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The Bigot and the Anti-Bigot

October 21st, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells a parable about two men in the temple, a Pharisee and a tax collector, presenting themselves to God. (Luke 18:9-14) We should note at the beginning that Jesus’ parables were never intended to make his listeners, including us, comfortable. He didn’t tell the story of the Good Samaritan to point out how kind and merciful the Jews of his time were, but to rebuke them for their hard-heartedness. (Luke 10:25-37) The same is true of this parable. Jesus doesn’t want us to think we’re the good guys, but to notice where we need correction.

In Jesus’ time, a tax collector was someone despised by the people. Tax collectors worked for the Roman authorities and could use the power of Rome to extort money from their neighbors. In contemporary society we could probably equate brutal gang members with the tax collectors of Jesus’ time, at least insofar as they are regarded by the “good” folks. On the other hand, and we might have a hard time imagining this if we are familiar with Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees, they were the good folks. They were the upstanding righteous followers of the law and social norms.

In the parable, the tax collector is keenly aware of his sin, refusing even to raise his eyes to heaven, and he begs God for mercy. The Pharisee, standing a little way off, turns his eyes to heaven and brags on himself (justifies himself) to God. He begins his “prayer” with thanksgiving that he is “not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11 NABRE) He then goes on to list the evidences of his righteousness. But at the end of the story, Jesus shocks his listeners by saying it was the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, who received God’s mercy.

Like most of the parables this one is packed with meaning. But what we might notice here is not what the story says, but our own reaction to it. I would be willing to bet that most of us, after we get the significance of the story, say to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that Pharisee!” And of course, the whole point of the story is that we are the Pharisee.

For example, if the polls are to be believed (and I think they are), a majority of Americans are strongly opposed to the racist and nationalist bigotry that has reared its ugly head in our national discourse. And we cheer when we see champions come forward to publicly denounce it, as both Senator John McCain and former President George W. Bush did this week.[1] But our response isn’t to look inward to correct our own faults, rather to point our fingers at the subjects of the condemnations and say, “Thank God I’m not like them!” We level accusations against those we oppose, telling them how their self-righteousness really offends our own self-righteousness, blind to the fact that we are actually enacting what we are condemning. We use appeals to higher action not to spur us on to higher action, but to tear down our “enemies.” And by doing so, we become what we denounce.

Ugliness is ugly, even when it comes from the “good” folks.

[1] Paul Kane, “McCain condemns ‘half-baked, spurious nationalism’ in clear shot at Trump,” Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2017, accessed October 21, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/nation/ct-john-mccain-liberty-medal-20171016-story.html.; John Barabak, “In stunning attack, George W. Bush rebukes Trump, suggesting he promotes falsehoods and prejudice,” Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2017, accessed October 21, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-trump-bush-speech-20171019-story.html.

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