Readings: Psalm 51: 1, 7, 10-12, 16-17, Luke 18:9-14, Secrets of Heaven 874 (see below)
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Photo credit: Ric Rodrigues
This is a 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 (find refs), 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 Pharisees 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 these topics 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 condition 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 person coming to pray 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, many 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 is present to us wherever we are in that process. From our reading:
This scene depicts the first stage of regeneration…, 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 given free reign. 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 precursor to change.
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, and we may well keep coming back to those places time and time again.
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.
When we do act, it will always feel like it is from our own selfhood. This is necessary, this is good. Positive feedback and a sense of effectiveness is important. The temptation at this point though, is to think that we deserve merit for “doing it right.” We need to avoid getting caught up in our own sense of righteousness or to start thinking that we are better than someone else in some other place in the process. This is the Pharisee’s work to do.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are 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.
Psalm 51: 1, 7, 10-12, 16-17
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
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.
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…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…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.
Readings: Amos 2:6, 14-16, Luke 18:1-8, Marriage Love 365:5 (see below)
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Photo by Mikhail Nilov: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pair-of-boxing-gloves-on-gray-surface-6739946/
As is very common with biblical parables, we might find ourselves a little confused upon reading this one, asking “What is the point of this parable?” Understandably. There are not one, but several points to this parable. Among them, the utility of persistent prayer, the responsibility of society toward the vulnerable, the responsiveness of God towards our need, and reflection on the quality of faith. It can be a little hard to figure out where to place our attention.
We are first introduced to the unjust judge. Certainly to us even now, he reads as callous and potentially corrupt. Additionally, to the Jewish hearers of this parable, he would also have immediately appeared religiously bankrupt as well. The Jewish scriptures repeatedly advocate for the care of widows and orphans and foreigners, people who are easily forgotten, who have no obvious recourse for survival amid patriarchal structures. In this context, The judge did not revere God and God’s commands, and so of course, did not feel any responsibility towards the vulnerable.
Then we are introduced to the figure of the widow. Now, when I read this parable, my internal image of the widow is someone who is meek. Persistent yes, but diminutive. This is totally my own baggage but I imagine her in the the way that I might advocate for my own self in real life. (knock knock) “Um, excuse me, I’m so sorry to be bothering you, but I have this problem, can you help me? (knock knock) I know that you are terribly busy but if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at my case? (knock knock) Yes, I know, its me again, but I really could use your help…” etc etc.
This picture of the widow is not supported by the text, though it is hard for us to tell this by the English. What is often translated as “yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will vindicate her, or in the end she will wear me out by her continual coming,” in the original greek, is actually a boxing metaphor. Its literal usage means to beat someone black and blue. I’m not saying the language was meant to imply that the judge thought the widow was really going to get violent, but rather, that the use of such a metaphor creates a very different picture to the deferential one I instinctively created in my mind. The widow was being a nuisance in such a way that caused the judge to use language that evoked being under attack.
And we see that, even so, this widow is lifted up as a faithful example. So while the parable is framed as being about prayer, I think we could also draw some lessons about persistence in relation to injustice in general, and about how we might approach eradicating injustice.
From the widow’s example then, clearly, we are to be people who notice injustice. And, we are to be people who are troubled and concerned about injustice. And, we are to be people who are persistent about correcting injustice, who are not content with allowing corrupt institutions or people (ie the judge) to go about business-as-usual. If our situation is unjust, we are empowered to resist it, not just once, but over and over again, until justice is restored.
What is more, we are empowered to resist with passion. The widow was clearly passionate enough in her entreaties to the judge that he employed a fighting metaphor to characterize her. In a real situation, we cannot know how much the judge’s own paranoia, or guilty conscience, might be projecting on to her. But, I do think a reflection upon the utility of righteous anger is appropriate here.
We heard in our reading today about what Swedenborg called zeal, that is, the condition under which we are moved to act passionately out of love. He points out that zeal often looks very much like anger, in that it can appear strident, or bristly. However, what is key is not so much what the zeal looks like to an observer, but what is motivating it internally. He writes:
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different…
The point being that what matters is the internal motivation. Righteous zeal or anger is trying to protect something good and just. It can certainly be working for something that is good and just for the self —the widow was advocating for herself and her own situation; it is not that zeal is must always completely self-less or purely altruistic in order to be motivated by something good. But ultimately, righteous anger is advocating for a just principle that serves more than the self. An example is the Civil rights movement: each person of color involved in this movement was certainly advocating for themselves and their own inherent right to be treated justly, but also in a larger sense, they were fighting for the principle that all people have a right to be treated justly, as much of MLKs soaring rhetoric demonstrated.
Whereas, zeal or anger that comes from a wellspring of hatred and vengeance might take upon it any number of external justifications, even might look like it is working for the greater good, but its ultimate root is the perverse satisfaction of seeing others suffer under its zeal. Again from our reading, Swedenborg writes:
[its] internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions…. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash.
We are cautioned here against anger for the sake of anger, anger makes us feel powerful and potent and superior, as opposed to anger roused for the sake of justice itself, for the sake of how justice might be realized for all. Due to its emotional potency, anger can be seductive, even if we start out with good motivations, we can become addicted to how it makes us feel. Even more so if our anger has always burned for selfish reasons, smoldering in wait for a reason to lash out.
So it can be easy to imagine that anger is always a bad thing, and this can be confusing when we contemplate how often God is characterize as angry and wrathful in the bible. In the Old Testament, the prophets portrayed God as extremely angry when the Israelites consistently worshiped idols and ignored the vulnerable among them. From Amos we hear:
This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.(2:6) “I abhor the pride of Jacob and detest his fortresses; I will deliver up the city and everything in it.” (6:8)
Swedenborg makes the important point however, that even with God, how it might have appeared to the prophets, how they interpreted their visions in their context, is different from the reality. He writes:
So it is that the Lord's zeal, which in itself is love and compassion, is seen by them as anger…in fact there is no anger whatever in the Divine, nor any evil whatever, only pure forbearance and mercy. (1)
If God’s love and compassion are infinite, certainly God’s zeal, God’s passion, for us is beyond imagining. Love and compassion demand justice for all who are loved, demand that each beloved child of God be able to experience conditions of safety and contentment. Systems, like patriarchy for example, often serve some and not others, and can lead to some people, through no fault of their own, to be forgotten. But where injustice prevails, God sees those who are forgotten and lifts them up. Thus God’s zeal works for justice, for access for all to what they need to survive and thrive.
So how does God work to see that the forgotten, like the widow in the parable, be brought into community, into thriving? One way is through just systems and institutions instead of unjust ones. God gave a system of laws to a community, in the Old Testament this was the Israelites, and this community set up systems of justice so that they might be able to hold each other accountable to a shared mission for the greater good. And thus we see the widow appealing to the judge in the parable.
Such institutions are not infallible of course. People like the unjust judge rise up into power. People motivated by winning, by profit, supremacy, reputation, and glory. This is why we see in this parable a contrasting comparison between God and the judge. Even though this judge was associated with a system of justice, his heart was not in it. But God’s heart is always in it for us. God’s spirit moves along with those seeking for, working for, and creating justice. God’s spirit responds to this work and this desire. Our shared institutions, our shared vision for our communities need not be co-opted by selfishness. God will work with us to create and support a just world.
And so this widow is lifted up, that we might all seek the realization of a world in which she does not need to supplicate, did not need persistence, a world that sees her and values her automatically. For this we might pray, yes, in our minds and hearts, but we also pray with our feet, our letters, our compassionate and open conversation, our service, and our persistent protest.
Of course, when we talk about good zeal and bad zeal, righteous anger and unrighteous anger, we separate something in concept that is much more complicated in reality. We all act from mixed motivations. We all act from fear and self-centeredness sometimes, and altruism and love other times. We are simply human. So, if we are to take on the full import of this parable, to assimilate the necessity of persistent prayer towards a just world, we must recognize that our own hearts are a part of that world. Our persistent prayer cannot be for God’s intercession separate from our own engagement, for we know that God doesn’t work like that, our persistent prayer must be for justice to prevail in each and every heart, ours included.
For, righteous anger is powerful, and it is a very good thing in so far as it motivates us, gives us courage, gives us hope, gives us resilience, gives us the fortitude to do something difficult over and over again. But we cannot allow ourselves to get caught up in that power. Swedenborg writes:
The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
Let us watch ourselves then, with both compassion and accountability, watch when our anger dissipates and when it does not, and ask ourselves what we holding on to and why. Zeal for justice is borne out of love, and when justice is achieved, love is what remains. It can be a cautious love, a wise love, a love with boundaries, a love born of clarity, but it holds possibility within it, not vengeance. A possibility that brings us all forward together, if we allow for it.
(1) Secrets of Heaven #8875
Amos 2:6, 14-16
6 This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not relent. They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. 7 They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.
14 The swift will not escape, the strong will not muster their strength, and the warrior will not save his life. 15 The archer will not stand his ground, the fleet-footed soldier will not get away, and the horseman will not save his life. 16 Even the bravest warriors will flee naked on that day,” declares the LORD.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Marriage Love #365:5
The zeal of a good love harbors in its inner aspects friendship and love, but the zeal of an evil love harbors in its inner aspects hatred and vengeance. We said that zeal appears in outward respects like anger and rage, both in those who are prompted by a good love and in those who are prompted by an evil love. But because the internal elements are different, so also their expressions of anger and rage are different; and the differences are as follows:
1. The zeal of a good love is like a heavenly flame, which never leaps out to attack another, but only defends itself - defending itself against an evil assailant in much the same way as when such a one rushes at fire and is burned; whereas the zeal of an evil love is like a hellish flame, which spontaneously leaps out and rushes upon another and tries to devour him.
2. The zeal of a good love immediately dies down and softens when the other desists from the attack; whereas the zeal of an evil love persists and is not extinguished.
3. The reason for this is that the internal element in one who is prompted by a love of good, is, in itself, gentle, mild, friendly and kind. Consequently, even when, to protect itself, the external element hardens, stiffens, bristles, and so acts harshly, still it is tempered by the goodness which moves its internal element. Not so in evil people. In them the internal element is hostile, savage, harsh, seething with hatred and vengeance, and it feeds on the delights of those emotions. And even if it is appeased, still those emotions lie concealed within, like fires smoldering in the wood beneath the ash; and if these fires do not break out in the world, nevertheless they do after death.