The King of the Castle
Readings: Jeremiah 14:1-22; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Today’s Gospel reading always reminds me of a childhood game we played at school. It is one of those universal games, but I suspect it got played out in different ways depending on the venue. Our schoolyard had a slope up to the fence along one side, and we children would scramble to be first to the top at which point we would shout as loudly as we could, “I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.”
There are two characters in the story, one a Pharisee, and the other the dreaded tax collector.
The Pharisee is one of the pillars of the Jewish community. He gives generously. He prays and keeps religious observances well beyond what the law requires. You get the impression from his prayer that he is a one-person admiration society. There he is standing at the front of the synagogue where everyone can see him. "How good and pious I am," he thinks to himself. He is wearing long robes. They make him feel very holy. They attract lots of attention. Then he begins his prayer. "God, I thank you that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of humanity," he almost shouts it. Then he catches sight of that loathsome tax collector who has just sneaked as quietly and unobtrusively as possible into the back of the synagogue.
“I thank you especially that I am not like that tax collector over there. I mean, what is he even doing here?” He is confessing everyone else’s sins for them. His prayer is an exercise in unrealized self-congratulation. You get the picture, don't you? Here is a person who is totally satisfied with himself. Truly he does live a good life – upright, moral, pious. And what's more, he knows it. He is the king of the castle, the kid shouting at the top of the hill. Decent, law abiding, self confident, religious! A total success – at least in his own eyes!
Now I do not want to imply that he is not righteous. He deserves to be confident of his relationship with God. But he is confident for all the wrong reasons. “I fast twice a week,” he says. “I give a tenth of my income.” His achievements are not really that notable. Religious Jews paid the temple tax. They went to the temple to pray every day. It was also common for religious Jews to fast twice a week. Fasting is good for the soul. We should all try it more often. It can help clear one’s mind and body. It can help take away what stands between God and us. But it is not something to brag about. It is meant to further one’s spiritual life. The Pharisee has missed out on the true nature of his blessing. He trusts in himself rather than in God.
Then there is the tax collector. On the one hand, he knows that he has done nothing of merit. On the other hand, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. He is a shady character, to put it mildly! He makes his living in a rather underhanded way. He takes a little more than he should. He is grasping and unjust. He is the dirty rascal at the bottom of the hill. The loser. But you know, he has no false illusions. He sees himself pretty much as he is. He knows his failures, his flaws. He sneaks into the synagogue, way at the back where no one will see him. He does nothing to bring attention to himself. He simply cries out to God, "God be merciful to me a sinner."
And surprise! We are told that it is the tax collector, the sinner, the shady character, who went home justified. You see, he came to God in humility and found access to God’s grace. He faced the truth about himself and put his dependence on God’s compassionate mercy.
The Pharisee trusted in his own righteousness and religious achievement. He did all the right things, but he went about it in all the wrong ways. I suspect he was the kind of person who got all hot and bothered about silly little rules, about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Instead of looking inward to see himself as God saw him, he spent his time tearing others apart. He forgot that his prayer should focus on God. His piety, the very thing that should have brought him closer to God, became for him an insurmountable barrier.
The outcome of the story is that God loved the dirty rascal at the bottom of the hill. God accepted the villain and rejected the saint. God saw the humility of the tax collector and accepted it; God rejected the pride of the Pharisee.
But what about us? About you and me? Do we have a bit of each in us? At the same time we stand with the Pharisee at the front of the temple bragging about our righteousness we stand with the tax collector at the back recognizing our guilt. Who really wants to identify with a self-righteous prig like the Pharisee? But he is faithful and pious. It is just that his way of approaching God is wrong. He lacks humility. But who wants to identify with the tax collector? He is commended for his prayer, but he is so lacking in self-esteem. And Jesus! Jesus stands there and laughs at our sense of ambiguity. Most of us accept that we are sinners, albeit forgiven sinners. We accept that forgiveness is a gift from God, a gift of grace, not earned or deserved, but simply accepted. What we often do not recognize is the cost of that grace.
Finding yourself blessed in life is a matter for gratitude, not for pride. But it is human nature to feel a sense of pride in what we do. We like to think that we have accomplished something in life. Perhaps the balance lies in honing our awareness that we are limited creatures, dependent on the life-sustaining nature of our world, dependent upon one another, above all, dependent upon our creator. That is the kind of attitude that is needed to bring about reform and renewal within the Church. It is the kind of attitude that is needed to bring about the renewal of all of God’s creation.
We live in difficult times. Our indigenous people are hurting. They blame us. Especially the Church! And we are to blame. I must admit that I felt a great deal of ambiguity about my culpability. You see, I taught in a Residential School back in the sixties. I grew up with a rather romantic notion about helping our First Nations people. Each Lent we children would fill our Lent box with its picture of cute little pigtailed “Indian” children with pennies and feel self-righteous about how much good we were doing. I went to Teachers’ College and the romantic notion stayed with me. I applied to Indian Affairs and went to teach in Fort George, Quebec, on the James Bay Coast. The experience remains bitter sweet. I loved the children. I did my best to teach them with limited resources. It was a difficult place for a young, inexperienced teacher. When many years later it began to come out about everything that had gone on in the schools – my principal was charged with sexual abuse from another school – I had to come to terms with the fact that no matter how well intentioned I was, I along with every Canadian bear the blame. I have become an Ambassador for the National Church and continue in the reconciliation process that we all need to undergo if wrongs are to be righted.
Then I think about Greta Thunberg and her mission to change the world. What she says about climate change is humbling. As she blamed adults for what the world faces through climate change, I found myself saying, but ... You know, but I recycle. But I am not wasteful. But I walk instead of driving. But I use reusable bags instead of plastic. As long as any of us says “but”, nothing changes. We continue in our self-righteous protestations, and the problem continues.
I don’t want to be the king of the castle. I don’t want to be the dirty rascal. What is the answer? It lies in the good news that God loves us. Our creator God looks down on us and calls us into right relationship with God and creation. I can only believe that the answer lies in that right relationship, in reaching out to God in prayer; in praying for a world that is crying out in pain; in praying that we will be people who strive for justice; in changing our attitudes and acting without saying but; in doing what God is calling us to do. Amen.
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