Father Nicholas Lang
The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Once upon a time in a land far away, a beautiful, independent, self-assured princess happened upon a frog as she sat contemplating ecological issues on the shores of an unpolluted pond in a verdant meadow near her castle. The frog hopped into the princess' lap and said: “Elegant Lady, I was once a handsome prince, until an evil witch cast a spell upon me. One kiss from you, however, and I will turn back into the dapper, young prince that I am and then, my sweet, we can marry and set up housekeeping in your castle…with my mother…where you can prepare my meals, clean my clothes, bear my children, and forever feel grateful and happy doing so. " That night, as the princess dined sumptuously on lightly sautéed frog legs seasoned in a white wine and onion cream sauce, she chuckled and thought to herself: I so don't think so. Things are not always as they appear. It might look like a frog, but really be a prince. And, then again, it might just be a frog. Take, for example, the characters in the parable that Jesus gives us today. Jesus told parables in response to questions or situations posed to him by members of his audience—often in an effort to set a trap for him. But here no question, no dilemma is presented. Jesus just breaks into the story: Two men went into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
We know about these Pharisees. Or do we? They are often painted as hypocrites who were out to prove that Jesus was a representative of the devil. But that’s not a real accurate portrayal of all Pharisees. They were one of many Jewish reform movements in the first century and sought to find God’s presence in all the daily routines of life. They were, however, consumed with the keeping of the religious laws and were obsessed with being sure everyone else noticed that.
What is surprising is the appearance of the tax collector. He would have been a petty bureaucrat who collected taxes for the ruling Roman king. They engaged in shady transactions and thought to be unclean because they had frequent contact with gentiles. Tax collectors were banned from the synagogue so it was laughable for those hearing this parable that a tax collector would come to the temple to pray and ask for God’s mercy.
Let’s reframe the story for us. Two men, who looked very different in their appearance and demeanor, showed up at church one Sunday morning. One was a devout, morally upstanding and religious person. He carried his well-worn Bible and it was generally known how proud he was about how much he contributed to the coffers of the church. But he was appalled by the character he saw enter the church that day and he whispers a thank you that he is so unlike this reprobate.
That other man could have played a part in a Marlon Brando movie. He had just stepped out of a stretch limo, flanked by two working women and smelled like the perfume section at Target. He stubbed out his Cuban cigar in the narthex, slid in to the last pew, starred down at the floor and pleaded with God to go easy on him. In a whisper he prays, “I know down deep, God, that I’m really just a bum.”
Jesus asks us to make a judgment call here. Which of the two would go home justified? With this more contemporary scenario, perhaps we can get a sense of what his first century audience was thinking when they heard this parable…and the attendant question from Jesus.
This story has most often been preached as a lesson about prayer and, yes, there is learning to be found here about how one might honestly and vulnerably approach God. But beyond that, and embedded deeply into the parable, I think is the real teaching Jesus had in mind when he surveyed his audience that day and burst into this narrative.
For me, the primary reality that emerges from the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector is our human propensity for comparison and judgment. Society and many of its institutions encourage it. How many people who are assured of their own uprightness and moral integrity, and take great pride in that, find it so easy to pass judgment on others.
Pride can sneak in when we least expect it. I suspect that none of us is pure bred Pharisee or tax collector. There is a little Pharisee and a little tax collector in all of us. On our best days we are acutely aware of our shortcomings and inadequacies, yet still humbly recognize the amazing person that God has created in us. In those times we ask God’s beloved mercy for hurting ourselves or one another, ever hopeful of the redemptive thing we know as the free gift of God’s grace.
I think we are all like that little frog—warts and all—and that deep down inside we are
extremely vulnerable, long for affirmation, and desperately want others to at least like us and maybe, just maybe to love us if even half as much as God does. The really good news here is that nothing we do, nothing we achieve, no amount of cash, no amount of education, no great ability to pray with eloquence, is the yardstick against which God appraises our worth. May we be as gentle and kind in our appraisal of others.