Year C Proper 25: Stand closer

Have you ever read the brilliant dystopian novel, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley? I won’t give the whole game away, but one of the themes in the book is social engineering, which is achieved by a mixture of genetic manipulation and social conditioning. Growing children are trained and moulded to their place in society, and to be glad that they are not like some others they could mention. In just the second chapter, we are introduced to the idea by the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. A group of Beta children are sleeping, and listening while they sleep to an undercurrent of whispered messages:

‘“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides, they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”’

A few chapters later, the conditioning has taken: ‘“I’m glad I’m not an Epsilon,” said Lenina, with conviction. “And if you were an Epsilon,” said Henry, “your conditioning would have made you no less thankful that you weren’t a Beta or an Alpha.”’


A Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”


A follower of Jesus, a reformed tax collector, having heard the parable and Jesus’ commentary upon it, taking note of who was justified and who was not, might have prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee.”


Most of the characters in the story play pretty much to type. The Pharisee is satisfied that he has done what he can to lead a righteous life, and he trusts God to reward his virtue and his faithfulness. He even has sufficient grace to ascribe to God the credit for his ability to lead a better life than those around him, but he is a bit full of himself. One wonders what secret sin he is hiding.


The tax collector is thoroughly ashamed of himself, as well he might be. He is not only corrupt and self-serving; no, it is not his self-service that shames him so thoroughly but his service of Caesar. This man is a collaborator, a cowardly, creeping collaborator. Maybe he had his reasons. Maybe they threatened his family, or burned down his house, or beat down his resistance, but one way or another he has sold his soul to Rome, and now he is ashamed in the presence of God, his face burning and downcast; yet still he has the grace to ascribe to God mercy, even sufficient mercy for one such as he.


Jesus as usual is turning things on their heads, messing with the social order, exalting the humble and tumbling the mighty and the haughty types to the bottom of the table. His audience, no doubt scandalized as ever, yet secretly rejoicing in how the mighty are fallen.


Only God is inscrutable.


From the moment in the earliest stories, when God accepted Abel’s offering over Cain’s, it has been difficult for us to know exactly what we can do to be justified, to be the perfect, the best offering that we can guarantee will be an acceptable sacrifice. We try to organize things so that we know; like the Pharisee, we assume that a tithe here and a kind deed there, refraining from the obvious crimes like murder, theft, adultery; we hope that those will stand us in good stead. And yet here comes this weasley, wheedling tax collector, beating his breast, and he goes home justified. It’s enough to make a faithful Pharisee wonder whatever is the point?


There is an interesting alternative translation of the Greek that sends the tax collector home justified, which says that he was justified along with the Pharisee, rather than instead of him.[1] Reading that made me wonder this week what would have happened if, instead of setting themselves apart, one out of shame, one out of pride, these two men had come together to pray. What might they have learned from one another?


The tax collector certainly could have used some tips on righteous living. The Pharisee might have learned, if he’d gotten a little closer, what true repentance really sounds like; how painfully honest it is possible to be before God.


The thing is that no matter where we find ourselves in this story, it is God who determines our worth, our value, our righteousness, our justification; and God reserves the right to be unexpected, to do the unthinkable, to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable. God moves children and slaves to prophesy, according to the prophet Joel, and we had better listen. God rescues Daniels and Sauls, saints and sinners from the lion’s den, and we are astonished. God hears the prayers of the righteous and of the unrighteous, and answers them. “O you who answer prayer!” says the Psalm: “To you all flesh shall come.” (Psalm 65:2)


I wouldn’t think that the point of the story for the Pharisee is that there is no point in his careful religious observance. He gains much in the way of spiritual awakening, of good relationships in his community, the satisfaction of giving and the blessings of being a leader in his chosen society. But he needs to remember to give thanks for his fellow members of society, and not simply to give thanks that he isn’t one of them. He needs to remember some humility before God and before his fellow person, to recognize that we each have something to offer, that we each have something to teach one another, that anyone can be a messenger of God, prophesying repentance, reflecting mercy. Writing off the tax collector as beneath his notice, beneath his contempt, was a poor move on the part of the Pharisee. He would have done better to have gotten a little closer, to hear the other man’s prayer, and add his own Amen.


At the end of yesterday’s prayer walk, a gentleman from a different Christian tradition from our own commented on how enlightening it was to come together with members of different churches, to pray and celebrate our commonality, instead of judging and separating ourselves from one another. Celebrating our ability to pray together, acknowledging God’s grace shared out amongst many, was so much warmer than the cold winds of separatism. It was good to walk together.


Even amongst ourselves, I would challenge us to recognize those tendencies to separate ourselves from those we do not stand close to, do not understand, or like. Here before God, we would do better to love our neighbour, starting with those right here, perhaps, and learn from their prayers. Perhaps they may surprise us. I would love to challenge each of you during the coffee hour to try to find someone you don’t normally talk to, or don’t know well at all, and find out something new about them, and tell them something of your own hopes, prayers, thanksgivings.


The whispering voices which brought us up to think that we were different from the others, that we were not like “them,” and that we should be thankful, they should be heard with caution. We have more in common than we have differences, because we are all children of one God. We have more to be thankful for in one another than apart from one another, because God made us to be together, to love one another. We should not assume that we know all there is to know about one another, because God is full of surprises for each and every one of us, and has a tendency to do the unexpected, like justifying the Pharisee alongside the tax collector; like saving you, and even me.



[1] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Z. Brettler (eds) (Oxford University Press, 2011), Luke 18:14, note

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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