I once saw the late Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, tell this story to David Letterman. He said he was waiting for a train in his native Great Britain and he went to shop to get tea and biscuits and a newspaper. (Biscuits is what the British call cookies.) So Adams selects a table, sets down his cookies and his newspaper and goes to get hot water for his tea. When he comes back to his table, he finds another man sitting at the table with his own newspaper. Adams sits down, opens his paper, pulls out the section he wants to read and sips his tea. He hears a tearing sound and when he looks over his paper the other chap has opened the cylindrical sleeve of cookies, taken one and is eating it. Adams is astounded that the other chap had the temerity to eat one of his cookies but he's British so he doesn't want to make a scene. Instead, to assert his ownership, Adams reaches over and take the next cookie in the sleeve. He returns to his paper but then hears the crinkle of the sleeve and glances up to see the chap take another cookie. Adams cannot believe this chap has done it again. But wanting to seem the bigger man, Adams simply reaches over and takes the next. And so it goes until the last cookie is gone. The chap's train is announced; he gets up, takes his paper, and without saying anything to Adams, like “Thank you for sharing your biscuits,” the man leaves. Adams stews about this until his train arrives. He then picks up his tea and his paper and when he does so he sees the sleeve of cookies he bought were in fact under one section of his paper. Instead the chap eating cookies that weren't his, Adams was. And he realizes that somewhere in the United Kingdom there is this chap who is telling the same story about this guy boldly eating the chap's cookies. But, Adams tells Letterman, he doesn't know the punchline to the story!
I have since heard that story attributed to other people so I don't know who it actually happened to or if it happened at all. But the point is that when we judge others we don't usually have the whole story and without it, our judgment can be way off. And that's something to keep in mind while we read today's gospel, Luke 18:9-14.
Jesus tells us of two men, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, who go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanks God but not for anything God has given him. He thanks God that he is better than other people. And he classifies others as thieves, adulterers, rogues (or unrighteous) and even takes a swipe at the tax collector. Now to be fair, tax collectors were Jews working for the Romans. And not only were they collecting taxes for the army occupying their country but the tax collectors could set whatever fee they wanted and so they were getting rich off of their own oppressed countrymen. They were seen as traitors. As for the other people the Pharisee mentions, I don't think we can say much in favor of thieves or those who betray the person they are married to. And let's grant the Pharisee some common sense. He would be stupid to lie to God. God would know what this man does and does not do. And if he did in fact fast twice a week and give 10% of his income to the temple that's more than most religious people do today.
I don't think Jesus' problem is with the man's morals, so much as his attitude. This guy supposedly came to pray but he is really bragging. In fact, by thanking God for his superior moral character he is humble-bragging. He is pretending to be grateful to God but he is really just reveling in his self-righteousness. And while he may be doing all he says, we know that he, like the rest of humanity, is flawed. He has some sins in his life but he is not bringing them up. How is his temper? How is his compassion? From what he says about the rest of humanity, I'm guessing he feels that people who aren't doing as well as he is deserve their misfortune. After all, the introduction to this parable says Jesus was targeting arrogant people who treat others with contempt.
Arrogance is the chief of the so-called seven deadly sins. People who are arrogant really believe they are better than other people. They look down on others and usually feel they don't actually need them. They rarely if ever acknowledge what they owe to others, thinking they are largely self-made. They don't take advice from other people because they don't see the need for any other viewpoint than their own. Unfortunately, their arrogance is often mistaken for self-confidence and folks think that confidence equals competence, despite all evidence to the contrary. We've all worked with or for people like that and seen the damage they can do because they won't ask for help. But when things go wrong, they blame everyone but themselves because it can't possibly be their fault.
The Pharisee sees only his own strengths and everyone else's weaknesses. Thus he won't ask God for forgiveness and grace and so he won't receive any either.
The tax collector is anything but arrogant. He stands off by himself, probably feeling the eyes of everyone on him, judging him for his profession. He won't even look up. He just beats his chest and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is no self-congratulation. There is no boasting or gloating or comparing himself to others. He doesn't try to bargain with God. He knows he is flawed and he knows he needs forgiveness. So he asks for it. And Jesus tells us he gets it.
The news constantly bombards us with the worst things people have done. And it's easy to feel superior to, say, the horribly neglectful parent, or the abusive spouse, or the person who succumbs to addiction, or the politician who says supremely stupid things, or the crooked CEO, or the viciously cruel terrorist, or the spoiled rich kid who harmed somebody, or the single mother who made some bad decisions in life. Underneath that feeling is the assumption that we would behave differently in the same circumstances. We think we could resist the culture and the genetics and the upbringing that they had and would triumph over everything they didn't. And we are like Douglas Adams and the other chap, making judgments without knowing the full story.
An inmate I visited regularly when I was chaplain at the jail was a good looking man in his 40s with some real skills at rapping. It's not my preferred musical genre but he got the meter right and his rhymes were really clever and his subject matter was riveting. Instead of bragging about his sexual prowess or wealth or smarts, his raps were usually about his life, which was dire. His father was a pimp who was murdered. His mother was a crack addict who died from AIDS. The inmate has some mental health issues and has been in trouble with the law on and off since he was 14. He can be violent with others but more often he tries to harm himself. So he spent much of his time in jail in solitary confinement, sometimes on suicide watch. And though he was in his cell for 23 of every 24 hours, being let out only to shower, go to the rec yard, make phone calls and select another book (if he was allowed books; when he's on suicide watch he only has a hospital gown and a bare mattress), the guards would let him spent more than an hour with me, usually unshackled. I brought him a dictionary with a built-in thesaurus and he would ask me how to pronounce words so that he could rhyme them correctly. I told him that when he got out he should get a YouTube channel or a blog and share his raps. I know I kept him from harming himself on various occasions by giving him hope.
But ask yourself this: what if you were the one growing up with a pimp father who was murdered and an addict mother who died? What if you were wracked with depression and heard voices and at times just wanted to end it all? And what if you were poor and found out through your mother that there were drugs that quieted the voices in your head, that gave you the energy that depression had stolen from you, or that made you just not care about how bad your life was? Do you think you would still turn out to be the person you are?
We argue about what is more important, nature or nurture, but when you are born, you have no choice in either of those. Some people do find ways to transcend them but they always have help. And they usually have not a modest but an outsized talent that makes people notice them and see some worth in them. They find someone who believes in them and does what their deeply flawed parents didn't or couldn't do: get them an education or introduce them to someone influential in the field in which they show talent. But again that only happens to prodigies. If your talents are fairly ordinary, it is rare for anyone to lift you out of a situation where nature and nurture have conspired to make your life hell.
Even Jean Valjean in Les Miserables gets help. Imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, he reverts to stealing when he gets out, until the bishop he robs pretends to have intentionally given him his silver and throws in some candlesticks when the police detain Jean. Bishop Myriel tells Jean he has been spared for God and the bishop's mercy changes Jean's life. In his introduction to the book Victor Hugo points to three problems: “the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night.” And indeed science has shown us that poverty alone negatively affects the brains of children. Add to that neglect and abuse and it is insurmountable for a child to beat the odds, without lots and lots of help.
That's why Jesus tells us not to judge others. We may see a successful business man, unaware of how he was born to wealth, helped out by his family, bailed out by friends, and lucky in his investments. We may see a poor woman, unaware that she was born into poverty, only able to get minimum wage jobs, or ones where they pay her under the table and don't pay much, burdened with hospital bills because she has a severely ill spouse or mother or child, and unlucky in not being a gifted athlete or musician or scientific genius who is worth rescuing by someone with money. We may see a homeless man, unaware that he is a veteran suffering from chronic pain or mental health issues, who has consequently lost jobs and is unable to make enough to put down first month, last month, and security deposit on a place, and since he is without an address, he has problems applying for jobs or getting his checks sent to him and is lucky not to be dead from the heroin he does because his prescription meds just don't help enough with the mental and physical pain he suffers. But because of what we don't know about them we condemn them. And because of that we don't help them. And then we wonder why their lives are hell.
Speaking of which, I saw a Twilight Zone in which a former concentration camp guard was condemned to relive the suffering of each person for whose death he was responsible. I can't think of a better version of hell than that. Weirdly, though, in Jesus' parables of hell, like the one about the sheep and the goats and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus zeroes in not on sins of commission but sins of omission. "If you didn't do it to one of these, the least of my siblings, you didn't do it to me." That's what he tells the goats who go off to punishment. If in addition to judging us for those we harmed, one were to throw in those we could have helped in this life but didn't, there is not one of us in such an afterlife who wouldn't know first hand the consequences of the evil we have done and the evil we have not done anything to alleviate.
But God is merciful. He forgives. All he asks is that we repent and trust him. And “repent” in Greek means literally to change one's mind and consequently one's behavior. But like the child born into poverty and neglect and abuse, we cannot do this unaided. Which is why when we put ourselves in God's hands, he puts his Spirit within us. It is only with God's Spirit working in us that the image of God in which we were created can resurface. If you go to the Mel Fisher museum, you will see people working on those weird greenish lumps recovered from the wreck of the Atocha, painstakingly removing the accumulation of the years to reveal a ruby cross or a golden chalice previously unseen. So too the Holy Spirit slowly works on all the muck under which we have buried our true selves to reveal the person God meant us to be.
When we judge ourselves, we tend to look at our intentions. When we judge others we tend to look at the results of what they accomplished, regardless of their intentions. We cut ourselves a lot of slack; we seldom do that for others unless they are loved ones. And maybe that's the problem: we don't love our neighbors as we do ourselves. We certainly don't love our enemies as Jesus said we should. So our judgment of others is harsh whereas we let ourselves off easy, as well as those we love.
What if we really did love others as we do ourselves? What if we treated them the way we would like to be treated? We would give others the benefit of the doubt. We would listen to others with empathy. We would believe them when they said they wanted to do better and we would help them do so. We would forgive them as we want to be forgiven.
Unlike the Pharisee, we shouldn't be comparing ourselves to others. Arrogant people compare themselves to the less successful and give themselves a pat on the back. People who are acutely aware of their flaws tend to compare themselves to more successful and beat themselves up about it. We are all broken and we need to acknowledge it and then trust in God's mercy and forgiveness and go forward in the power of his Spirit towards our goal: to become ever more like Jesus.
It is hard. It was hard for me to walk after the doctors put me back together. But I kept working at it with the help of therapists and after 4½ months of therapy I am walking without a walker or crutches or a cane. I have a brace, which I will probably have for the rest of my life. I have pain and I get exhausted at times. But I am walking again. And I will get better at it.
Walking in Jesus' footsteps is hard. We need the help of the Holy Spirit and we will need him all our lives. But if we don't give up on God or ourselves, we will get better. Day by day. Step by step. Because God is merciful and his love is relentless.