FROM THE PASTOR’S DESK
Today’s Gospel is meant to trap us. But I must admit that the trap probably worked better at the time of Jesus than it does today. Because in order for the trap to be set we must have to have a correct understanding of the characters in the story: the Pharisee and the tax collector. Now you and I share a rather lop-sided and negative view of Pharisees from our reading of the New Testament. But our view would not match how people saw Pharisees at the time of Jesus. For in the first century Pharisees were seen as sincere, religious people, people who cared for the poor and promoted an idea of a loving God. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were universally hated. They cooperated with the Roman oppressors in collecting taxes and would often cheat their own people to make a profit.
So, when Jesus told this parable in its original setting, he set the trap with the first line: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, a Pharisee and a tax collector.” His audience would presume that the Pharisee prayed well, whereas the tax collector did not. But as the parable proceeds, we find out that the opposite is true. It is the tax collector, who goes home justified, whereas the Pharisee does not. This parable reverses the customary roles of the characters. It overturns our expectations.
This parable is a warning against pre-judging others. It warns us about the quick judgments on which we base our life. The word “prejudice,” at its root (you can hear it) comes from “pre-judging” because it is a prejudice to judge people without knowing who they are or what they think. We pre-judge people all the time. A new person comes into our neighborhood, into our office, into our school. He or she talks a little different or acts a little strange and we write that person off as someone we do not wish to know. We meet somebody who is a manual laborer, who has dirt on his clothes, and we say this person is not very bright, he has nothing to say to us. When we meet someone driving a Lexus, we imagine this person is intelligent, and we wait for the wisdom she will impart.
You don’t pre-judge, you say. Let me see if I can set a trap for you. Two people went to church to pray. One was a Democrat the other was a Republican. Who said the better prayer? You think you know? Are you sure? Two people went to church to pray. One was an American, the other was an Iraqi. One was black, the other was white. One was Catholic, the other was an Agnostic.
If you think you know who said the better prayer, you have fallen into the trap. You have exhibited prejudice because none of us know who will say the better prayer until we hear it, until we know who these people are. If you are caught in prejudice, admit it. But then ask God for the power to change.
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