When you watch the movie, Cinderella, do you root for Cinderella or for the evil step mother and her two cruel daughters?
It’s Cinderella, of course.
We love underdogs, are often drawn toward those who are humble, and understand quite well Jesus’ frequent reminder that the first will be last and the last will be first, and that those who are exalted will one day be humbled and vice versa. Let’s face it: we like humility. I bet most everyone here would like to be more humble. That’s because humility is a good thing and today’s Gospel makes no mistake about that.
But today’s Gospel is more than a simple Cinderella underdog story. It’s more than a comeuppance tale about a self-righteous Pharisee and a sinning but repentant tax collector. It is also about two other important points as well. First, Jesus is taking aim at the powerful, the prestigious, the influencers of his time. He is poking them in the ribs with a stick, figuratively speaking, and at the same time, elevating the lowly. His words bring about what he is teaching. He, as God, is exalting the humble and humbling the exalted. He is doing precisely what he tells us God does!
But, by poking a stick into the ribs of the powerful and prestigious… well, we all know that he will someday pay a mighty price for that.
But the second point, the one I would like to talk about today might be a bit more subtle… and it has to do with the notion that we are masters of our fate and can control our own destinies, that by our actions, we can walk the path directly into heaven. I for one would like to think that. I would like to know that if I follow the blueprint and obey the GPS directions, I will arrive safely and on time. For sure, the Pharisee in this story believed that. And that was the reason for his righteousness. He figured that he was following the formula, going along with the recipe, and so therefore, he would be justly rewarded… because that’s just the way it works. On the other hand, the sinful and despised tax collector, the one who certainly disregarded any salvation recipe, who ignored the GPS warnings to change his route, would be sentenced to a terrible eternal fate.
But no, this is not the case according to Jesus.
And that must have been wildly shocking to those who heard this story. What do you mean that if I follow all the rules, do everything right, sacrifice, avoid sin, and obey perfectly… I am not guaranteed to get to the promised reward? This is shocking. And kind of scary.
It’s not that the GPS is wrong or that the blueprint is irrelevant. Rather, it’s that God and God alone can bring us forward into eternity. We are dependent upon God, wholly and completely, and our posture would be better suited to be like the tax collector standing off in the distance and beating his chest rather than the Pharisee who took up his position, eyes and arms raised up to the heavens, declaring the ultimate victory. Because that’s exactly what he was doing in this Gospel story.
Sometimes, it’s easy to develop a practice of living our faith that can best be described as the “God-as-vending-machine” model. The thing or things we most want are behind the glass and outside of our reach. We can consider our religious practice of prayer and worship to be like a handful of quarters, waiting to be inserted into the machine so that we may obtain what lies beyond our reach. There are many problems with this, one of which is that when we put our coin into the box and nothing comes out the tray at the bottom, we can become discouraged or even conclude that God is not real. This is transactional thinking and it happens when we place ourselves in the driver’s seat. As that Pharisee did.
But no, we are dependent. We are subservient. We are in need. And we are to be humble. Truly humble. The kind of humble that can only come when we ourselves have been humbled, and when we realize it’s not up to us, that we don’t get to control it, that we can’t force the outcome or guarantee the victory. In short, that we are not God.
We are not God.
How different our world would be if we could only stop trying to be God.