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Other Peculiar People

Meg Vail, APTS Intern

October 23, 2016
Luke 18:9-14

A reading from the Gospel of Luke:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

One of my favorite things to do in Austin is to go out to the movies, and not just any movie theater, preferably, but the beloved theater that is known as Alamo Drafthouse. I do consider myself a weekend regular at this hot spot on South Lamar, and my outings there tend to be fun getaways from seminary studies, the so-called “campus bubble,” and household chores that are fundamentally great distractions from homework. I love that I can purchase a beverage of choice, typically a milkshake, enjoy the culinary masterpiece that is queso, and slip into another world for just a few hours.

The whole experience is magical, really. I love that I can’t leave an open space in the seat next to me when reserving my tickets online; I love that I have to negotiate with those movie-goers in my row who have been gracious enough to arrive earlier than I have and have already seated themselves in such a way that I have to climb OVER them to get to my own seat. Then, when I’m happily seated and ready to place my order, I greet my neighbor and we wordlessly negotiate who gets to use the armrest, much like we do on airplanes. I love exchanging words with my strange neighbor, who, for a few moments in a lifetime, is sharing an awesome cinematic experience with me.

It’s a wonderful ritual, really, this fellowship with strangers in this weird city that I inhabit with others who – often – are quite unlike me. I love how often, in my transformative movie experiences, the “otherness” of my weird movie companions is celebrated; I love how often, the “otherness” of my own self is appreciated. I love how in movies, I discover depths of my own self and being that I never knew existed, reminding me that often, I am like the “other,” who moments ago, seemed quite at a distance and unknowable. Maybe you’ve had a movie-going experience like mine.

Last weekend’s movie of choice in my family was “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” a beautiful adaptation of a Young Adult novel in which a young boy, Jacob, travels to a seemingly abandoned orphanage on a Welsh island as a way of staying connected with the memory of his recently deceased grandfather. Upon arriving he discovers that the orphanage is not truly abandoned, that it has actually come alive with a group of misfit peculiar children who are under threat. I better leave it at that, or risk ruining the plot for you. Suffice it to say that the images and themes of the movie stayed with me after I left the theater, and I found myself meditating on the “otherness” of these peculiar children, on my own “otherness” and peculiarities, and on the ability of this children’s movie to discredit my preconceptions about what it means to be peculiar and other.

You might imagine, therefore, that when I awoke on Monday morning and re-read this morning’s parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, I wondered for just a moment what would happen if the Pharisee and Tax Collector were at the movies together. I picture the Pharisee, sitting proudly in his seat, and praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: the late arrivals that think they can just waltz right in here and step on my toes as they scramble in the dark for their seats, the woman noisily opening her candy wrapper at the quietest moment of the film, the guy next to me texting frantically, who clearly doesn’t understand that he’s been instructed to keep his phone dark, silent, and out of sight, the kid who ordered popcorn and is chewing so loudly that I can hear him several rows away.

Surely in my entire history of movie-going, I am more like this Pharisee movie-goer than the other movie-goer, the Tax Collector, whose cinema etiquette, if I’m being honest, is so courteous, so meticulous, that he came early, took his seat, chewed quietly, and was so silent during the film that I never even knew he was there.

How easy it is for me to act like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel, to extol my own virtues and to find myself blameless in the sight of God on account of my commitment to the rules, to consider myself justified on account of my own actions and choices instead of God’s grace and benevolence. How easy it is for me to issue thanks that I am not like “the others,” the ones who go unnamed, but who are quickly and shamefully classified in my mind as the ones less-committed to the church, the ones less-organized in their ministry endeavors, the ones who place stewardship and tithing last instead of first in budget priorities, the ones going through the motions with suspect conviction, the ones who say they’re too busy to get involved, when what they likely want to say is that the Spirit has inspired them to try a different way than my way. How easy it is to write off these “others” with their peculiar attitudes and tendencies.

While last week’s parable of the Persistent Widow before the Unjust Judge showed us the fruitfulness of persistent prayer, today’s parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector cautions us against presumptuous prayer. In today’s parable, it seems at first as if our contemptuous Pharisee is indeed playing by the social and religious rules of the time when he comes up to the Temple to pray, up to the highest point in the city. In ancient Judaism, it was common for people to stand and pray with their eyes open, and lifted toward heaven as he does in today’s passage.The Pharisee prayed in the very place in the Temple where people prayed, and he stood by himself, away from the Tax Collector, to maintain his purity before God. These were all seemingly pious things that a Pharisee was commonly expected to do. Fasting was indeed a pious Jewish practice. In one sense, the Pharisee may have appeared to be an exemplary steward, tithing ALL of his income, when the Torah merely required a tithe on certain foods and animals.

This Pharisee may have seemed at first like the featured member in the monthly Temple e-newsletter, and yet Jesus has questioned the fruits of the Pharisees’ legalism only chapters ago in the Gospel of Luke, when he said, “woe to you Pharisees, because you give a tenth but neglect justice, woe to you Pharisees, because you love the seats of honor, woe to you for being experts in the law, the ones who burden without lifting a finger to carry the load.” The Pharisee seems to rely on the safety of the letter of the law, unable to imagine the joy that is possible from obeying the spirit of it.

Standing far away from our featured Pharisee is the Tax Collector, who in the time of Jesus, had a reputation for gaming the system, collecting more than what was actually owed, inflicting financial hardship in the process.The Tax Collector would have been seen as the Jewish outsider, disdained by many, the traitor helping Rome continue its occupation. Unlike the Pharisee, his location and posture reveal a tremendous sense of unworthiness. He is beating his breast, a sign of remorse or grief. No wonder the Pharisee so quickly dismisses him as one of those “other people.” He would have been considered unworthy even to pray in the Temple.

As with any good parable from Jesus, we hearers of the Word are suspicious about our first impressions of the characters in these stories. We sense that unjust lines have been drawn, and that things are not quite as they seem. Who do we emulate in this story? This is not quite a Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan situation.

Indeed, theologian Charles McCollough cautions contemporary readers of the parable against drawing conclusions too quickly, writing that both Pharisee and Tax Collector are not so different from one another, and in fact, they are both part of a corrupt system of tax extraction in the Temple. The Pharisee’s tithe would have supported elite families at the expense of common peasants, and yet, because he occupies a different social stratum, he is able to shame the Tax Collector and maintain a system that privileged himself. The chief tax collectors, on the other hand, got rich off the low-level tax collectors. Although both are pious, going to the temple to pray, both are guilty, if we’re being honest. Both exploit; both would do well to confront their overt and covert religious pride.

Wouldn’t it seem so sensible if we simply drew these conclusions, learned our lesson, and went home today, satisfied that Jesus’ parable did its job, with the re-arrangement of values and priorities that is so characteristic of parable teachings? But I wonder what we overlook if we are too hasty in doing a self-assessment for true piety and walking away. We may decide that indeed, the Tax Collector acted decently and in order, that he confessed his sin publicly and in the sight of God, and yet we still find ourselves at the end of this story, taking sides. Either we’re the Pharisee, or we are the Tax Collector. We walk away without returning to a common ground. We haven’t broken free of the “us” and “them” dichotomy, we haven’t quite come home to our shared roots as beloved children of God.

Let’s face it, it’s human nature to critique “the others,” and yet couldn’t we all benefit from a careful inventory of self, a reconnection with the meaning behind our beloved sacred rituals of prayer and fasting as a community of faith, a joyful and generous tithe because God has entrusted us with the work of the Kingdom in the next 125 years to come, and because we have been abundantly blessed through the gifts and ministry fruits of those who have come before us in faith?

New Testament scholar Elizabeth Johnson points out that although the Tax Collector goes down to his home justified by God at the end of the parable, we do not learn the consequences of his repentance. His plea for mercy, she writes, must issue in right behavior. If he is justified by God, then truly he is absolved from guilt and pronounced righteousness by God. This is an act of God’s free grace that our lives evidence! If today’s parable offers us any challenge when it comes to right behavior, it may be that we re-examine our conversations with our families, communities, and church about who exactly we think these “other people” are. God, I thank you that I am not like those Republicans, those Democrats, those young people who die their hair obnoxious colors, those status quo Presbyterians who don’t want the traditional church to change, those radical Presbyterians who talk about white privilege and racism and sexism. What peculiar people, these “others.”

As we notice our differences and peculiarities, we cannot forget a fundamental principle of our Presbyterian life together, which is that the church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone. ALL people. Us and them, me, and the others. Our seemingly ordinary selves and the peculiar others. All righteous, all granted a special relationship of acceptance in the presence of God.

I promise again that I won’t be spoiling “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” if I share with you the statement that captures the ultimate thrust of this Gospel parable for me. In a critical moment in the plot, our protagonist, Jacob, turns to a peculiar child from Miss Peregrine’s home and says to her, “I’m sorry, I couldn’t make sure that you are safe.” She responds to him, “We don’t need you to make us feel safe. You made us feel brave; and that’s even better.”

Maybe I’m peculiar, but I think that being a prophetic church requires a certain amount of bravery. Safety is defining ourselves with comfortable categories and terms; bravery is removing these categories of “others” and embracing ourselves and the peculiarities of all people, living into our theological conviction that what is true about the very nature and being of our God, that mutual indwelling of God, Son, and Spirit CAN be true about us as a collective people of God, that we the church can embody what Augustine has called “a society of love.”

The Holy Spirit inspires us and equips us for this bravery, freeing us to accept ourselves, to love God and our neighbors, the ones like us, and the others. Perhaps humbling ourselves as the Tax Collector did is a truly brave act, in which we set aside our concerns for playing it safe, our sole reliance on the familiar, our expectation that we have it right, our expectation that it all depends on us, and not on the imagination and creativity of others, and not on the freely given, life-giving, shattering grace of our God.

May we humble ourselves, not with the expectation that we will be exalted, but that the others will. We ask these things for ourselves and for others, knowing that we all have been justified, trusting that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.