Reversals of power play through many stories and poems of Scripture. The sacred texts foundational to Jewish and Christian identity are insistent in their efforts to reconfigure our understanding of what counts as valuable and holy. Daring leaders in every age have responded with their own bold visions regarding what makes for faithful community — something we can see in the unusually humble ministry of the new Bishop of Rome. Pope Francis clearly knows his Scripture!
Featured prominently in Old Testament stories are flawed ancestors, unexpected heroes, surprising protagonists whose vital roles in the purposes of God reframe the community’s perspective on faith lived out in the paradoxes of history. The trickster who overcomes stronger antagonists (Jacob), the leader whose capacity for greatness develops from a compromised start (Moses), marginalized women whose very vulnerability becomes the source of their power (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth), the prophet whose witness is initially scorned but whose authority endures for generations (the Suffering Servant in Isaiah): such figures delight the reader seeking to understand how community should be deconstructed and rebuilt according to the purposes of God. In the New Testament, and particularly in Luke, we see sustained attention to those on the margins of social power: women, the poor, those with catastrophic illness. Christ himself surrenders his status and power (John 13:1-15; Philippians 2:5-11) in order to serve others in love. His abjection invites them, and us, into a new understanding of community.
It is human nature to rely on carefully nuanced distinctions of status and power in order to position ourselves at maximum advantage. Self-promotion has always been a fundamental human tendency — even in communities gathered around Scripture — and it has reached new heights in our media-saturated global culture. Thus Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector remains instructive, not least for the vivid contrast it draws between smugness and abjection. A Jewish tax collector in the ancient Greco-Hellenistic world would have faced the derision of his contemporaries, for the revenues he collected would have supported not only local infrastructure but a Roman imperial machine that kept tight control, economically and politically, over indigenous local inhabitants throughout the Roman empire. The surprise of this story is not that the tax collector perceives himself to be a sinner: the implied audience of the text would have agreed heartily. No, the dramatic moment here is the revelation that a credentialed religious leader who has faithfully observed the Law is not justified before God. Living a life of hyperbolic fidelity to the Torah has not availed: keeping oneself apart from immoral behavior, fasting regularly, and tithing are not enough.
This Gospel text compels us to confront the stark offense of the Pharisee’s perspective both in the narratorial introduction about those who regard others with contempt and in the Pharisee’s first words, where he thanks the Creator that he is “not like other people.” The Pharisee does not see that truly faithful life can be lived only in community. Exalting oneself should be unthinkable for those who are called to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and the neighbor as oneself! Luke is so passionate about this point that he makes it twice: before this story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke also narrated Jesus’s instruction about not taking the place of honor at a banquet precisely because “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” ( Luke 14:11).
In the postures of the two men at prayer, Luke dramatizes the narcissism of the Pharisee, who offers a “prayer” of thanksgiving to God that functions as a detailed narration of his own fabulousness, and the abjection of the tax collector, who dares not come near the Temple — the note of distance (“standing far off”) evoking both his alienation from the worshipping community and his personal sense of unworthiness. Not even lifting his eyes, he cries out for God’s mercy.
His prayer, of course, is the most powerful prayer a believer can utter.
Christian tradition has taken up the tax collector’s words in the Jesus Prayer, cherished initially in Eastern Orthodox monastic tradition and now beloved for centuries by believers in many different streams of Christianity. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is prayed repeatedly until it becomes internalized as ceaseless prayer, drawing the worshipper deep into relationship with the God who sustains all things by divine grace. By contrast, the Pharisee’s praying comes to sound like the prattling of a self-absorbed and spiritually immature child.
How radical are the implications of Luke’s reversal of social power for the traditional hierarchies that structure our contemporary life! Luke here speaks a prophetic word to all communities of faith that are tempted to fetishize liturgical practices or enforce rigid and inhumane doctrinal positions. The alternative? To hold to one’s views, certainly, but to live them in loving and grace-filled relationship with others, knowing that the Holy is the source of mercy for us all. A leader such as Pope Francis recognizes the power of compassion and humility. Why would the most powerful ecclesial leader in the world decline traditional trappings of status and authority, reach out to those marginalized within patriarchal religious structures, and dare to affirm that ministry with the poor is at the heart of the Christian vocation? Francis humbles himself thus because this pope knows that loving presence — “accompaniment” — changes hearts, transforms lives, and revitalizes communities. The example of his forebear in faith, Francis of Assisi, testifies eloquently to the catalytic nature of a ministry of humility.
Holiness is not something one can achieve on one’s own through perfectionist practice, however earnest such practice may be. Holiness — justification before the One who calls us to be holy as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2) — is lived in love alongside other flawed, struggling human beings who seek to know something of the sacred. And it is lived in solidarity with the suffering poor. A radical call indeed!
Recommended for further reading:
Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Liturgical Press, 2000.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians. Eerdmans, 2011.
Carolyn J. Sharp is an Episcopal priest and professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School.
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