Parabolic Booby Trap

Pentecost XX - October 23, 2022

Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.

St. Columba's Episcopal Church

Joel 2:23-32 + Psalm 65 + 2 Tim. 4:6-8, 16-18 + Luke 18:9-14


Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. + I speak to you today in the name of the Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.


Today’s gospel holds a rich and fertile place in the history of Christian exegesis and contemplative spirituality. In this parable, we encounter first the righteous Pharisee thanking God for his moral and spiritual superiority, over against those who are far less worthy than himself:


“God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” he says, “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

And so on…


And then of course we are introduced to the Tax Collector, keeping his distance at the back of the Temple, not daring to tread on the holy ground, symbolically beating his breast as a sign of his repentance, unable to voice anything beyond his repeated mantra, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’


It is this man,” Jesus tells us, “Who goes home justified.” And it is to this man that the ancient Church traces the origins of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”


No doubt this parable can and has led people to the erroneous conclusion that the only real or authentic form of Christian prayer must somehow involve repetitive chest pounding, perpetual repentance, and the fabrication of a kind of false humility that convinces one they are thereby justified. But I believe Jesus is up to something else entirely in this parable, which appears only here, in Luke’s gospel, the same gospel that emphasizes Jesus at prayer more than any other. Like most parables, Jesus tells this one with a predictable and homely familiarity, one that hums along with tedious familiarity…until it doesn’t! That is, until we realize we’ve taken the bate…

The dull, familiar exterior of the parable, it turns out, is but a sheathe concealing a two-edged sword that cuts to the very heart of who we are, or who we would like to think we are. Ensnared, as we are, in this parabolic booby-trap we are lured in by “the familiar” only to find ourselves taken captive by a dangerous and counter-cultural Kingdom which cuts through the false narratives we like to tell about ourselves and requires us to see instead, who we really are.


Unacknowledged hypocrisies, petty self-interests, and the fact that all too often we prefer the even-hand of justice that will ensure we get our fair share, we prefer that over the scandalous generosity of God’s mercy – which runs the risk of being lavished on someone far “less deserving” than we believe ourselves to be. How many of us have not secretly empathized with the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son wishing to rally behind his cause against his wayward younger brother? How many of us would not be seething with resentment if our younger sibling blew their entire inheritance on sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll only to be welcomed home as if they were royalty? Or in the Parable of the Day Workers where those who worked only one hour receive the same wage as those who had been working all day! Certainly, the full-day’s wage is not unjust, but a full day for one hour?


Notice how readily we empathize with those who get mere ‘justice” – resentful of those upon whom mercy is lavished precisely because it is offered to someone else. It’s as if the lot of Jesus’ parables are saying, “Be flagrantly irresponsible and incompetent and God will reward you greatly.” What ever happened to “tough love”? Remember “tough love” when that was a thing!? What ever happened to that?


Wait! Why is my irresponsible brother being rewarded? Why is this incompetent worker receiving the same pay? Turns out, the tough love is not so much IN the parables, but is rather evoked by the parables. It is a tough love directed not toward the elder son or the day workers who had been at it all day long. No, it is directed toward us, the hearer of the parables themselves. And therein lies the two-edge sword: In that flash of a moment when we sheepishly realize we have been exposed.


When we are confronted with the fact that all too often, we want mercy for ourselves but mere justice for others. And so it goes, the spiritual two-edge swords we call “parables” have such power to expose us precisely because they are familiar, because we can relate to them until we find ourselves demanding justice in the face of mercy. And this parable in Luke, with all its brevity and straightforwardness, is no different.


It isn’t so much in what is said, but in what is NOT said that we need to attend. It is not about perpetuating false humility, or extolling the virtues of repentant prayer, it is about unmasking the stories we like to tell about ourselves. For example, how many of us, are intuitively drawn to identify with the Tax Collector -- ‘humble,’ ‘contrite’ sincere…or at least I try to be…or at least, that’s the story I tell myself about who I am.


I don’t – in fact, I can’t – see myself in that hypocritical, boastful, arrogant Pharisee! That’s not who I am in the world. And right there, in that moment we’ve take the bait! In that moment we identify ourselves with the humble Tax Collector and otherize the arrogant Pharisee! In that moment the parabolic two-edge sword just took us down whether we realize it or not.


Because in that moment we identify with the tax collector,

we become the Pharisee!


And the prayer of the Pharisee becomes our own: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: arrogant, hypocritical, prideful like that Pharisee over there.” We are doing with the Pharisee exactly what he is doing with the Tax Collector:

  • Judging him for his self-righteousness,

  • Resenting him for his moral superiority,

  • All the while unwittingly mimicking him by setting ourselves over against the Pharisee just as he set himself over the Tax Collector.

And that is the power of the parable: the cold steely truth of God’s two-edge sword that cuts mercilessly through the fabricated stories we like to tell about ourselves, cutting us down from the heights of our own arrogance and self-righteousness to the depths of divine humility.


Yet, even as we are taken down, slain, as it were by the power of the gospel, these same stories assure us that what awaits us on the other side of this death to our false projections is not the even-handed justice of God, but an abundant outpouring of divine mercy.


+ Three-in-One and One-in-Three.