I want to take you back to English class for a moment. Do you remember the First Folio? Have you heard that term? The First Folio was and is the definitive collection of the works of William Shakespeare. Compiled some seven years after his death by a group of his friends, it contained all his plays because as Ben Jonson said, “the man’s work deserved to be remembered”. There are 233 known copies of the First Folio in existence today with 82 residing at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. It’s one of the world’s most important books. One of the many reasons the Folio is so important is the way it characterizes Shakespeare’s plays. When Jonson and company first gathered Shakespeare’s manuscripts, they were the first to decide, “well, these are all tragedies and they should be together, these are all history plays, and these are comedies.” Up until then, some people called King Lear a history, others said it was a tragedy. When they printed the folio, they made a definitive call that’s stood the test of time.
So, you find yourself asking, how does this early morning detour through Shakespeare relate to the parable in question? Everything, it has everything to do with the question at the heart of the First Folio. For if we want to understand the question Jesus is asking us to consider, we must know what is it that we are reading. Is this parable of two men praying on the steps of the temple tragedy, history, or comedy?
Remember, Jesus’ parables go to wild extremes to make points that we should be able to see on our own. Parables redirect our attention to ideas that are right under our noses. For us to see what’s right in front of our faces, Jesus tells stories of God’s outlandish love among deplorable people. You know the one about the kid who runs away from home with his dad’s money? That’s definitely a tragedy. Or the one about a worker who paid the people who started at 5 pm the same money as the people who started at 9 am; what kind of comedy was that?
Now there’s today’s story, one about two men praying on the steps of the temple. People I trust, people who know about the temple in the first century have made a convincing argument that people didn’t pray outside on the temple steps. We’ve all seen protestors at churches and government buildings. People protesting outside churches is disconcerting. I saw the Westboro Baptist Church people lining the road to Edenton Street UMC for Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral. It was awful. That’s why I believe those who say the temple authorities wouldn’t look to kindly on public displays of piety on the steps of such an important religious building. You never knew when things would get out of control and when the Romans would swoop in with their militarized policing.
When Jesus talks about two men outside the temple, I believe he’s speaking in one of those extreme metaphors. It’s not so much about the men themselves as what their jobs and personalities represent. The steps are a stage for a play with two characters, with two histories, and two prayers. Welcome to the Tragedy of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
On the surface, this is a sad story; two men reduced to justifying themselves before God in public. If your idea of religion is reduced to such gross displays of public piety, something is beyond wrong. The entire premise of the parable is tragic, don’t you think? I read it, I see it on the stage of my mind and want to ask, “How did you two get to this point in your lives?” One is judgmental, one is self-loathing, and nothing seems right. It’s hard to read or see this parable and want to go eat your Wheaties. Part of this is because we’re conditioned to dislike both Pharisees and Tax Collectors, right? Pharisees are the bad guys who opposed Jesus, aren’t they? Tax collectors are the sellouts who worked for the Romans and were the first century equivalent of the IRS.
To a first century Jewish audience, a Pharisee wouldn’t have been a bad guy. We’ve had 2000 years of negativity programmed, I know. But to Jesus’ listeners, the Pharisee would have been the guy they naturally would have looked up to. The Tax Collector was the traitor. He sold out and collaborated with the occupying Romans to squeeze tax money from people who couldn’t afford to pay one extra shekel.
The real tragedy occurs when the guy who is supposed to be the leader, the religious superstar, turns on his own people. Which, funny enough, is how Shakespeare does it too. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for me to hear him tell about how he fasts and gives his 1/10th. Yet those are facts, simply stating them isn’t wrong or a sin. I don’t know how socially acceptable it is to be so vocal about one’s piety. But they are only facts. The real tragedy is in the transition. “Thank God I’m not like everyone else,” he says. Then he names who he’s grateful he’s not like: crooks, evildoers, democrats, republicans, adulterers, and even tax collectors. Those are not facts; those are judgments about human beings. This is the tragedy of the parable.
Here’s one of the insidious aspects of self-aggrandizing piety; whether uttered in public or in the silence of our minds: it often leads us to judge other human beings. When you say those two words, “at least” you can go in a couple of different directions. You can take the course of the Pharisee and say, “at least I’m not like the people I despise, hate, and preferred God rejected outright.” Or, you can take a different path and say, “at least I’ve been blessed to a point that I can help people who need help.” At least, you might say, “I have a roof over my head and food on my table can I do something for someone else.” There are different ways of saying at least, ways which do not turn our faith into a tragedy.
Like Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, there are two main characters. Jesus’s audience would have felt torn. They wanted to love and respect the Pharisee but he had judged them to be faithless. Now, the writer of the play, asks them to take a second look at someone they have been bred to hate. You don’t get better drama than this. This is pulling at people’s souls. Jesus, you’re asking me to look at something so repulsive that I can barely even give it a name. This is the tax collector.
He knows who he is, what he is, and how people feel about his work. There is a distance, both physical and spiritual between he and the Pharisee. Because of his work, his fear, the Pharisees’ judgment, and society’s condemnation the Tax Collector is cut off from the physical manifestation of God on Earth-the Temple. Do we see the absurdity of this moment? We, human beings, created by God have created hoops by which others we deem unworthy may or may not connect with their creator? I ask you, as I think this parable does, what sense does that make? Is it our purpose to decide who is worthy of God’s love? Is it our place to put people in their place, as we see their place?
Jesus is saying, that which is “wholly other” to us is “us”. Without that which is different, there is no us. The body of Christ is built on difference, which as the tax collector says, begins with a recognition of the need for mercy.