Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way!
That’s the way singer, songwriter Mac Davis rewrote a portion of the Bible some years ago when he put new words on the lips of Jesus’ parabolic Pharisee who prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” Mr. Davis put it this way:
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
When you're perfect in every way
I can't wait to look in the mirror
Cuz I get better lookin each day
To know me is to love me
I must be a heck of a man
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
But I'm doin' the best that I can
Yes, it is hard to be humble! As much as we might hate to admit it – Americans have gained a reputation for being a little arrogant – used to be the French captured that title, but I think in the past couple of years or so, we’ve given them a run for the roses. Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’ve single-handedly made America great again!
Our Pharisee is the biblical epitome of not only arrogance, but pride and ignorance as well. In his mind, what he has in incomparable measure is piety. As he recites his narcissistic soliloquy we learn that he not only fasts one day each week, but two; and he tithes a full tenth of his income. His rigorous religiosity is exceptional!
Opposite the Pharisee is the humble tax collector who prays simply, “Be merciful to me, a sinner” -- the model of repentance. Clearly, the message is, God receives those who in contrition implore mercy rather than those who parade their supposed virtues. The message is indelibly plain!
Those are the choices: a Pharisee and a Tax Collector with nothing in between. That dichotomy is what gave this reading the moniker of “hyperbolic pericope!”
Few things delight my distinctly Protestant sensibility like hearing a Bible study participant use the word “pericope” even in a painfully exasperated state. Almost no one who has not been subjected to a seminary education knows the word, much less uses it in conversation, hence it’s a Reformation joy to hear a lay person employ it. Six-feet under the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Martin Luther must be grinning ear to ear given that one of his main complaints against the Roman Catholic Church was that Scripture wasn’t widely available to church members and was the sole providence of the priesthood.
Presbyterians picked up that mantel and made education a hallmark of the church – from the beginning through today – and regular opportunities to study the Bible are a staple of most congregations – so regular in our case that “pericope” is in the vernacular!
That sounds so studious, pious, and devout yet it is not without pitfalls, frustrations, and exasperation.
Questioning, doubting, challenging, and hearing meaning and learning interpretation far from our own is harsh – unsettling at best. Being told, repeatedly, that “the Bible is true and some of it even happened” gets annoying – after all – what to believe if all of it isn’t rock solid true? The Dean of my seminary used to chide us to “feel the tension” in all things theological. There’s rarely a comfortable middle-ground – everything is meant to engage and wrangle – which brings us to the frustration with the Tax Collector and the Pharisee and the assumption that we’re meant to identify with at least one of them!
But before completely castigating this particular Pharisee it is important to realize the tradition and purpose lying behind the Pharisaic piety. The term “Pharisee” itself means, “separated.” Through their extreme observance of the law, their strict adherence to all Torah minutiae, their moral rigidity, and their establishment of a counter-cultural identity, the Pharisees sought to separate themselves from their increasingly Gentile/pagan surroundings.
Pharisaic piety, while it may sound like arrogant self-confidence, is actually an attempt to embody the separateness that they saw as crucial to the preservation of the community. The reason Jesus and the Pharisees seemed to butt heads on so many issues may rest in their different notions about how best to preserve the community. While the Pharisees strictly adhered to separatism, Jesus was convinced that new, innovative tactics were now called for. Jesus approached the sinners, the outcast, those outside the walls instead of separating himself from them. Jesus sought to revitalize and restore the covenant community by welcoming people home.
People continue to butt heads today on the issue of preserving the church – the only difference is that everyone claims to be on Jesus’ side – no one wants to be a Pharisee! First & Central chose many years ago to not only preserve, but to build and grow the church by welcoming all people home. And so we can sit with no small amount of smugness, relishing our “church without walls that welcomes without limits,” and the progress we enjoy while other communities struggle with basic inclusion. “Thank God we’re not like those other churches!” I suppose we’d enjoy our moment in the arrogant sun more if the less traveled road we chose hadn’t been so bumpy.
Life would be so much easier if all of us just looked, thought, acted, believed, and behaved the same. This purity idea has a lot going for it. Instead of a measly 78% of you satisfied with the church we’d enjoy unanimity and nothing but peace, purity, and unity. A steady diet of predictable preaching, mesmerizing music, and a passive passing of the peace! Thank God we’re not like other churches!
Truth be told, I’d be disappointed if we were all of like mind. A 78% satisfaction rating is just fine.
Not everyone will leave with the same experience – thanks be to God! In this church, we take people as they are and where they are. We err on the side of vast imaginations to the detriment of narrow minds. We don’t preach a static doctrine, we don’t demand allegiance to any creed, and we don’t conform to any one confession. What we do confess, week to week, is the faith founded in the belief that God is good – and that God will provide.
Faith is not about rote answers to obscure theological questions. Faith is not about adherence to ritual. Faith is not about saying or doing the right thing. Faith is about a relationship with God that draws you out of yourself and toward others – the stranger the better!
Here’s one of my heroes, Jim Wallis on faith:
''Faith can cut in so many ways. If you're penitent and not triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, like Martin Luther King did. But when it's designed to certify our righteousness -- that can be a dangerous thing. Then it pushes self-criticism aside. There's no reflection.
''Where people often get lost is on this very point. Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not -- not ever -- to the thing we as humans so very much want.''
And what is that?
That brings us right back to the Pharisee and Tax Collector. The former seeks to certify their own righteous – offering bona fides of their religiosity while the latter, as despicable as he is, adopts a posture of profound penitence. The former is the embodiment of “easy certainty” – the latter – “deeper reflection.”
So yes – this is a hyperbolic pericope – forcing the reader to choose between those two extremes – for there is no middle ground.
If Jesus walked the earth today, he might tell the same parable with different characters. One might be a president in the Oval Office surrounded by a gaggle of shiny-suited televangelists such as the miserable Franklin Graham. The prayer they might offer? “Thank God we are not like other people! Like those those liberal, sensitive do-gooders on the Hill; or those tassel-loafered, bow-tied trial lawyers; or those profiteers of fake news; or that mob out to impeach. Thank God we’re not like them!”
The other person in the parable might be a drug dealer selling crack to school kids crying out, “Be merciful to me, O God, a sinner.”
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Yes, it’s hard to find ourselves in a hyperbolic pericope and yes Lord, it’s hard to humble when you’re perfect in every way!