A banker and a representative for a repossession company were at church saying their prayers. The banker, who sat in a family pew, said, “Thank you that I am so good at what I do. I dress well. I pay my taxes. I am probably the biggest donor to this church. Everyone knows my worth to the community.”
The repo rep came late, hoping to arrive unnoticed. That person, prayed, “Forgive me for what I do to provide for my family. I hope no one will recognize me.”
As in this parable, our society tends to reward success and we tend to measure success by social acceptability, by possessions, or by status. There is huge pressure to save for a wealthy retirement or to work to gain prominence.
I have been thinking often lately about the point of being alive at all. Is it Monopoly to the death or The Wheel of Fortune? Is it about performance or productivity? Or is it about learning about what it means to be eternal participants?
If we are all part of the Divine Soul, then somehow we must affect that soul by the nature of our participation. If we want peace on earth, then our souls must learn peace. If we want compassion, then we must practice compassion, and so on. Life’s journey is not about becoming flawless, but about developing awareness of our connections to each other and how those connections affect the world.
The problem with the Pharisee in this text from Luke’s gospel (and our banker), is that they have bought into a system of rewards and punishments in which it possible to get a badge of merit or a shiny halo or whatever metaphor you like. The tax collector (and our repo caller) on the other hand, knows they are caught in an unjust and sinful system. The latter do not make excuses, but recognize both their entrapment and the harm it is causing themselves as well as others.
Our journey through life is a process of removing the blinders that hide us from our true selves; and because we are focussed on our own self-presentation, those blinders cause us to ignore the reality of others. Seeing clearly means acknowledging what we have done and left undone, but also accepting and celebrating the things we can and are doing, the gift that we have been given that becomes blessing for others.
We have an astonishingly brief time in this life to figure out the big questions, so why should we bother? For ourselves, it allows us to be forgiven for the places where we are still growing and changing. For others, it frees us to use our strengths and hopeful vision for the uplifting of others.
We like the tax collector and repo caller not so much for their humility as for their authenticity. A secret part of us longs to be the banker/Pharisee: beyond reproach, beyond accountability, above the common. That part, however, condemns us to isolation and to delusions about our own mortality, about our infinitesimal place in the universe, where we are mere motes of stardust.
We are creatures who will never cease to make mistakes because we are designed to learn and to be transformed. For my part, I think this is an eternal process as we move into the energy and creativity of the Holy One.