Quakers have created for ourselves a difficult standard – we are expected to see ‘…that of God’ in others. Sometimes it almost pushes us to the wall. ….this week Spokane had some visitors from Topeka, Kansas. The history of the Phelps family, law firm and the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps, is an interesting story. At one time Fred was a courageous civil rights attorney. Fred Phelps should be expected in our culture as the iconic prophet wearing a sandwich board saying the End of the World is Near! He looks at America and declares what most of us know in our hearts – America is an immoral place. His strong contention is that God hates. God hates unrighteousness! And he has the Bible verses to back that up. It helped me to see Fred in terms of the pre-exilic Old Testament Prophets who warned the two Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel of impending destruction at the hands of pagan nations permitted by God for their failure to live up to the requirements of the Covenant with regard to how people were treated.
Robert Krulwich of National Public Radio fame recently submitted a new piece about Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scholar who back in the 1750s devised a naming system for all living things. There are, of course, many ways to categorize life, but biology teachers love anatomical distinctions, that spiders have 8 legs, insects 6, and Linneaus gives us a way to walk around the world with a handy set of labels that teach us about hidden connections in the history of life. According to biologists Sandra Knapp and Quentin Wheeler the great Swede’s taxonomy ranks in importance with the invention of the internet.
And yet the very people who should take Linnaeus most seriously — the research scientists who discover and name new species of life — have all kinds of fun playing with Linneaus’ system. American scientist Charles Paul Alexander after identifying some 10,000 different species crane flies got to invent 10,000 different insect names. When opportunities like this come along, scientists can get giddy. They have invented all kinds of wonderfully ridiculous names to insult competitors, flirt with girlfriends, even attack political enemies.
A couple of years ago Krulwich did a story about how a scientist who so despised communists, named a worm he discovered Khruschevia ridicula after former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and another scientist who so loved the music group the Sex Pistols named some ancient trilobite species after Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten: Sid viciousi and Johnny rotteni (the names are Latinized according to Linnaeus’ formula, genus first and capitalized, species next, in lower case). But recently Krulwich’s collection of names has been updated by Professor Chris Impey. Among Chris’ list of favorites he found a beetle named Agra vation and another one called Agra phobia. There is a mollusk named Abra cadabra, an extinct rat-kangaroo called Wakie wakie and a spider genus called Orson welles. But his favorite came from a genus of snails called Bittium. There type of Bittium snail tends to be smaller than the others. “Ah, this is so wonderful” Krulwich wrote, its name is Itti bittium.
O.K., what does that have to do with living our faith? Well this week Spokane had some visitors from Topeka, Kansas. The history of the Phelps family, law firm and the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by Fred Phelps, is an interesting story. At one time Fred was a courageous civil rights attorney. In one sense of the word Fred Phelps should be as expected in our culture as the iconic prophet wearing a sandwich board saying the End of the World is Near! He looks at America and declares what most of us know in our hearts – America is an immoral place. His strong contention is that God hates. God hates unrighteousness! And he has the Bible verses to back that up. It helps to see Fred in relation to the pre-exilic Old Testament Prophets who warned the two Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel of impending destruction at the hands of pagan nations permitted by God for their failure to live up to the requirements of the Covenant with regard to how people were treated. The nation of God’s people must exhibit the characteristics of justice, mercy and humility. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day saw him as just such a threat to the nation. I think there are a lot of Christians who can’t help but agree with Fred though they are appalled by the focus of his bizarre boycotts. Something twisted his prophetic ministry. It may help to understand that he holds to a belief system in which God’s love and grace are restricted to a very few people of whom he sees himself as one. I heard a lot of people’s labels for Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.
In Luke 18: we have this parable of Jesus. 9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
First I was struck by the fact that both “Pharisee” and “tax collector”, each simple descriptions, have themselves become labels. Just hearing “Pharisee” or “tax collector” brings to our minds a long list of characteristics. The tax collector of Jesus’ day was a Jew known to be a Roman collaborator. Such a person was considered beneath contempt along with other bad characters. Thanks to Jesus for repeatedly using the Pharisees for a foil the very word has come to mean someone who looks down their noses at everyone else from their pinnacle of righteousness. The fact of the matter, of course is that a Pharisee was a most loyal, patriotic and righteous Jew. It wasn’t easy in that day and time to earn such a revered title. These were the good people.
In a recent sermon that I caught on the internet Stan Thornburg of North Valley Friends shared an insight he had. He wrote that he was taken aback by a comment he heard on a TV program. It was just a passing comment that had rolled off the speaker’s tongue glibly and seemingly without much thought. The show was a “Where are they now?” show. It looked at folks that had been in the news in recent years to see how their lives had panned out. The comment that caught Stan’s attention was made by a prostitute who had gotten caught while “seeing” a politician. The politician had lost his position and the trust of those around him. The young lady, however, had parlayed the publicity into a very tidy sum of money. After revealing her fortune, the former working girl said, “Yes, God has really blessed me.” Stan wrote: “Something within me wanted to protest, to cry “foul”, “You can’t claim God’s blessing for this ungodly gain that has come to you through you own sinfulness!” He said that he didn’t want it to be true. Perhaps it wasn’t true, perhaps God had nothing to do with it, but that was when he was hit with an even greater shock. His reaction to her claim of being blessed in the midst of her sinfulness was exactly like that of the Pharisees and devout Jews who were scandalized by Jesus’ generosity of spirit toward tax crooks, publicans, and prostitutes. He said that he quickly became aware of how much of Christ’s behavior and teaching was scandalous in the eyes of the “decent folks” of Jesus’ Jewish culture.
The Tax collector in our parable had only one label, a label he applied only to himself as he beat his chest in self accusation: “sinner”. The Pharisee wore his label as a badge of honor and the text tells us how he had a whole list of labels for others: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector. The righteous Pharisee could name all the things he did right like tithing and ceremonial fasting. The tax gatherer knew only of his being out of fellowship with his faith and his community.
David Lose says that it’s difficult to avoid interpreting the parable in straightforward, even simplistic terms, in part because the dramatic action of this parable is so very predictable even to those with only limited knowledge of the story of Jesus’ life. Knowing that Pharisees are regularly cast in the gospels as Jesus’ opposition, we all too easily judge the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is to be humble. The difficulty with such an interpretation is that we might as well end up praying, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”
In order to avoid the kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable that the parable itself would seem to condemn, it may be helpful to note that, in fact, everything the Pharisee says is true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous (see Luke 15:7). So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people…”, but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord. One makes a claim to righteousness based on a sense of privilege or of one’s own accomplishments. The other relies entirely on the Lord’s benevolence or grace. Kate Huey points us to Raymond Bailey who draws an uncomfortable comparison between Pharisees and “good elders, stewards, or deacons”. They are the ones who do the work of the church and provide the financial support necessary to support religious institutions. Pharisees were devoted to God and righteousness, and of their faults were mostly the result of over-striving for holiness. When religion became the end instead of the means these leaders could easily lose their way, as the Pharisee praying in the Temple evidently had. The same pitfall on the journey of faith endangers us today. The hook in this story for us may be our strong temptation to identify with the tax collector and not the Pharisee, even though the Pharisee may resemble many more of us in many more ways than we would like to think. Might we be tempted to believe in our own accomplishments and in our deserving of what we have received? Have we thanked God with a kind of self-satisfied, self-centered prayer of gratitude, thankful that we were able to accomplish our own righteousness? Who are those, in our churches, in our denomination, in our society, from whom we stand apart when we pray?