All That and a Bag of Chips

Luke 18:9-14

One time I was at a planning meeting for a popular annual youth event, and we were discussing adding some people to the planning team who we thought might bring some new energy and ideas.  One very talented and popular youth director had let us know that he would like to be part of the team and that he had, in his words, “some great ideas to transform the event.”  We all liked this guy, but at the same time, his over-the-top self-confidence was a little off-putting.  “Well, he’s very talented and capable,” said one of the women on the team, “but his ego walks into the room before he does.”  “Yeah,” said another, “he thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips.”  

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a man who seems to think he’s “all that and a bag of chips.”  In contrast, there is also a man in the story who is so ashamed of himself that he can’t lift his eyes from the floor.  

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NRSV)

On the face of it, this looks like the easiest of all the Jesus stories to interpret.  The point seems pretty clear:  Ego and bragging are bad.  Humility is good.  There.  Riddle solved.  Let’s go home.

But wait a minute.  I want to tell you this story again, but this time I want to take away Luke’s introduction and give you another translation of the ending.  

Remember, when Luke sat down to write his gospel he was drawing from a number of sources.  One of those sources was a unique collection of Jesus stories that Matthew, Mark and John apparently didn’t have, because those stories don’t appear in their gospels.  

If you read carefully, you may notice that when Luke inserts these stories into his telling of the life of Jesus, he often frames them with his opinion of what the story is about.  We saw this last week with Luke’s telling of the parable of the Widow and the Judge.  You may also notice that in Luke’s gospel, Pharisees almost always appear in a negative light and tax collectors are always portrayed as repenting and being transformed.  

These biases in Luke are so apparent that they almost amount to a binary formula in his writing: Pharisees bad, tax collectors good.  It’s important to remember, though, that the people who originally heard Jesus tell these stories fifty or more years before Luke wrote them down would have had exactly the opposite view:  Pharisees good, tax collectors bad.  In fact, tax collectors would have been seen as frankly despicable.  

Tax collectors were despised and regarded as traitors because they were considered  to be collaborators with the Roman oppressors.  In fact, tax collectors were so hated that they were frequently assassinated by a group of anti-Rome Jewish zealots called the Sicarii.  Some of the shock value of this story is that the tax collector even dares to come into the temple to pray.  

Pharisees, on the other hand, were generally admired.  People looked up to them as examples of how to live a righteous life.  They went above and beyond the requirements of Torah in order to increase the righteousness of all Israel.  They saw their fastidious keeping of the law as a kind of patriotic duty.  They believed that Messiah would not come until the nation was righteous enough to receive him, so they were extra conscientious about keeping the law to make up for those who were not.  The Pharisee in this parable would have believed that his extra righteousness could even compensate, at least a bit, for the tax collector’s treasonous collaboration with Rome, because they were both children of the covenant.

In our culture, in our day and age, we find the Pharisee’s prayer in this parable braggadocios and obnoxious.  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  We tend to prefer our heroes a little humbler.

Gregory Peck and a friend were waiting for a table one night at a crowded restaurant and the wait seemed to be dragging on forever.  His friend became impatient and said to Gregory Peck, “Why don’t you tell the maître d’ who you are?”  Peck replied, “No, if you have to tell them who you are, then you aren’t.”

We like that kind of self-effacing humility.

The Pharisee’s prayer sounds like the opposite of that.  It sounds like he’s trying to remind God that he is one of the good guys, one of the important people, and he’s grateful that God made him a VIP.  It also sounds, at least to most of us, like he thinks he has earned whatever favor he has from God.

From that perspective, the Pharisee’s prayer reminds me a little of the table grace prayed by Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson in the movie Shenandoah:  “Lord, we cleared this land.  We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it.  We cook the harvest.  It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.  We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat.  Amen.”

As I said earlier, it’s easy to read this parable as a story of self-righteous arrogance versus self-deprecating humility with Jesus declaring the contrite tax collector as the one who is justified.  But let me tell you the same story in a different way and see what you think.

Two broken men went into the temple to pray.  One of them knew he was broken and one did not like to think of himself that way but there was an uneasiness in his soul, a feeling of unworthiness that he just couldn’t escape.  

The one who knew he was broken was a tax collector.  His job made him a pariah.  Everyone hated him and saw him as a traitor because he worked for the Romans.  He hated himself for doing it.  But times were hard and there was a family to feed and clothe and a job was a job.  So he was living a life he hated and had become a person he hated.

The other man, a Pharisee, wanted more than anything else in the world to be righteous, to know that God approved of him.  He worked hard at being righteous.  He went above and beyond what the Torah required.  He was as good as it was possible to be according to the law.  And yet sometimes he felt like an imposter.  Sometimes he felt like none of it was good enough to make God love him.  So he stood off by himself in the temple and quietly prayed a prayer that was half to God and half to himself.  “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like other people…(I’m not a bad guy)…like thieves, rogues, adulterers… (I’m not a bad guy) or like this tax collector… I live by Torah… I fast twice a week… I give a tenth of everything… (Lord, tell me I’m a good guy.)”  He finished his prayer—half self-talk, half talking to God, and sighed.  Everything he said about himself, to himself, was true. And yet he still felt somehow incomplete.  Like he was missing something.  Something important.

As the Pharisee was leaving the temple, he glanced over at the other broken man, the tax collector. He was standing off in a corner, away from everyone else, but the Pharisee could see that the man was beating his breast and his face was damp with tears as he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And here is where we need to retranslate the end of the story.  There is a little word in the Greek text, para, that has multiple meanings.  It’s a preposition.  Most of our English translations translate it as “instead of” or “rather than.”  So our Bibles end the story with Jesus saying, “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other.” They’re telling us that the tax collector is justified and the Pharisee is not.  But that little word para can also mean “along with” or “beside.”  

How do we hear it if the story ends with Jesus saying, “I tell you this man went home justified alongside the other.”  Alongside the other.

Maybe this is a story about both of them receiving grace.  Maybe this is a story about both of them finding some healing as they stand before God in the temple praying their broken prayers from the depth of their broken hearts, each in the only way he knows how to pray.  Maybe this is a story about what our way of praying says about how we understand God.

And yes, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  But maybe that means we will all meet somewhere in the middle under the umbrella of God’s love and grace.   In Jesus’ name.