(Jesus said) “Two people went up to the Temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed like this: ‘I give you thanks, O God, that I’m not like others – greedy, crooked, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on everything I earn.’
“The other one, however, kept a distance, not even daring to look up to heaven. In real humility, all the tax collector said was, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’”
(WARNING not a gay-friendly site)
With great certainty he knew he didn’t belong. The whispers creeping around alerted him to his orphan status and the open confrontations confirmed he was an outcast. Hell, he didn’t even know the proper position for prayer, little less the correct words to intone. This place was for those who kept proper lives and could say and do the proper things the Temple (or church, or mosque, or coven, or friendship circle) called for.
He was intentional in his purpose of coming, but now that he was here, he felt a bit of a bumbling wanderer. Was he a moth drawn to light? Was he a thief come to steal a blessing? He used to know who he was. Here he questioned. If was as if his heart rebelled against all the labels attached to him: both invited and uninvited. And it was as if the great Heart of the Universe also rebelled against his self-understanding. All he knew for sure was that he didn’t belong. Yet here he was.
“Sinners” have always been the cherished of the “religious.” We do need others to measure ourselves against. “I give you thank, O God, that I’m not like others – greedy, crooked, adulterous – or even like this one.” I confess that as a religious person it is an easy measurement of how “good” I’m doing when compared to how “bad” sinners are doing.
But, I am on the wrong side of this equation. After all, I have been labeled a sinner. It’s appeared on my Facebook page, and of course in various comments on this blog. I have heard it from strangers. I have heard it from “friends.” I have heard it from family. Why am I, as well as other queers and allies sinners? The answer is that we make an easy measurement so that the religious can feel good about themselves.
This is where Jesus has aligned the two characters of this parable: one measuring himself against the other; the other measuring himself against God.
In my opinion this parable is straightforward making a rather clear point. But alas, I have been proven wrong. I used a paraphrase of this parable once with a friend who I went through college and seminary with, even was a roommate with. I replaced the Pharisee with a minister and the tax collector with a drug addict. The Temple was replaced with bedrooms.
My friend, who is an astute, capable, and compassionate minister in the denomination of my youth, responded: “It wasn’t a sincere conversion.” To be honest I was stunned. My friend is not one to make light of spiritual experiences. Given the heat of our conversation I suspect he read more into the paraphrase than I meant.
Yet, even with giving my friend the benefit of the doubt, the religious measurement still raises its head. “I fast twice a week. I pay tithes on everything I earn. My conversion was sincere.” It is an easy temptation for those of us who are religious. It is condemnation for those of us who are sinners. We don’t fast. We don’t tithe. We don’t have sex with the right people.
Eventually our hearts and the Great Heart rebels against the label of “sexual sinner,” and all labels assumed within it. The rebellion will disorient us, especially if we internalized this label as our own identity. However, this disorientation is necessary so that we may be reoriented and come to know ourselves as God know us: beloved and accepted.