Just Like Other People
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
October 14, 2007
Scripture: 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 18: 9-14
“…he prayed to himself and said, ‘God I thank Thee that I am not like other people, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector’.” — Luke 18:11
I have changed the Gospel set for today because the point of the reading I have chosen lies heavy on my heart. Every generation believes that its brief moment is either the uniquely good or the especially bad time in all of human history, but be that as it may, the illusion should not cause us to relax the appropriate sense of urgency we feel for the threats of our own time, and also for the promises. The threat in Jesus’ teaching today is that if we refuse to acknowledge our real state God will not help us to rectify it, and the promise is that if we acknowledge it He will.
The Pharisee’s prayer is a prayer of self-congratulation, and Jesus tells us that he makes it “to himself.” (The RSV translation has “with himself” but the Greek -pros eauton – strictly construed, means “to himself.”). The genre of the prayer is the best there is, namely, a ‘thanksgiving.’ The perfect prayer of faith is praise and thanksgiving to God in all circumstances, good and bad. Praise and thanksgiving expresses the proper attitude of the creature before the creator, the amor voluntatis Dei, “the love of the will of God.” Here, however, we have a travesty of a thanksgiving prayer, a prayer thanking not God but the self, praising not God but the self, expressing not trust in God but satisfaction with the self. It would be right at home among the bling and braggadocio of our professional athletes, and it is, of course, just as pathetic and tasteless, as paeans to self always are. No wonder Jesus said it was a “prayer to himself.”
We could go on from here to wring the hands about the vulgarity of all the boasters, and the sincerity of all the humble and true believers like us, but that of course would be to commit the very sin we are condemning. More profitable to acknowledge that we are just like the blingy boasters; the aesthetic is different but the message is the same, “I thank you God that I am not like other people.” So today I want to invite you to change the boasting prayer to the self into true praise and thanksgiving to God, and that is easily done, but virtually impossible to live.
We make the change in present terms simply by rendering the opening line of the prayer: “I thank Thee God that I am just like other people, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and just like this tax-collector.” This means we identify not with the tax collector but with the Pharisee. I bet every one of you identifies immediately with the humble crook, rather than the proud priest. “We are the humblest of all God’s creatures,” as the Franciscans were said to have claimed in a moment of inter-order rivalry with the Dominicans (the smartest) and the Benedictines (the oldest). Self evidently we are among those who “go down to their homes justified.” We are not proud; we do not blame others, we follow Jesus in Jesus’ own way, we are not like other people.
This delusion, my dear fellow Christians is the very root of violence in all its modes, and from it spring all the branches of intolerance and warfare as well as the white noise of perpetual recrimination, which is the real “sucking sound” Ross Perot, (remember him) said was the whisper of jobs creeping away to Mexico. No it’s not that at all, it’s the stifled whine of you and me blaming each other for our own sins and shortcomings, and thanking ourselves that we are not like other people.
I believe that once we see this, once we understand this dominical teaching, we immediately recognize its truth. To avoid seeing its cogency we must do violence to common sense. We know this to be our true situation, and we know that we must rectify it before unbridled violence destroys our world.
I believe there is now greater urgency on this front than ever before; more and more violence is slipping the leash that has checked it since the creation, and the actual, non-metaphorical apocalypse is just over the horizon. The words of the Apostle are apt: “Besides you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light… (Romans 13:11-12).” (This text has a rich history; it was the one St. Augustine read in response to the tolle lege message in the garden that brought him, after some vacillation, to the moment of decision to convert to Christ).
I urge you to read the Sermon on the Mount again, especially the 7th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Here you will find a modest and matter-of-fact antidote to the rivalry of imitation and the strife of scapegoating. Listen: “Judge (condemn) not that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5).” Here is the reciprocity of mercy, sincerity rather than hypocrisy. Note the Lord does not teach us to ignore our brother, but to serve him only as we at the same time acknowledge our own need of help. “I thank you that I am just like other people!” I need mercy so I show mercy, I need to be rectified so I am reticent is offering to rectify others, and grateful for their service.
Our Lord Jesus shows who we are and what we are, with a clarity that hurts our eyes, so many of us turn away into the shadows of self-deception. The good news is that he continues to teach us, Sunday by Sunday, and the best news is that if and when we accept his word, he heals us by the mighty grace of his mercy and forgiveness, and we go home like the crook, rectified and ready to start life anew.
“But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other…”(Luke 18:13-14).”
So Lord, I thank you that I am just like other people.