The story that Jesus tells about the prayer of the Pharisee and the prayer of the tax collector has an ironic pitfall within it. The moment we say, “Of course, we are not like the Pharisee” we become the Pharisee. It is almost unavoidable for us to do this and the complexity and irony of this situation leads us into confessing that as much as we might want to keep our faith simple, life and the relationships we have are incredibly complex.
The story that Jesus tells about the prayer of the Pharisee and the prayer of the tax collector has another ironic pitfall within it. The moment we say, “Of course, we are like the tax collector” we enter into the possibility of devaluing ourselves so deeply it becomes self-destructive. Likewise, it is almost unavoidable for us to do this and the complexity and irony of this situation leads us into confessing that as much as we might want to keep our faith simple, life and the relationships we have are incredibly complex.
What this conundrum raises for us is an important issue as Christians as to how we understand what it means to be a created person. Or to put it in the technical theological language there is a doctrinal question here of how we develop a theological anthropology – what does it mean to be a human being before God?
Traditionally, I would have said that the posture of the tax collector is the prime posture for the Christian – seeking God’s mercy. Human beings are flawed. And, this certainly appears to be Jesus’ emphasis in the story. However, as I have already indicated there can be a danger in viewing ourselves as being like the tax collector. The danger is this: we became so guilt ridden and so self-deprecating we can lose a sense of even the God given value in our selves. This has been a criticism laid at the feet of Christianity, that we encourage a negative, depressing view of human beings.
Considering our Uniting Church heritage includes the teachings of Reformed theology this is very much an issue for us. The Reformed theology that we have received speaks of the utter depravity of our human condition. John Calvin says in his Institutes, “he [or she] who scrutinizes and examines himself [or herself] according to the standard of divine judgement finds nothing to lift his [or her] heart in confidence.” Calvin goes on to say, “the more deeply he [or she] examines himself [or herself] the more dejected he [or she] becomes, until, utterly deprived of all such assurance, he [or she] leaves nothing to himself [or herself] with which to direct his [or her] life aright.”
It was from such theological reflections on humanity as this that Calvin’s followers developed the notion of total depravity. In a sense, here is the caricature of the tax collector par excellence. The human person who sees no worth or value at all in himself or herself.
It could be argued that here is the echo of the first chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans which climax with the saying, found in chapter 2, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” And, even more pointedly in chapter 3, “What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:
‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness,
there is not even one.’
Such is the complexity of our brokenness as human beings that none of us are immune, and even if an individual might be tempted to say I am a good person, we are confronted by a sense of a communal connectedness in life that embeds us in sin.
The hopeful words of the prophet Joel indicate a time when the people will live without shame. In an honour and shame culture the actions of one person tarred the whole group. Shame and honour is a communal project. Imagine those days sitting in a school classroom when the teacher got angry at the whole class over the behaviour of a few. I can remember both as student and as a teacher embarking on such a communal act of shame and discipline over the behaviour of a few. We are in this together.
Now shame is different to guilt in another way as well. Apart from having the communal element, that I have already indicated, shame is defined as, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.” In this I think shame is a more helpful concept than guilt.
I admit this week as I heard the reports and arguments about the truth, or not, of the Four Corners’ story about children being held on Naaru I felt shame and sorrow that we as a country have treated people this way. I also felt shame as I read reports coming out of the Royal Commission into youth detention in the Northern territory and I contemplated the history of our country when it comes to aboriginal people. I also felt shame when I read that since 2003 the number children living in poverty in Australia has risen from 14%-17%. This antipoverty week and across the globe it appears to me poverty is deepening and growing – the number of refugees and asylum seekers is a key factor here.
Within the limits of the knowledge that you or I have access to, acknowledging the bias we have developed, and the misinformation we might have been fed by media, government or industry we can still feel the shame of a situation that breaks our heart. I may not feel the personal guilt, although this may be appropriate in some situations, but I can feel upset and have sense of that communal shame about the tragedy of peoples’ lives. I can even simply feel shame about my incapacity to know what is true and what is not, and how to respond with compassion.
Now the tax collector may have been clear in his mind about the sins he had committed. He may in fact know he is a bad person. Yet, in the big picture of sin the point I am making is this, as human beings we have limits in our access to our understanding and responding to issues that unfold around us. As human beings despite our best efforts we still seem to find ourselves facing deep and divisive issues that are caused by our behaviours. There is within the posture of the tax collector a humility which invites us to share in his confession – Lord have mercy on us. We need help.
The problem identified in the parable for both the Pharisee and also for us is that none of us like admitting that we might be wrong or need to ask for help. We lack humility, and possibly even honesty, in this. We think we are good people. We live in a culture focussed on self-actualisation and making a name for ourselves. It is a culture that over corrects that negativity of the Reformation with the positive view that we as human beings are essentially good people.
It was interesting the other day when I was discussing these issues with another group of people the group began to defend themselves very quickly against any notion that they might participate in exacerbating the problems I have named, and in some cases began to say that people have problems because they are not Christians like us. The irony was clear to me but I did not pursue it. We do not like to think that we are sinners, even though we go through the motion of admitting it collectively each week at church.
The negative view of the human person has been a solid theme, especially within our tradition. There is a strong biblical and experiential evidence for our fallibility. Yet, this negative view of humanity should also be balanced by God’s love for us in the midst of our confusion – the Word became flesh, God shares in our created existence. Our human relatedness is affirmed. John Calvin went on to say in his Institutes, “Yet God would not have us forget our original nobility which he had bestowed on our father Adam, and which ought truly to arouse in us a zeal for righteousness and goodness.”
Despite our fallibility and tendency to make mistakes there is still something present within us of the good that God saw and named at the time of creation. We are not all bad! This was an issue that was highlighted in the years I spent on the national dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church. The Catholics tended to emphasise that we are created in God’s image and do have a capacity to do food things. I think ultimately the two views need to moderate each other, like two sides of the same coin. We human beings are complex people.
So, whilst asking in humility for mercy and help in the midst of our complex lives is appropriate, just as the tax collector did, it is also appropriate to give thanks to God for the goodness within us and for God’s love for us. Although, not in a way which judges or condemns others. Even the simple saying, “there but for the grace of God go I”, has an unintentional tinge of the Pharisee about it.
Being a human being is a complex thing. When Jesus tells the story about the two men praying he is opening up a whole realm of discussion about how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see God. What does it mean to be a human before God and each other? It would seem to me that humility and shame are more than appropriate before the complexity of life and the problems we face. Yes, maybe even guilt, but the point is this our guilt and shame are shared and held in common and that God listens to our humble prayer.
We know this because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It always gives me hope when I hear Jesus’ prayer from the cross, “forgive them father for they know not what they are doing.” It is a prayer that cuts through the individualism and invites us to express corporately the prayer of the tax collector, “God have mercy on me a sinner”. “God have mercy on us and them as well”.
As Christians we pray this prayer with humility believing and even knowing that this prayer has already been answered. God has had mercy on us and as we await the fulfilment of that answer within the world we live in as imperfect human beings, forgiven sinners, who are made perfect in God’s love for us shown in Jesus and shared with us by the power of the Holy Spirit.