Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.
Maybe it’s the time of year. Nearly the end of October, as we near the end of the liturgical year, you have to wonder how all the readings fit together sometimes. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’re in an election year, both here at St. Barts and in the country at large. Whatever it is, I can’t help but connect these readings with the questions of power and leadership. Those themes resonated with the scripture readings I was trying to reconcile with each other, and maybe find some common thread uniting them.
And today’s readings can seem a little out of harmony with each other. We have Jesus, in Luke’s telling of his life, contrasting the ever so respectable Pharisee in the Temple with the wretched tax collector. The Pharisee’s prayer is not really what we’d think of as prayer; it’s more a love letter to himself.
Less prayer, more preening, as the Pharisee exults that he is not like other people. No, he’s special. He follows the law. He fasts, he tithes. And these things make him superior to all kinds of people: rogues, thieves, adulterers, and you know who else? That guy—yeah, that guy over there, the tax collector.
What about him, anyway? What’s he doing? The tax collector doesn’t even look up, just repeating over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”And yet Jesus tells us that it’s that other, the tax collector who goes home with God’s forgiveness, not the Pharisee.
Meanwhile, in the Epistle, Paul is telling us that he has fought the good fight, has finished the race, has kept the faith. There is a crown of righteousness waiting for Paul. So he tells us, anyway.
Placing these two readings back to back is a little uncomfortable. Because Paul does not sound much like the forgiven tax collector. Does he sound a little too much like that Pharisee?
Isn’t that the lesson of this Gospel—that we are all miserable sinners who should be aware of the depth of our depravity, and lamenting our wrongs?
Well, if I were Jonathan Edwards—you know, Aaron Burr’s grandfather, the fire and brimstone preacher who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that would be one way to go with this Gospel. I could ignore the Epistle, make us all shiver with the pangs of hell, and stalk off to coffee hour with a big scowl.
But I’d be lying to you. Because knowing and owning up to our failures and worst attributes is only part of the story. It’s a part of self knowledge, but not all of it.
And we do have the Epistle for today, and Paul’s calm confidence is very different from the lamenting of the tax collector. And, I’d suggest, just as different from the self-righteousness of the Pharisee.
So why are these readings paired together? Is there some way that they can be drawn together, instead of ignoring one in favor of the other? What are they trying to tell us in late October of 2016?
I have a theory.
We are introduced to three figures in the readings. We have the Pharisee, a leader considered righteous not just by himself, but by his community. He has the respect of those who see him in the temple. He patterns his life to the law, he gives to the poor.
The tax collector is an outcast, reviled by the community that looks up to the Pharisee, but you’d be very mistaken if you write him off as insignificant, or weak. This is a man of force, of violence even. The tax collector successfully bid for the office and serves the occupying power to his own profit as well as Caesar’s. Tax collectors were hated because they were part of the apparatus of oppression. They exercised power over the people, and were infamous for using force to twist more money than was due out of the people. That’s how they profited from their position. So very much a man to be reckoned with. Hated, yes. But feared, too.
Then we get Paul. The 18th Century theologian Johannes Albrecht Bengel called the Second Letter to Timothy “a last will and a swan song conveying a legacy." Those scholars who believe it was written by Paul himself also believe it was written shortly before his death; those who think it was written in his name by another author view it as similar to Plato’s depiction of Socrates’s final days. A sort of imaginative reconstruction of how he would have said goodbye.
However you view it, today’s Epistle reading depicts Paul’s final summation of himself as an apostle. And more than that, he’s saying farewell to that life of service, and encouraging Timothy to follow his example when Paul is gone.
Each of the three men we meet has exercised leadership. Each has something to tell us about leadership, and presents a different image of what it is, or what it can be.
Each of these men of power has used their position differently. The Pharisee has conformed to expectations but smothers in his own self-regard. Anything he has done has been for his own betterment, and others have only incidentally benefited. The tax collector has abused his power, and bitterly laments it. Paul, at the end of his life, sees that life as one poured out like a sacrifice for the good of others —a libation is a ritual sacrifice, a drink offering to a deity—and he celebrates that life as well worth living.
But there’s more to it than that, even. The tax collector and St. Paul have something in common with each other, something that the poor Pharisee lacks.
They’re self aware.
They know who they are, for good and for ill.
Paul knows that he has run the race, that he has done what he could.
The tax collector knows that he has not. He longs for a second chance.
Paul and the tax collector share a virtue we don’t like to talk about in our competitive, striving, big-talking world. That virtue is humility. And you can’t have that without self-awareness.
I don’t mean thinking little of themselves, or denigrating their abilities and their character. Self-abasement is not humility. In his novel Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope mocks that kind of false humility, saying there are “four degrees; humble, umble, stumble, tumble,” and then you just lay on the ground to be walked on. Mordred in the musical Camelot tells us it’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.
The tax collector was not wallowing in self-hatred, as Jesus tells the story. He was, as Luke earlier described the Prodigal Son, coming to himself, recognizing the extent to which he had immersed himself in an evil way of life, and seeking a second chance. He gets it.
The poor Pharisee doesn’t. Why do I say “the poor Pharisee”? Because he doesn’t see himself as he is. He thinks that his compliance with the law is enough, and that his conformity entitles him to look down on those whose lives are messy.
He doesn’t understand the dark secrets of his own heart, let alone the hidden virtues of those whose lives don’t outwardly conform to his expectations. He’s shut off from the complex multi-faceted world around him, and can’t hear or see all the people around him except as mirrors for his own self-admiration. He does not know himself, and that means he can’t know others, including God.
Humility might be viewed as a combination of knowing ourselves, and then getting ourselves out of the way. Trying to understand our flaws and virtues, and seeing ourselves as we are. But then letting it go, and getting on with life. Being open to its joys and sorrows, and seeing those around us as people to relate to and know in their own right, not just as reflections of ourselves. C.S. Lewis wrote that when someone has achieved humility they will not be thinking about it; they won’t be thinking of themselves at all.
I don’t know that humility is a state that can be permanently achieved. I certainly haven’t got there. It’s a process, and there are relapses, backsliding and fits of ego along the way. But that’s ok. We don’t have to achieve that serenity St. Paul displays at the end of his life at any set point in ours. But we need to seek self-awareness. It’s enough if we can start off with the tax collector, seeing ourselves as we truly are, good and bad, and then move forward from there.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.