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.

Welcome the Child (a lesson in arrogance)

Mark 9:30-37

There’s a wonderful short story by Leo Tolstoy called The Three Hermits.  He tells about a bishop who was sailing from Archangel to Solovotsk with a group of pilgrims when he overheard a fisherman telling them about three hermits who lived in an earthen hut on an island that was at that moment just barely visible at the horizon.  According to the fisherman, these three hermits were very holy men who spent their days praying for the salvation of their souls and for the needs of the world.  The fisherman had met them the previous year when his boat was damaged and he put in to their island to repair it.

‘One is a small man and his back is bent,” said the fisherman. “He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say. He is so old that the white of his beard is taking a greenish tinge, but he is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven. The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears a tattered peasant coat. His beard is broad, and of a yellowish grey color. He is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful. The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. He is stern, with over-hanging eyebrows; and he wears nothing but a mat tied round his waist.”

The bishop was intrigued, and, because this small unnamed island fell within the territory of his authority, he convinced the ship’s captain to bring him to the island.  The captain brought the ship as close to the rocky shore of the island as he dared, and the bishop was able land on the island in the ship’s boat.  As he stepped ashore, the three hermits came to greet him.  The old men bowed to him and he made the sign of the cross and blessed them, at which they bowed even lower.

“I have heard,’ said the bishop, “that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.”

The old men looked at each other smiling, but remained silent.

“Tell me,’ said the Bishop, ‘what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.”

The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said:  “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.”

“But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.

“We pray in this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.”  And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and repeated: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!”

The Bishop smiled as he told them they were praying incorrectly.  With that he launched into a brief lecture on theology and how God had been revealed in the world and in the scriptures.  And then, because it was the prayer Jesus had taught his disciples and because it is written in the scriptures, he began to teach them the Lord’s Prayer.  

The three hermits, who had spent years mostly in silence, struggled as they tried to learn the prayer the bishop was teaching them, but eventually, after several hours and much repetition, they seemed to have learned it.

It was getting dark and the moon was rising over the sea as the bishop returned to the boat.  As he bid them farewell, the old hermits bowed down to the ground.  The bishop raised them up and kissed them, then reminded them to keep praying in the way he had taught them.  As the ship made for the open water, the bishop could still see the three old men standing by the shore, their voices floating across the water as they practiced saying the Lord’s Prayer as he had taught them.  The bishop sat in the stern, contented, as the ship sailed on and the island disappeared below the horizon.

It was a pleasant night, so the bishop continued to sit in the stern, thinking and gazing out across the sea as the moonlight sparkled and danced across the waves.  Suddenly he saw something white and shining on the pathway the moon was casting upon the sea.  Was it a gull, or perhaps the sail of another ship?  The bishop realized that it was moving toward them very rapidly.

The bishop called to the helmsman, “What is that, my friend?  What is it?”  the 

Bishop repeated, though he could now see plainly what it was—the three hermits were running upon the water, all gleaming white, their grey beards shining.  They were approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not moving.  

The steersman looked and let go the helm in terror. “Oh Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!” 

The passengers hearing him, jumped up, and crowded to the stern. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet. 

Before the ship could be stopped, the hermits had reached it, and raising their heads, all three as with one voice, began to say: “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said:

“Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”

The Bishop bowed low before the old men, and they turned and went back across the sea. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.[1]

Sometimes a lack of humility—or worse, our own arrogant assumptions—can keep us from seeing and hearing what’s right in front of us.  We can be blinded by our own agendas or preconceptions or sense of self-importance so that we fail to see that the people around us are children of God, created in the divine image and likeness of God.  We forget our common humanity.  It’s just part of human nature. 

One day, after a long day on the road, Jesus asked his disciples what they had been arguing about as they made their way back to Capernaum.  They didn’t answer his question because they were ashamed that they had been arguing about who was the greatest.  

After all this time travelling with Jesus as he taught about the equity and equality that were the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, after listening to him talk about his own pending crucifixion and humiliation, it seems that they still had it in their heads that the kingdom Jesus was ushering in would be something like a conventional kingdom.  They were imagining themselves in some future positions of influence and power.  But Jesus had been trying to teach them that God’s kingdom wasn’t like that at all.  

Clifton Black, Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton, points out that here in chapter nine of Mark we see a pattern repeated from chapter eight.  The pattern goes like this: a) Jesus predicts his suffering, execution and resurrection;  b) the disciples either fail to grasp or refuse to accept what he’s teaching them;  then c) Jesus leads them through a teaching moment and expands the definition of discipleship.

“Why this repetition?” asks Dr. Black. “Two reasons. First: Discipleship in Mark is hard to accept. Second: In this gospel Jesus’ closest followers are so dense that light bends around them.”[2] 

It’s easy for us to feel a little smug about the disciples being so slow on the uptake, but then we would  be committing the same sin of arrogance that they were as they jockeyed for status.  We need to remember that we know how the story turns out, but they were living in the middle of it.

When Peter opposed Jesus’ destiny in chapter eight, Jesus responded by roundly chastising him. Here in chapter nine, though, Jesus very quietly teaches them about humility without humiliating them.  

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  

He doesn’t criticize them for wanting to be first, to have the highest ranking.  Instead, he tells them what it takes to accomplish that.  If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.  You have to be everyone’s servant.

To prove his point, Jesus takes a little child in his arms.  It’s easy for us to miss the point of what he’s doing here, and there’s a temptation to over-sentimentalize it.  But he’s giving them a very clear object lesson—at least it was clear to them in their culture.  

The word we translate as “little child,” paidion, was also another way to say “slave.”  Think in terms of, “tell the boy to get me a drink,” or “tell the girl to clear the table.”  The “boy” or the “girl” might be full-grown adults, but they’re not seen that way.  The double meaning worked because in the ancient world of the disciples, a child, like a slave, had the least status of anyone.  As Professor Black explains, “A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society, one with slightest status. But in Jesus’ presence a little child literally has ‘standing’.” 

  “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,”  said Jesus.  The disciples had almost certainly overlooked that child before Jesus picked her up and took her in his lap.  They probably couldn’t imagine that they might learn something from that child, any more than the bishop in Tolstoy’s story could imagine that he might learn something from three old hermits on a remote island.  In their pride, the disciples probably just saw a kid, maybe even one who was kind of in the way, a distraction from their lesson in spirituality.  Who would have thought that the child would be their lesson in spirituality?  

If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.  You have to be everyone’s servant.  If you want to embrace Christ, you need to embrace everyone, even people with no status whatsoever.  Even a child.  You might be surprised.  You might discover that they can run across the water and shine like the moon.

[1] The Three Hermits, Leo Tolstoy; The Literacy Network,

[2] Commentary on Mark 9:30-37, C. Clifton Black;, 9/19/21