“Goldilocks and the Two Prayers”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 27, 2013

Scripture:  Luke 18:9-14

 

Do you know someone like him?  Someone who does plenty of good deeds, but is, perhaps, a little too well-intentioned?  Someone who is not only righteous, but self-righteous?  Someone who is only too happy to tell you about all her charitable endeavors, or her generous gifts to the United Way, or her selfless work on behalf of abandoned puppies or impoverished elders or African orphans with HIV?  Someone who is doing good things for the world, but you get the impression that it’s really more about bolstering his image than about actually helping the ones in need?

Do you know someone like him?  Someone who just plain feels bad about himself?  Someone who has made some mistakes, and knows it, and is pretty sure there’s no going back?  Someone who believes that she has made herself irredeemable and deserves whatever punishment she’s going to get?  Someone who has accepted what people have said about him, that he’s a lousy screw-up who will never amount to anything?

Do you know someone like the Pharisee?  Do you know someone like the tax collector?  Which one would you rather spend time with?  Which one do you think God would rather spend time with?

 

In the traditional understanding, this parable pits these two characters against each other.  On the one hand, we have the Pharisee, the religious authority.  He is sanctimonious, legalistic, and hypocritical.  He follows the rules by the book, to the letter of the law and then some.  He goes above and beyond the standards of pious behavior.  And he makes sure God knows how lucky God is to have such an upright, well-behaved worshipper, such a paragon of virtue.  His life is righteous, but his heart is self-righteous and proud.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector—corrupt, traitorous, and greedy.  He is in league with the oppressive Roman imperial forces.  He extracts his fees from his countrymen by hook or by crook, often with a little extra on the side.  He has compromised his loyalty to his people by going to work for the Roman occupiers, and he has no reason to believe that he will be forgiven for it.  He makes sure God knows what a terrible person he is, what punishment he deserves.  His life is flagrant, but his heart is humble.

In the parable as Jesus tells it, the Pharisee is the one who seems like he ought to receive favor from God by virtue of his righteous deeds and virtuous lifestyle.  But the tax collector is the one who comes out on top, because his humility is what God truly desires.  The Pharisee seems to get it all right, but comes out wrong in the end, while the tax collector seems to get it all wrong, but comes out right.

This is the traditional understanding of this parable.  But I’d like to suggest that there is another possible interpretation.

 

Do you remember the very first sentence that Steve read for us?  It gave the context of this parable, the audience for whom Jesus originally told this story.  It says, “[Jesus] told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  He was speaking to an audience that probably looked a lot like that Pharisee.  They were the powerful ones, the authorities in their society.  They were doing good, lots of good.  They were following the teachings of the Torah, and giving away their money, and worshiping correctly, and living righteous lives.  But they were a little too proud of their achievements, a little too confident that they had it right and others had it wrong.  They knew that they had done well, but they forgot that their worth was not earned or defined by their successes.

Jesus told this parable to an audience that needed to be reminded of the virtue of humility.  They needed to be reminded that the ability to admit that we are not perfect is an important one.  They needed to be reminded that the ability to prioritize others’ needs over our own is an essential one.  They needed some humility to keep them from getting too big for their britches, to keep them from dominating others, from thinking that they had all the answers, from forgetting that they were sometimes wrong and always in need of help.

When Jesus decided how to tell this parable, he knew what his audience needed.  They needed to be reminded that everything did not depend on them, and that they were not ultimately in charge (thanks be to God).  Without humility, they might forget that they were finite creatures, and that they need not be or build their own deities, for they were children of the Living God, created by the Author of the Universe, redeemed by the Prince of Peace, sustained in every moment by the indwelling Breath of Life.  Their righteousness alone was not enough, because they had forgotten about the grace of God.

They needed some humility to keep them from thinking they were greater than they were.  In their time and in ours, the state of the world seems to indicate that we humans desperately need this reminder, doesn’t it?  But too much focus on humility sometimes means that we may fail to notice another problematic human tendency.  For we get ourselves into trouble not only by making ourselves too big, but also by making ourselves too small… and this, I think, is where the tax collector went wrong.

If Jesus had been telling this parable to an audience of people who looked more like the tax collector than like the Pharisee, it would have sounded a different.  For although the tax collector in the story exhibited the virtue of humility, he took it too far.  He knew that he had made mistakes, but he forgot that he had the power to change them.

If Jesus had been telling this parable to an audience of tax collectors, he would have told it differently, because he would have known that that audience needed to be reminded of the virtue of courage.  They needed to be reminded that they had power of their own and a responsibility to use it.  They needed to be reminded that the choices they had made were not permanent, that they need not be resigned to their ways.  They needed to be reminded that self-abasement, our tendency to think we are smaller than we are, is at least as dangerous as excessive pride.

If Jesus were telling this parable to an audience of tax collectors, he would have known that they needed some courage to keep them from shrinking back, turning in, selling themselves short, giving up on themselves and on their world.  They needed the courage to claim their full gifts and responsibilities as creatures made in God’s image.  They needed the courage to shine their lights forth from the lampstand, not hide them under a bushel basket for fear that they could never be bright enough.  Without courage, they might forget that they were called to be advocates for the vulnerable, not exploiters of them.  They might forget that they were called to be peacemakers, not tacit participants in violence.  They might forget that they were called to be agents of change, powerful forces for good in their world.  Their humility alone was not enough, because they had forgotten about their vocation, their call from God.

They needed some courage to keep them from thinking they were less than they were.  In their time and in ours, the state of the world seems to indicate that we humans desperately need this reminder, doesn’t it?  Too much focus on humility can make us shrink back and become too small, and keep us from living into the vocation to which we are called.

The illusion that we are larger than we actually are, that we have more power than we actually possess, can lead us to ways of living that harm our neighbors and erode our relationship with God.  The illusion that we are too small, that we do not have enough, that we cannot be enough, can lead us to short-change ourselves and our world.

 

Here’s where Goldilocks comes in.

You know the story, right?  A little girl goes for a walk in the woods and wanders into a deserted house.  In the kitchen, she samples three bowls of porridge:  the first, too hot; the second, too cold; the third, just right.  In the living room, she sits in three chairs:  the first, too hard; the second, too soft; the third, just right.  In the bedroom, she lies down in three beds:  the first, too big; the second, too small; the third, just right.

The two characters in our story today represent two extremes—too hot, too cold; too hard, too soft; too big, too small; too proud, too humble.  Most of us, most of the time, are neither completely Pharisee nor completely tax collector, but somewhere in the middle.  Most of us slide back and forth from one end to the other, sometimes erring on the side of self-righteousness, and other times on the side of self-abasement.

The good news of this parable, the good news of our faith, is that wherever we might be on any given day—too hot, too cold; too hard, too soft; too big, too small; too proud, too humble—God meets us there and gives us the message we need to hear.  When we slip toward the Pharisee end of the spectrum and start to get a little too big for our britches, God reminds us that we are not perfect, that we do not have all the answers, that it does not all depend on us.  God reminds us about grace.  And when we slip a little too far in the other direction and start thinking that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we can’t do a darn thing about it, God reminds us that we are called to the glorious and holy work of putting this world back together.  God reminds us about courage.

 

As we traditionally understand it, this parable tells of a Pharisee who seems to do everything right but comes out wrong in the end, and a tax collector who seems to do everything wrong but comes out right.  But I think maybe neither one really got it right, and yet God justified them anyway.

It turns out that the sentence that reads, “This man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other,” can also be translated as, “This man went down to his home justified alongside the other.”[1]  Not rather than the other, but alongside the other.  And so I think maybe neither one really got it right, and yet God justified them anyway.

Jesus met them where they were and gave them a message of grace and courage, the message they needed to hear.  Jesus meets us where we are and gives us a message of grace and courage, the message we need to hear.  And somehow, too hot, too cold, too hard, too soft, too big, too small, too proud, too humble, are all brought together and justified—which is to say, made just right.

Amen.



[1] Levine, Amy-Jill, and Brettler, Marc Zvi, eds.  The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  p. 173.