The Trap

Robert S. Turner
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2016
Luke 18:9–14

Contempt is an ugly thing. Luke says Jesus tells the parable that appears in today's gospel reading “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (v. 9). We have undoubtedly known people like that in our time, and some of us could probably name an instance or two in our lives when we ourselves have been guilty of it.

Contempt is not the same thing as condescension or arrogance, either. The element of dismissal, of drawing a bold line between oneself and the objects of one’s disdain, makes contempt a more heinous infraction. It is our way of defining ourselves in utter distinction from another person or group, and writing those others off as completely foreign to us, as though they belonged to a different species.

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus decries the progression from anger to insult to contempt, and frames it all in the context of murder. He says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire’” (Matt 5:21–22).

When we reach the point at which we view another person as less valuable, less honorable, less human than ourselves, which is what contempt really means, we open ourselves to the possibility of committing murder. Was it not our European ancestors’ unwillingness to recognize the image of God in the native people of the Americas that enabled them to commit wholesale slaughter in the name of “manifest destiny”? Did not their refusal to see people of African descent as equal in dignity and worth make three centuries of enslavement and oppression possible? Was it not Aryan contempt for Jews and gypsies and all “lesser” people that led to the Holocaust? Was it not the Hutu leaders’ public description of their Tutsi neighbors as “cockroaches” that stoked the flames of genocide in Rwanda? And is it not the continuing devaluation of African Americans that has prompted the protest movement that insists that black lives matter? Contempt sets the snowball at the top of the hill rolling downward, and the massive destruction at the foot of the mountain is contempt’s foul harvest.

It is noteworthy that the verb Luke uses here to mean “regard with contempt” only appears in two other places in the gospels, and both times the object of scorn is Jesus. In Luke 23:11, Herod and his soldiers treat Jesus with contempt, and in Acts 4:11, in his testimony before the high priest, Peter refers to Jesus as “the stone that was rejected [or treated with contempt] by you, the builders.” This indicates that Jesus identifies with the contemptible ones, the victims of ridicule. Those who are subject to contempt have a notable ally in their corner.

Luke ties this attitude of contempt to a misplaced trust in one’s own righteousness, and he uses this as a frame for Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both men go up to the temple to pray, but their prayers are very different. Jesus says that the Pharisee stands by himself and in effect prays to himself. He addresses his prayer to God, of course, but the content is all about his own righteousness. He says, “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” (vv. 11–12).

If we compare this prayer of the Pharisee’s with the prayer Jesus teaches the disciples in chapter 11, the contrast could not be more stark. In the latter prayer, a modified version of which we pray every Sunday as the Lord’s Prayer, everything is centered on God. It opens with reference to God’s name, kingdom, and will, and then appeals to God for provision of our need for bread, debt-forgiveness, and deliverance. The Pharisee’s prayer, on the other hand, is all about the Pharisee. It is the prayer of one who feels he has no need of anyone or anything because he is already complete in himself. He does not come to God from a position of need. He is righteous already, and he merely wants to make sure God knows it too.

How different the prayer of the tax collector! Jesus says he stands far off, not daring even to look up to heaven, “but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (v. 13). On this, at least, the two men agree. Neither of them wants to be in the place of the despicable tax collector.

The thing of it is, both men are correct in their assessments of themselves. The Pharisee is righteous, and the tax collector is a sinner. There is no getting around it. Tax collectors were among the most despised people in first century Palestine, because they served as the face of the Roman occupation, collecting tribute for the emperor and the taxes levied by the collaborationist regime of Herod Antipas. They were also widely considered to be corrupt, lining their own pockets at the expense of their impoverished neighbors. If they were bold enough to come to the temple, like the character in this parable, they would undoubtedly stand far off, reluctant to draw attention to themselves in public.

The Pharisee is also correct in his self-assessment. He is righteous. He is not a lawbreaker, like a thief or adulterer. He is not a traitor to his nation, like this tax collector. He shows his religious devotion through fasting and tithing, and undoubtedly observes the other requirements of the law as well. He is an upstanding citizen who expects and deserves the deference of his neighbors and who is perfectly comfortable here in the temple as one of the truly righteous.

So why does Jesus say that it is the tax collector who goes home justified rather than the Pharisee? What does it mean to be justified, anyway?

Considering that eight days from now will mark the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it may behoove us to take a closer look at the concept of justification. That was, after all, one of the central disputes between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic hierarchy: how is one justified before God? To be justified, first of all, means to be made righteous. Luther objected to the notion that one’s works could lead to justification, and insisted instead that only by grace could one be declared righteous, and that one could only gain access to this grace through faith. One’s good works could never make one righteous before a holy God; in fact, they could actually be a detriment, if they fooled one into thinking one could get by without God’s radical grace.

John Calvin took Luther’s ideas even further, and declared all of humanity to be in a state of total depravity—nothing we can do can ever bring us close to God, because everything we touch becomes tainted with our sinfulness. We have no recourse other than to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court, so to speak, and pray that we may be found among the elect. It’s not the cheeriest of theologies, to say the least, and it gave rise to such fearful expressions as Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

We may want to distance ourselves from these more extreme manifestations of Reformation theology, but the basic ideas are sound, and they may help us to interpret this parable. In fact, many of us—at least those of us who have a Baptist or other Protestant background—may find it hard to imagine interpreting it in any other way.

What the Reformation teaches us is that the tax collector is the hero of the parable because he recognizes his utter sinfulness, and his inability to do anything about it on his own. His abject cry, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” demonstrates his awareness that he has nothing going for him that could be construed as righteousness. Apart from God’s mercy, he will remain a sinner who must stand far off and suffer exclusion from the community of faith. He is, in the words of Paul, one of the weak and ungodly who would be without hope if it were not for God, who “proves [God’s] love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Because he sees his condition accurately, he is able to humble himself and plead for mercy, and as a result God declares him righteous: he goes down to his home justified.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, is the villain of the story because he does not acknowledge his need of grace. He could serve as the dictionary definition of selfrighteousness: his prayer highlights his own goodness and spiritual accomplishments with hardly a nod in God’s direction. Luther would accuse him of “works-righteousness” and would say that he was in danger of damnation because he treats not only the tax collector but also God with contempt. In his smugness he feels no need of grace and therefore goes home unjustified. Like that other Pharisee at whose home Jesus offers forgiveness to the sinful woman, this Pharisee has been forgiven little and therefore loves little. He leaves the temple just the way he came—secure in his own righteousness and immune from grace.

We know all this, of course. We are familiar enough with Jesus’s depiction of the upside-down nature of God’s reign that we would likely have figured out the ending of the parable before he finished telling it. We know enough of Jesus’s mantras of reversal —the last shall be first and the first last; those who want to be great must be the servant of all; unless you receive the reign of God like a child you can never enter it; and so on —that we would have seen the punchline of this one coming from a mile away: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (v. 14). Jesus, you are so predictable!

But here is where Jesus springs the trap. As soon as we see where he is going with this story, and begin to congratulate ourselves for our spiritual insight, we get caught in the trap. The moment we begin to thank God that we are more like the humble tax collector than the arrogant Pharisee, we find ourselves hanging upside-down from a tree by the rope that has ensnared us.

Ha-ha! I’m so glad I’m not like that Pharisee! I know better than to count on my own righteousness. I’m humble and penitent and would never hold another person in cont— Snap!

In his commentary on this passage, David Lose says, “As soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners … or even between the self-righteous and the humble … we are doomed. Anytime you draw a line between who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out,’ this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side.”

How often have we been guilty of precisely this kind of line-drawing, especially during the current election cycle? Our nation is so polarized at this time in our history that it’s hard to avoid it. Whether we find ourselves railing against “socialists” and the “politically correct” or the “basket of deplorables,” we put ourselves in danger of the Pharisee’s sin of contempt. One of the hazards of being a progressive Baptist, I have found, is that the constant need to distinguish ourselves from all those “bad” Baptists—the misogynists, the homophobes, the anti-science fundamentalists—makes us vulnerable to the temptations of contempt. “I’m glad I am so much more spiritually evolved than so-andso! I belong to a welcoming and affirming church and believe that humans are responsible for global warming.” Even if we frame it as a prayer—“I thank God for leading me out of the darkness of the Southern Baptist Convention”—we are still guilty. We have still stepped into the trap.

So how do we avoid the trap? By keeping our eyes on God and not ourselves. God calls us to be radically accepting of others, even those we would ordinarily despise. God calls us to remember that we all stand before God as those who would have no hope apart from grace, and that there is no way for us to earn that grace. We must receive it as a gift or not receive it at all.

It can get pretty dicey, because we find it so easy to give ourselves credit even for our humility. “Look how good I am at accepting other people! Look how wide my circle is! Look how much better I am at this than—” Snap!

The good news is that God’s grace comes to us even in those moments when we are most pharisaical—when we are most smug about our own righteousness and least charitable toward the foibles and sins of others. We never have to chew our own leg off to escape the trap, because God’s grace comes to us and releases us the moment we realize that we have started down the pathway of self-justification and contempt. Grace comes to us the moment we remember that we cannot bring anything with us into the presence of God; that we stand before God just as we are, without one plea….