Midweek Faith Lift
March 8, 2023
The Parable of the Pharisees and Publicans
Rev. Deb Hill-Davis
February 24, 2023
Two Florida counties have instructed schools to remove books that have not been approved under a state law, which limits teaching about race and diversity. The books are not available until their content is approved by the state. “It’s ridiculous that we are looking to ban books,” said teacher Don Falls. “It feels like McCarthyism."
“Every burned book enlightens the world. Every suppressed or expunged word reverberates through the earth from side to side.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Affirmative prayer: Infinite Presence, I affirm that the attempted stifling of ideas only uplevels the energy, insights, and wisdom of enlightened beings. I’m thankful to know that expansive views, truth, and true freedom cannot be suppressed. Thank you, God, forever. Amen.
Our parable today about the Pharisee and the Publican is particularly relevant to this kind of thinking, this kind of action. The parable is about humility and taking action to ban books, to control thought and the flow of ideas is the opposite of humility for sure. It is the operational definition of arrogance, because as Emerson noted, it can’t be done! What does our parable for today say? It is found in Luke 18:9-14 and it reads like this:
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He 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. 11 The 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I 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.”
Hmmmm, interesting! This is a parable many of us are likely familiar with and I don’t know about you, but I for sure don’t want to identify with or be seen as the Pharisee, right! I am not sure about the tax collector or Publican but for sure I don’t want to be the self-righteous Pharisee. I mean, self-righteous people are so irksome, so irritating, aren’t they?!? OOPS!! There’s more to this than meets the eye, for sure!
The lesson Jesus draws from this example and highlights for his listeners, is “everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” What this implies is that we are in need of a “right-sized” ego, which is an inside job for each of us. We have all no doubt been through those experiences where life seemed to kick us around and cut us down to size. That kind of humility, imposed by an external force, external circumstances, carries powerful lessons for us whether we want them or not. These lessons are usually unpleasant and we like to avoid them if possible, right?
What we have in this story, however, are two individuals one who has an out-sized ego and one who has a down-sized ego. Somewhere in the midst of all this is a “right-sized” ego. What Jesus tells us is that when we have that true sense of humility, we will be lifted up or exalted. What does that mean? When we remember that we are all the characters in this story, it becomes a bit clearer how we navigate this ego business and our charge is to do just that. The mind-set of humility is one that all spiritual paths hold as essential to our spiritual growth. It is that important!
What Dr. Todd Michael writes about this in his book, The Hidden Parables is that this parable highlights a profoundly powerful paradox: true humility is empowering. He says it this way on page 243:
….this parable… one of the most important paradoxes in all spirituality is most directly and simply stated as the Law of Humility: “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” The wording is critical. It clearly states that bringing the ego down to earth, down to a more accurate size, is something a person must do for him or herself and that this powerful psychospiritual act carries with it enormous rewards.
The rewards of surrendering to Spirit in all circumstances are truly powerful and the essence of true humility. “I can’t, God can, I think I will let God!”
When we consider how it is that we are the Pharisee, full of self-righteousness, it becomes clear that we may have had a hand in some of those big life choices that suddenly kicked us in the gut. Marrying the wrong person despite our misgivings, defending our choices even in the face of an inner sense of discomfort, declaring we are “right” and therefore the other person is “wrong,” are ways we practice self-righteousness. We have also undervalued ourselves so that we did not speak up and ask for what we needed, tolerating mistreatment and at times abuse. Neither of these is viable for cultivating true humility. We need a healthy ego, a healthy sense of self to comprehend and embrace true humility.
I like to think of the word “ego” more as a verb that is expressed in two ways: “edging God out” and “embracing God’s order.” It is not either or, it is both/and; it is something we all do, we edge God out and we embrace God’s order! One of my favorite songs is by Greg Tamblyn, “Packing for my ego trip, I’ve got a lifetime membership!” He’s right about that! We are human beings and in our human selves we will always have an ego, a sense of our existence; that is healthy and necessary. Ego is after all the Latin word that means “I” . However, it can run out of control and land us in a world of hurt for sure. How do we constructively engage this energy and activity of ego to serve our spiritual growth and embrace the highest and best for all?
On Ash Wednesday several weeks ago, I shared an acronym for the season of Lent, the season we are in right now. I suggested that Lent stands for: “Let’s Embrace Neutral Thinking!” We have been exploring our nature as that of trinity: Human self, Divine self and Observer self. It is so often our human self that edges God out and wants to take charge, be right and take control. This is where our self-righteous energy shows up! How do we navigate this so that our Observer self has some say and our Divine self is heard in this midst of the storm? Pause, breathe and pray….repeat….pause breathe and pray!
Just recognizing that your Human self has taken over and is running the show is a big step! Simple prayers such as God help me, God’s got this, God is solving this, God is here now, really help to stop edging God out when we are especially challenged. And sometimes we don’t recognize what has happened until after the storm has subsided. My prayer is that I don’t do too much damage when I am in the midst of the storm. And sometimes we ask others to pray for us, to hold space for God’s order to be restored and for us to have the presence of mind to recognize and embrace it!
I have recently lived through this very “Pharisee” like experience with respect to my upcoming surgery. I like to believe that I operate from a place of humility, a place of faith, that is, of course, until I don’t! On Saturday, February 18, I received a letter from Medicare saying they would not pay the doctor’s bill from U of Iowa that was for my pre-op consultation! That weekend, I was having another health challenge, so my coping capacity was stretched. When I finally read the details of the denial of claim letter on Monday, my human self went into overdrive, powered by fear and anxiety. My surgery which, had been scheduled since November 9, 2022, was now in question because I had no way of knowing if Medicare would pay for it since they weren’t paying for the doctor’s consultation prior to plan and schedule the surgery.
I went into “ hyper” cope, overdrive mode to get this sorted out now! I will say that it has finally been resolved and I was for sure the “importunate” medical services consumer. I refused to quit until someone would answer my questions and clarify the circumstances pertaining to the denial of payment. Here is my humility take away moment. I reached someone at Medicare, who actually worked really hard to understand and then explain the issues around my unpaid claim. She was very patient and she gave me good information although she could not answer my bottom line question, “Would Medicare pay for my surgery?” She stayed in integrity even as I persisted in asking questions she could not and should not answer.
My arrogance, my Pharisee moment is that I was asked to complete a customer satisfaction survey after our call and I rated her very poorly, which was most undeserved. She had done her job well; I just wanted different answers! I later realized that I was asking the wrong person, which she told me, but I couldn’t hear it! Later, after tracking down the correct person at U of Iowa Hospitals, I did get an answer and an explanation, finally! And the Medicare woman was correct about all of it. I wanted to change my evaluation because it was really reactive and unfair and she did not deserve it, but there was no way to do that. I felt really badly about that, chagrined! I really owed her an amends.
We all want to cultivate true humility, much easier said than done! During this holy season of Lent, instead of negative thinking, reactive thinking, panic thinking, Let’s embrace neutral thinking….it is a much better place to be!
And from the African American writer James Baldwin, we read:
One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light
~James Baldwin, Nothing Personal. 1964
Blessings on the Path,