Readings: Genesis 1:28-31, 2:7-9, 15, Psalm 46, True Christianity #46:6 (see below)
Here we are on the week of Thanksgiving, when we as a nation celebrate a holiday dedicated to gratitude. There are many different ways of practicing that gratitude. Some people gather with family and friends for a homemade feast, some order in or go out, some take time alone as self-care. However it is manifested, gratitude is a healthy practice.
Many of us will lift up our blessings during this time of thanksgiving, blessings that are sometimes forgotten or taken for granted in our day to day. We might say thank you for family and friends, health, security, useful work and sturdy shelter. And one might say, most importantly, by virtue of the feast that many of us will sit down to, we say thank you for the harvest. We say thank you for abundance. We say thank you for the fecundity of the earth, and the hard work of those who steward it.
I feel we must note, however, that increasingly, our gratitude for things like abundant food and the generativity of the earth is constantly now held in tension with the knowledge of an earthly crisis that endangers our abundant harvest, our security, our livelihoods. I’m speaking, of course, of climate change. Now, this sermon will not be making an argument for or against its existence, although scientific consensus is very very clear: climate change exists, that the activity of humankind has contributed to it, and we have very little time to reverse its course. Instead, we will talk today about how we might understand our relationship to the earth theologically, through both a Christian and a Swedenborgian lens.
One popular Christian view of the relationship between humankind and the earth on which we reside, was for many centuries based upon a text in Genesis that conferred dominion upon human beings. From Genesis 1:28 we read:
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule (some translations say “have dominion”) over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
To summarize: the earth was given to humankind so that we might use it to our benefit, that we might be ruler of its resources. Ruling and dominion is the language of a monarch, and the Hebrew is pretty darned clear about it, and therefore, to many it has seemed obvious that humankind is to exercise kingship, or ultimate power, over the earth and its resources. At first, when we examine how Swedenborg talks about the natural world, it might seem as if he is supporting this dominion view. We read from his book Divine Love and Wisdom:
The physical world's sun is nothing but fire and is therefore dead; and since nature has its origin in that sun, nature is dead. In no respect whatever can creation itself be attributed to the physical world's sun: it is due entirely to the spiritual world's sun. This is because the physical world's sun is totally lifeless, while the spiritual world's sun is alive, being the first emanation of divine love and wisdom. Anything that is lifeless does not effect anything on its own, but is activated; so to attribute any aspect of creation to a lifeless sun would be to attribute the work of an artisan to the tool in the artisan's hand.
The physical world's sun is nothing but fire, with all its life removed. The spiritual world's sun is a fire that has divine life within it.(1)
So, one way to look at this is that if nature is dead, surely it cannot have any true value, and we may exploit it. If nature is dead, nothing we do to it matters; we can’t hurt something that is already dead, or has no life in it. Surely the tool in the artisan’s hand may be used however the artisan desires? However, I don’t believe that this is what Swedenborg means when we calls the natural world inherently dead. He does so to make a larger point: all life comes from the spiritual sun, the first emanation of Divine Love and Wisdom, all life comes from God. Life cannot arise from anything that is not-God, and to make this point Swedenborg calls that which is not-God “dead,” as in, something within which life cannot arise on its own. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the natural world is therefore worthless, and to be despised or pillaged. It doesn’t follow that humankind has a mandate to abuse it. God is the artisan, not humankind. The natural world might be lifeless on its own, but it functions as a container for the spirit, and its reason for being is that it might be activated by the spirit. Swedenborg also writes as we heard in our reading today:
The universe is something to which God could extend his love and in which he could put his love into action and so find rest.
“…into which he could put his love into action and so find rest.” The natural world, then, is an extremely important container into which God’s love can flow, finding both action and rest.
As an analogy, we might think of this in terms of our own skin. Technically, the outer layer of our skin is entirely dead. It is composed of dead skin cells. When we venture further into our epidermis we will find layers that are connected to our blood stream and our nervous system, but our outer layer is not so. The outer layers of our bodies, the part of us that can be seen by everyone around us, is not actually alive. Honestly, that fact is kind of fascinating and weird.
Now, how do we feel about our skin? Do we despise it because it is dead? Do we exploit it or excavate it for our personal gain? Do we think about it as a lesser part of our body? Do we renounce our skin because we prefer the brain? No, of course not. We understand that it provides an extremely important barrier, it protects us and gives a form, and the ability to be whole and to have agency. Because of our skin, we can be a body in the world, we can exist and do the things we want to do.
Our skin allows us the fullness of our existence and just as the outer layer of our skin is constantly being renewed from the inside, such it is with the natural world, constantly being renewed by the inflow of spirit. From our reading:
The three essentials of God's love are the reason the universe is maintained as well, because maintaining is an ongoing creation, just as continuing to exist is the same as perpetually coming into being.
So, now then, with this new understanding, how shall we characterize our relationship to the natural world, a world that is perpetually coming into being via the spirit? What does it mean that the world should be a container for this spirit? Often times, I ask rhetorical questions in my sermons, but this time, I will admit, I don’t fully know the answer, or at least, that I think my answer is still developing. What does it mean that the world should be a container for spirit?
Well, to begin with, I believe there are a few implications involved in seeing the world this way:
First, it means there is a purpose to the world that is beyond what we can see. That the world has value not only because of what it is, but because of what flows into it. What follows from this idea is that the world has value then, beyond what we can extract from it on a natural level. It has a value that we cannot see or quantify in earthly natural terms.
Second, it means that the world is connected to spirit. Just as our skin is intimately connected to what goes on inside our bodies, so the natural world is maintained, sustained and affected by what happens in the spirit. And also, this means what we do in the world affects spirit. To continue the analogy, what we eat, or our general health, can affect the quality of our skin, just as how we treat our skin, as in exposure to excessive sunlight or chemicals, can affect the rest of our body. The natural world, and the world of spirit, are in a co-responding relationship.
Third, it means that we, human beings, are not a part of the natural world in a way that is different to the rest of creation. We too, are a container for the spirit, we too are activated by the spirit that flows into us. We are a part of the natural world, we exist in solidarity with it, not apart from it. We participate in God’s perpetual creation of the universe, we too take life from the spirit as the rest of the universe does.
With this last observation, I will mention another Genesis text: 2:15
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
The Hebrew words here meaning “to work” and “to take care” can also mean “to serve” and “to guard.” This is a very different tone and meaning compared to the Genesis text from just a chapter before. Clearly, in this second text, humankind is to steward the earth and its resources rather than subdue them. How are we to understand this difference, how are we to balance them? For it is true, humankind has evolved a consciousness that can see itself, abilities that can allow us as a species to take to the lead, to dominate certain aspects of the trajectory of this planet. And so the question is: should we? Should we dominate and subdue? Or should we take the gift of our abilities, intelligence, technology, and ingenuity, and use them to serve and to guard a world that is is a container for spirit, just as we are? And now I am asking a rhetorical question, for clearly, I believe that we should. That humankind should desist from extracting the earth’s resources for personal gain, and use our ingenuity to figure out how to exist in this world in a way that respects the natural systems and the natural beauty of creation. We have been put in the Garden to Eden to work it, yes, but also to take care of it.
We read in our psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” The whole world is a temple to our God, the whole world was created to give glory to the Divine Love and Wisdom that made it, and not to us. May we always be cognizant of that fact, and may we always be worshipful toward God’s universe.
(1) Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom #157
Genesis 1:28-31, 2:7-9, 15
1:28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
2:7 Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. 5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. 6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. 8 Come and see what the LORD has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
True Christianity #46:6
These essentials of divine love were the reason the universe was created, and they are the reason it is maintained. By examining and scrutinizing the three essentials of divine love, one can come to see that they were the reason for creation. The first essential, loving others outside of himself, was a reason for creation in that the universe is outside God (just as the world is outside the sun). The universe is something to which God could extend his love and in which he could put his love into action and so find rest. We read that after God had created heaven and earth he rested; and that he made the Sabbath day for that reason (Genesis 2:23)
You can see that the second essential, God's wanting to be one with others, was also a reason for creation from the fact that people were created in the image and likeness of God. The "image" and the "likeness" mean that we were made as forms that are receptive to love and wisdom from God - forms that God could be one with, and on whose account he could be one with all the other things in the universe, which are all nothing but means. A connection with the final cause is also a connection with the intermediate causes. Genesis, the Book of Creation, makes it clear that all things were created for the sake of humankind (Genesis 1:28-30).
That the third essential, God's blessing others from himself, is a reason for creation you can see from the fact that the angelic heaven was provided for everyone who has let God's love in, a place where the blessings of all come from God alone.
The three essentials of God's love are the reason the universe is maintained as well, because maintaining is an ongoing creation, just as continuing to exist is the same as perpetually coming into being. Divine love is the same from eternity to eternity. The nature God's love has now, and will have in the future, is the same nature it had when creating the world.
Readings: Isaiah 1:10-18, Luke 19:1-9, Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
Today our gospel reading is a short (pun-intended) anecdote but it really does have so much contained within it. It articulates themes such as economic justice, repentance, social inclusion, salvation, jealousy, and stereotyping. And in a larger sense, I believe that its most basic and important message is about community.
We already last week established just how suspiciously tax collectors were viewed by the Judeans in Jesus time. The tax collectors were local Jews who worked for the Roman empire to gather the taxes owed by the local population, and often, they collected more than necessary so as to line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, meaning that he oversaw all the other tax collectors. He was someone who had benefited from a corrupt system, had gotten wealthy on the backs of ordinary people. Even though he is described in a quirky and amusing way in this story, running and climbing a tree as he does, when we remember how it is that he has succeeded in the world, it is hard to have sympathy for someone who has enriched themselves in such an unethical way.
And yet. The whole of the story hinges on this sense of “and yet….”
Zacchaeus had worldly wealth. He had wholeheartedly bought into a corrupt system and taken advantage of it. And still, he clearly yearned for something. Something felt off. Something drew him to Jesus. Something drew him so strongly that he indulged in the quite undignified behavior of running through a crowd and climbing a tree. Remember, this was wealthy person, with reputation and status. Sitting in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
Now Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem for the final time. He was about to triumphantly enter Jerusalem in the manner in which we celebrate for Palm Sunday. He is about to drive the sellers from the temple, he is about to clash with the chief priests, he is about to celebrate the Last Supper with the disciples and be betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane. What is the last thing that he does before this final descent? What is the final act of his public ministry before the march to the cross is begun? He looks up in a tree and notices someone, someone reviled, and probably deservedly so, someone hesitantly peering around a corner, someone in a liminal space, someone everyone else thought was beyond redemption.
And Jesus resolutely, whether Zacchaeus felt ready for it or not, invites himself to stay at his house. Jesus final act of public ministry in the gospel of Luke is an act of inclusion and community. It was an act of faith. And the people around him grumbled about it. But it was an act that ultimately culminated in repentance and justice. Zacchaeus was given the space and the opportunity to change and grow, to do something bold and unexpected. Why and how did this happen? Because Jesus brought him into community, acted from an ethic of inclusion and possibility, and engaged him.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading today about the nature of heaven, about how no one there can have any life at all apart from community. And I quote: “for one person’s life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others.” Swedenborg speaks of a universe that is held together by the connectedness of its parts. Angels connected to each other through community in heaven, heaven connected to the world through our communion with angels. Indeed, Swedenborg writes that without that connection to spirit, a person in the world “cannot go on living any longer.” This connectedness is integral to our life, our being, our existence. Now Swedenborg focused mostly on his spiritual and mystical experience, and didn’t always have much to say about human sociology but, we can extrapolate. For, that which drives spirit also drives the world, because spirit flows into and animates the world. If community is integral to heaven, and is integral to the relationship between heaven and earth, then earthly community is probably pretty important as well. From our reading again: “No one’s life is ever isolated from the life of others.”
So, the very foundation of spiritual reality is based upon the deep connection of people to each other. Community is necessary, integral, fundamental, to the way that God has brought creation into being. Science bears this out as well. A quick google search will deliver multiple examples of studies that describe the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness. We need community to be emotionally, mentally and physically healthy.
We learn from mystical revelation that community is important. We know from science that community is important. I think we know from our own personal intuition that community is important. So Here are some things that I am noticing about community today, prompted by the Zaccheaus story. Community has some essential elements, among them: the act of noticing, invitation, engagement, vulnerability and forgiveness.
First, the noticing. This was something that Jesus was often doing, in this gospel and the others. Jesus would notice the people that were going unnoticed for various reasons: the mentally ill and the possessed, the sick, the paralyzed, tax collectors and other “sinners”, women, widows, Samaritans. This noticing and including was one of the main reasons Jesus had a scandalous reputation. His ministry was to ordinary people like his disciples, but also to the forgotten, and this was unusual. In our story today, Jesus had something he was doing, he was on a journey to somewhere, he had somewhere to be. But he still noticed Zacchaeus. Community is made through noticing each other, including each other, valuing each other, especially when we don’t really think we deserve it or need it.
Then there is the Invitation. Jesus took a risk. He noticed Zacchaeus, but he also acted further. He opened up a space for interaction. Zacchaeus could have said no thank you, or another time my house is not ready, or a number of other excuses. but instead, an invitation was given, and it opened a space, without which nothing would have happened. Our reading points out that it is through community with heaven that we are moved to will what is good and think what is true. Our movement though and in life, happens within the matrix of community, happens because of the space created by community.
Then, there is good faith engagement, coupled with curiousity and respect. Jesus sat at the table of a “sinner” and the people grumbled, either out of jealousy or a misguided sense of what was proper. But God will always engage us if there is opportunity; it is part of God’s inexhaustible love for us. And we see God’s invitation and engagement for us in our Isaiah reading for today: even after the Lord complains of meaningless ritual and indicts the Israelites for their lack of attention to the responsibilities of community, God says: Come now, let us settle the matter. Other translations say, Come, let us argue it out. Let us sit together and come to a resolution, an understanding. God never tires of engagement. God never gives up on us.
Likewise, when people sit at a table together, they talk to each other, they share their ideas and their viewpoints. Good faith engagement means people not giving up on each other, recognizing that they belong to each other. Yes, this sometimes might mean communicating and setting boundaries for each other but this is the give and take of community. It is how we move forward and it is how we learn.
And finally, we come to the meat of the issue, the height of what community, at its best, can offer us: vulnerability and forgiveness.
There are times that community can offer us an amazing gift: the safety to be able to be vulnerable. To be who we are. To speak our truth and our experience, and to be held in safety and love while doing that. When we have been noticed, invited and engaged with love and respect, community can be a place that is home to us. And I believe that is what God wants for us: to feel at home in our body, our life, our experience, our journey. And this is why community is so important and integral to spiritual life and reality, because it creates a spiritual home for us, a gift of love to each other through God.
Vulnerability works wonders in many ways. As much as it can be important and affirming to be vulnerable in admitting who are, the ability to be vulnerable is also an integral practice in creating a space where we can change. This is where the Zacchaeus story ultimately takes us. Zacchaeus had some repenting to do. Admitting that we are wrong about something and need to change can be a most terrifying thing. Our survival instincts kick in, and our lizard brain worries we will be booted out of the group. So we cling to our rightness. But we must remember, what is it that allowed Zacchaeus to repent? Jesus affirmed him in community, he felt safe enough to be vulnerable and make restitution. The moral absolutists among us (myself included) might certainly have wished that Zacchaeus had recognized the wrongness of his ways and repented before Jesus came to him, because it was right not because it was safe. But, it takes a very special kind of moral courage to act this way, and while we shouldn’t necessarily let go our expectation that such moral courage is good and should exist, we also need to recognize what kind of creatures humans beings really are: fallible, scared, limited.
And so, what we see is that Jesus is pragmatic. God knows us. God knows that we need prompting, nudging, safety, and reassurance. In the difficult work of spiritual progress, God knows that we need each other, that we need to provide safety and encouragement and forgiveness for each other. We hold each other up, draw each other toward our better selves, providing inspiration and honesty as needed. We provide for each other the space to grow and change and be wrong and change our minds. Community forgives because community knows that we all need forgiveness, in one way or another.
We must not take advantage of community, however. Community can be, and often is, used as a bias bubble, an echo chamber, an emotional prop; community of the inward-looking kind can foster complacency, can foster systemic and ongoing injustice. Some, in this country, who would rightly have us recognize, for example, white privilege or economic inequality would argue that this is what American society has been for many years now…a place where we have forgotten how to be wrong, a place where we have forgotten about the necessity of repentance, a place where we cannot bear to imagine thriving for all because it threatens the few. And the marginalized are understandably tired, tired of educating the majority about the reality of their lives, tired of patiently waiting for us to repent for systems that keep them oppressed generation after generation. We human beings take what God has given for good and we twist it into something that serves the self. That’s what we do. And our spiritual work is to stop doing that. God believes that we can; Zacchaeus showed us that we can.
What we see in this story, is what can happen when community is extended beyond where we think it “ought” to go. Whether that means extending community towards particular people or groups of people, or whether that means allowing community into our own life in ways that makes us nervous, we can know that God built the universe on the gift of community and connectedness. And because if that fact, that one very simple fact, then we can know that no one is beyond redemption.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! 16 Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. 17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. 18 “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
Secrets of Heaven #687:1-2
This being the nature of heaven, no angel or spirit can possibly have any life unless he lives in some community, and in so doing in a harmonious relationship of many people. A community is nothing else than the harmonious relationship of many, for one person's life in no sense exists in isolation from the life of others. Indeed no angel, spirit, or community can possibly have any life, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, if he is not joined to heaven and to the world of spirits through the many in his own community. The same applies to the human race. No one whatever, no matter who, can possibly live, that is, be moved by good to will anything, or be moved by truth to think anything, unless he has in like manner been joined to heaven through the angels residing with him, and to the world of spirits, and even to hell through the spirits residing with him.
 For everyone during his lifetime is dwelling in some community of spirits or angels, although he is not conscious of doing so. And if he is not joined to heaven or the world of spirits by means of the community in which he lives, he cannot go on living one moment longer. It is like the parts of the human body. Any part of it which is not joined to the rest by means of fibres and vessels, and so by means of various functions, is not part of the body. It is instantly removed and expelled as that which has no life.
Photo credit: Ric Rodrigues
Readings: Psalm 51:1-4, 7-13, 16-17, Luke 18:9-14, Secrets of Heaven #874 (see below)
This is as parable that is going to get a little meta: Jesus cautions us against making judgements based on stereotypes and caricatures by using…you guessed it, stereotypes and caricatures.
As we consider this parable, it is really important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the story is about the characters in it. The parable really isn’t about a Pharisee and a tax collector, per se. We aren’t supposed to draw conclusions about either of those groups of people in general. The characters, and the assumptions that the original hearers would have had about them, are there to help us to come to a recognition of the ways in which our own tribalism and self-absorption can lead us to make assumptions about others that are not accurate.
So, the parable works by starting in one place, and then bringing us full circle around to interrogate the assumptions with which we began. Like many of Jesus parables, this one would definitely have shocked the original hearers, for he subverts their expectations on multiple levels.
Jerusalem was very sectarian in Jesus’ time. There were various groups and movements within Judaism that were in conversation with each other around the optimal way to practice being a Jew. Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, describes Pharisaism this way: that it was a movement that “emphasized obedience to the law as a way of making God’s benefits visible to God’s people”, and “adherence to religious ritual as a way to encounter holiness in the everyday.” (1) These topics were of great interest to Jesus and his own ministry, so it makes sense that Jesus would find himself in conversation (and to a certain extent, in competition) with the Pharisees. Like any movement though, within Pharisaism there would have had some who were practicing with integrity, and others who were not.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus delivering a multi-level critique, not only of religious practice, but about how religion becomes allied with power and commerce and politics. So, Jesus had a very complicated relationship with the Pharisees. There were some who actually agreed with him, and some who argued with him. When Jesus saw that some of them were upholding external ritual but being internally corrupt, he critiqued them and called them hypocrites. I’m sure Jesus, if speaking to us today, would have equally harsh words for any of us who would show up to church, sing hymns and take communion, and then go home and treat our loved ones badly or go to work and act dishonestly. The general point that Jesus was often making—don’t be a hypocrite, and external ritual can’t buy salvation—applies to us now just as much as to the Pharisee then. And just to be clear, it doesn’t apply more to the Pharisees then than it does to us now. They were just the ones who happened to be in conversation with Jesus about it in his day. Over time, as the early Christian movement grew out of Judaism, and then found itself in conflict with Judaism, the gospel writers would often use Pharisee “as a cipher for villain.” (2) Christianity ran with this, and Pharisee became short-hand for “hypocrite” or “legalist trying to earn God’s favor.” Worse still, Christians have often assumed that the gospel depiction of Pharisees is historically accurate overall and a useful education on the nature, practice and motivation of Judaism today, which has contributed to anti-Judaism. We should be very careful not to fall into this trap, or to further this mistaken practice. Religion allied with power was the movement that was in conflict with Jesus, not Pharisaism per se, and definitely not Judaism, and we are just as vulnerable to the excesses and overreach of religion allied with power today as then.
The point that Jesus was trying to make here, is not that Pharisees would naturally be arrogant, but that the cultural understanding of the time, that learning and ritual purity would make someone more likely to receive God’s mercy, was not correct. The common person has just as much access to God’s mercy as the learned and elite and powerful.
And the reason that this was so very surprising in the context of the parable, is that Jesus heightened the contrast between the two characters. The second pray-er was not a figure like the beleaguered widow from last week, nor a common fisherman like the disciples, but the worst person that the hearers could imagine. A tax collector. These days, we might not much enjoy paying our taxes or doing our tax returns, but the whole process is rather automated and bureaucratic, and certainly lawful. We don’t hate the good folks at H&R Block. In Jesus day however, the Jewish people were being taxed by an occupying power, not their own monarch and certainly not a democratically elected government. So already, they were resentful, understandably so. To make matters worse, the Roman empire would usually contract with local people to collect the taxes owed, and these people would often collect more than necessary to line their own pockets. In that context, the tax collectors were turncoats and collaborators and mobsters. You can imagine how reviled they were, by ordinary people just trying to get by.
So imagine then the surprise, when it is the tax collector who is lifted up as the model in this parable. In one fell swoop, Jesus indicts the Pharisee for arrogantly assuming the internal state fo the tax collector, and indicts the hearers for assuming likewise. The point being, that we cannot assume that we know where God’s mercy should go. That is not for us to know, nor for us to have an opinion about. And, just as the original hearers might well have thought “There is no way that God will the hear the prayers of that tax collector”, so too if any of us now are looking at the parable and saying to ourselves “typical Pharisee, how arrogant and legalistic” we are doing exactly the same thing as the character of the Pharisee is doing towards the tax collector. And we should probably stop it. The thing is, it is not exactly wrong for the Pharisee to pray in thanksgiving for his benefits. The problem was in how the recognition of those benefits led him to look down on others. Let’s now take a look at this through a Swedenborgian lens. These characters represent our spiritual process, and the fact is that we are all in process, and God’s mercy present to us wherever we are in that process. The nature of our experience in that process however, has a lot to do with how aligned our lower external self is with our higher internal self. Swedenborg writes:
And as a person has an internal spiritual and an external natural, and the internal is conjoined with heaven and the external with the world, it follows that whatever a person does from that internal through the external they do from heaven, that is, through heaven from the Lord; but anything that a person does by the external without the internal, this they do from self. (3)
Our inner spirit connects us to heaven and to God. But often times, our inner spirit and our external desires are not in sync. So, the first leg of our spiritual journey towards heaven is to recognize what external behaviors are helpful, healthy, and good. We come to believe they are good, we understand why they are good, so we decide to do them. We might open the door for other people, we might give to charitable causes, we might march in a protest, we might try to listen without interrupting. And this is totally great. But of course, the why and how we are doing them are very important. Swedenborg contrasts the good we do from our selfhood and the good we do from the Lord. From our reading:
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration following trial for the people of this church, a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
So, the first step on the journey is being like the Pharisee; acting in certain external ways because we believe that we should, that it is right, that it is what God wants for us. This is totally appropriate, in fact, very necessary. The problem is that this initial step relies very much on our own selfhood, and the pleasure and gratification that our selfhood/goodness relays to us.
And if is we don’t keep moving in the process, moving towards a recognition that it is by the Lord’s power that we can do what is good and not our own, the more we will be tempted to identify with how our own selfhood and ego makes us feel. We will be more tempted towards behaviors that increase our perceived superiority. This is why Jesus lifted up the tax collector’s prayer, an honest acknowledgement of where our ego will naturally take us. Biblical language calls that being a sinner, other traditions might call it being in delusion. The reality is though, that all goodness, power and love flows into from God; it does not originate in us. We can choose to open ourselves up to, or close ourselves off from, that inflow. And the main thing that closes us off from God’s inflow is believing that it doesn’t exist, thinking that goodness arises from ourselves. The inflow will always continue to flow toward us, but we have placed ourselves out of alignment with it. So the tax collector’s prayer was good, it acknowledged the mercy of God, and how dependent we really are on God.
But we have to realize that this prayer was not perfect either, or at least, not complete. Did the tax collector promise to change? No, actually he didn’t, though maybe it was implied. Was he afraid to? Unsure how to? Perhaps, we don’t know. All we do know, is that recognition of our sins, our habits and tendencies, and the recognition of our reliance on God is a very good and necessary starting place.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are both pictures of us in different places in our spiritual process, both a little stalled in their own unique ways. At every phase in our journey, there are places where we can get stuck. We definitely need to be able to be humble and recognize the nature of our selfhood, but we can’t let that be all we do, or let that become an impediment to change. We need to act. This is the tax collector’s work to do, what he needs to find the courage to attend to.
And in the beginning, when we do act, it will always be out of our own selfhood. This is necessary, this is good. We try to do the right thing, the right external actions, and we receive feedback on these actions that bolster our sense of ego and our sense of “doing it right.” Positive feedback is important. The temptation at this point though, is to really double down our own goodness, to think that we deserve merit for “doing it right.” The key here is not to get puffed up in our righteousness as the Pharisee does, or to start thinking that we are better than someone else in some other place in the process.
We can sort of think of the Pharisee and the tax collector as two halves making a whole, or two sides of a coin, and we may find ourselves resonating with either one of them at different times in our life. God lets us be where we need to be in order to take our next step. But let us be sure to always try to see the wholeness of each person’s journey, and not fall into stereotyping. Caricatures can be helpful to make a point, but they are not real. People are real.
(1) Matt Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4206
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained #794
Psalm 51: 1-4, 7-13, 16-17
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Secrets of Heaven #874
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration following trial for the people of this church, a stage common to everyone who is being reborn: we imagine that we are doing good deeds and thinking true thoughts under our own power. Because we still cannot see clearly at all, the Lord lets us think this way.
Still, none of the good we do and none of the truth we contemplate while holding this opinion (a mistaken one) is the kind of goodness or truth that makes a part of faith. Nothing that we produce from ourselves can be good, because it is from ourselves — an impure and very unclean source. From an impure and unclean source nothing good can spring, because we are always thinking about how deserving and righteous we are. Some people, as the Lord teaches in Luke 18:9-14, go further and despise others in comparison with themselves. Others do other things just as bad. Self-centered desires add themselves to the mixture, making the exterior look good, although the interior is filthy.
As a consequence, the good that we do at this stage is not the good that belongs to faith. It is the same with the truth that we think. Even if the idea we adopt is absolutely true and is in itself a valid religious concept, nonetheless as long as we adopt it for selfish reasons, it has no religious good within it. Any truth, in order to be theologically true, has to have the good of faith from the Lord within it. That is when it first becomes good and true.