LIKE ME, LIKE YOU by Br. Dennis
Updated: Jan 15
I like parables, and this one from Luke 18: 9-14 is no exception. As the story goes, two men went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee who seemed quite pleased with himself; the other a tax collector who couldn’t even raise his face to God out of his sense of unworthiness and need for mercy. The Pharisee thought that he had gotten it all right and thanked God he wasn’t like the wretched tax man who had it all wrong, right? Wrong. Jesus identifies the tax man as the one who is right with God.
I like how The Message translates the last verse of the reading. It goes like this: “If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you are content to simply be yourself, you will become more than yourself.” So, there you have it, a whole sermon in less than 90 seconds. We can all go for coffee in the parish hall now.
Although the Pharisee may have seen himself as different – or better – than the tax collector, they were more alike than he might realize. They both suffer. The tax collector was aware of himself, his suffering, and his need for mercy. The Pharisee was self-aware in a different way. He thought that he was better than others. Closer to God. The tax man suffered from his awareness of his shortcomings, but the Pharisee suffered from the unconsciousness of his arrogance.
We live in a competitive world – one that all too often encourages separation rather than unity. It is the language of the Pharisee that says: “Thank God I’m not like the criminal, the alcoholic or the drug addict; the gay or trans person, the homeless person.”
Religion does it too. The religious language of the Pharisee might sound like, “Thank God I’m not like the Muslim, the Jew, the Christian or the Hindu. And within our own Christian tradition the language of the Pharisee sometimes seems even louder: “Thank God I’m not like those on the Christian conservative right, or the Christian progressive left. Thank God I’m not like the Baptists, the Catholics, or God forbid – the Episcopalians!
In our walk with the incarcerated people, we sometimes hear the condemning echo of the Pharisee. We sit with those whose face is on the ground asking for mercy and forgiveness. We hear the judgment cast upon them by others. And I think sometimes those who cast judgment might wonder why we would waste our time. They might even think they are glad they are not like us. But they are like us, and we like them. We are all equally created and loved by God. There is no separation. Anything else is just an illusion.
Experience has taught me that if you spend enough time with the marginalized, you become marginalized. And it’s not that we somehow suddenly become like those we are with, it’s that we know what has always been true – that we have always been the same. This awareness is the gift. But many people miss this gift because they are standing by themselves with turned-up noses while they push people away and thank God that they are not like them.
But here’s the rub. I sometimes look upon the self-righteousness and arrogance around me and I say “Boy, they just don’t get it.” And then I hear my own inner Pharisee say – you guessed it – “I’m glad I am not like them.” In that moment I have become just like them. This Pharisee stuff cuts both ways. When I see and hear judgment and condemnation around me, I must be very careful because I am capable of the same. I am all too quick to point to the log in another’s eye while being blinded by the log in my own.
We are all in some way like both the tax collector and the Pharisee. It is much easier for us to want to align ourselves with the humility of the Tax Collector. It’s not so easy to recognize the self-righteous Pharisee within us. But it’s there, at least it is for me, no matter how much I try to surround it with illusion.
Being Christian doesn’t grant us immunity from being human.
In 12-Step recovery we claim spiritual progress rather than perfection. We may never get all this stuff right, but we can make steady progress to get better, and that begins with owning the truth about ourselves – with pulling that log out of our own eye. Because whether we may like it or not, we are like those around us because we are all the so beautifully flawed and wonderfully human people of God. And we are one.
In a moment we will come forward to share Holy Communion. And when we do, we will come as one people of God, Pharisee and Tax Collector alike, all rolled into one. We will hold out our hands and offer hospitality to the Real Presence of God in Jesus – and we will take…and eat. And in that moment all divisions are washed away, and we are, if even for that brief sacred moment, aware of the profound oneness with God and all of God’s creation knowing that we are not so different after all.
In that moment we experience heaven right here on earth.