ll say, “Please make sure to buy some mac & cheese.” Fine. Great. And I always—always—purchase the wrong stuff because she only wants what she had during her childhood . . . when there was ONE choice. But I’m the guy in the noodle and rice aisle, befuddled by nearly identical boxes touting spiral noodles, cheesier flavors and assorted pasta-fantastic cartoon characters.
Nothing is simple.
Everything is simple (or at least simpler than we might claim).
How often am I the Pharisee? Maybe I’m not as noisy, obvious or pompous, but the well-educated, highly-respected religious authority’s prayer of thanks for not being like other people courses through my sometimes faithless veins. If only everyone would do what I do, say what I say, think what I think, the world’s problems would be solved.
How rarely am I the tax collector?
Did I weary of the fictional Jack Reacher claiming that many choices were Yes or No because . . . they were and are?
I read Jesus simple (not-so-simple) parable, and long to be more like the tax collector. Help me, God, to choose to be humble, contrite, seeking mercy.