“A man walks into a bar . . .” This introduction, or some variation on it, is responsible for hundreds of party jokes – my Google search showed over thirteen million results. You might be surprised to know that Jesus employed a similar formula for one of his stories or parables.
“Two men went up into the temple to pray . . .”
Now before we get into the finer points of the story, let me start by saying, unlike my first post, earlier this week, I’ve thought a good deal about this one. Those of you who know me, will know that for some time I’ve been really concerned with the religious question: faith, church, scripture, theology etc. I’ve given the better part of the last twenty-five years of my life looking at these issues. I feel like the snake who is trying to get out of his own skin, one layer at a time; just when I think the process is over, another layer starts peeling off. And here is the crazy thing, truly baffling and disturbing. The one person who has provided me with the most support throughout this process, is the one person that I feel like I’m trying to get away from, God.
My friend Todd refers to this paradox of God helping us to get free of “god” as the problem of the “two-faced god.” Now, why does he say “two-face”? Well, what would you call it if the person who you believe to be on your side, the one who is helping you get over your bad religious trips, is at the same time the person who is most deeply associated with those “bad trips”? In other words, how can we trust a God who has let us get our asses kicked by so much “bad religion” done in his name? Now, hold that thought for now, let’s go back to the parable of the two guys walking into the bar, err temple (the following is a paraphrase of the story – if you want the story in its original form you got to get it from Luke chapter 18).
“Two men walked into the temple to pray, one was a devout, religious man and the other a heathen. The religious man, stood in the middle of the room and prayed out loud: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like those dirty heathens, such as that man across the room. I go to services twice a week, I read my Bible every day, I don’t smoke, drink or cuss and I give 10% of my income to you.’
But the heathen, stood on the far side of the temple, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
(Jesus said) I tell you, this heathen and not the religious man left that day with God’s favor resting upon him. For everyone who promotes himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be promoted.” Lk 18:9–14.
The more times I reflect on this little parable, the closer I get to resolving the dilemma with the “two-face god”. The parable has become a kind of key for unlocking certain questions, questions that initially I would think but never say. Now if you are like me, you have been haunted by these same questions: “Does God really favor the religious man?” “What is it that I need to do or stop doing to experience God’s favor?” “Does God approve of the way that some people seem to look down on me?” “Does God approve of the way that I look down on certain people?”
While some of Jesus’ teachings are difficult to understand, the thing about this little parable is that we are specifically told before the story begins, exactly what the parable means, as well as why Jesus told it in the first place. Luke writes, “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:” With the interpretation of the parable and Jesus’ motivation for the story on the table, what do we stand to learn from this story? There are those who might conclude that the moral of the story is, “Don’t be a self-righteous, religious person” but such a conclusion is far too superficial. This parable is getting at something far deeper and profound than, “don’t be mean.” Through this parable, Jesus is teaching us that when it comes to certain habits of thought and behavior, (habits that are “second nature” to us), God is completely, 180 degrees, different from us! Where we are constantly competing with and comparing ourselves to each other; were we are constantly “trusting in ourselves for our rightness”, Jesus tells us that God is not even on the same “frequency”!
Now before we go any further, let’s be clear, it’s not only the “religious” people who are playing the self-righteous game of looking down on others. The truth is, we all do it! We all have people, who we consider to be the “dirty heathen.” Who are the people that you find yourself regularly complaining about? Is it that relative you can’t stand, that political group or that person who has gone off the “deep end?” But what’s wrong with our assessment? What’s wrong with simply making an observation about what is so, “painfully obvious?” Remember the religious man in the temple? He was utterly confident in the veracity of his “observation”, in fact, he was so convinced, that he actually submitted it as his prayer and worship to God! While, I suspect that most of us would agree that self-righteousness is rather misguided and no one person is truly qualified to judge their fellow man, our problem is that, like the religious man in the temple, we fail to recognize when we are doing it. Of course, we are always painfully aware when someone is doing it to us, when we are on the receiving end of someone else’s “observation.” And this is why we cannot simply be told, “stop being so self-righteous.” This is why Jesus has to use a story to teach and a parable to illustrate and why he doesn’t come out and just say to us, “knock it off!”
Jesus has to expose the problem to us indirectly, by”showing”, rather than merely “telling” us, what self-righteousness and contempt for others looks like. He wants us to see that the defining traits of self-righteousness is it’s ability to blind us to our own hidden motives. Jesus wants us to see the folly in the self-righteous scams that we are running but ultimately he wants to show us something more than that. You see, the lesson in this parable is not ultimately about us, at least it does not “center” on us. The central figure in this drama is not the religious man nor the heathen. It turns out that the central figure in the story is God. Jesus is telling us something about God and what he is like. Jesus is telling us that God actually favors the humble over the arrogant even if the arrogant person is “religious” and the humble person is a heathen. Jesus is also assuring us that the “self-righteous”, who regularly elevate themselves while they hold their fellow man in contempt, do so without God’s favor, and support. In other words, self-righteous people who promote themselves, while putting others down are not God’s representatives in the earth!
And this brings us back to the questions we have regarding God’s true identity. Is God “two-faced”, offering us grace and forgiveness one minute and then rejecting us the next? Does God rescue us from the tyranny of our sinfulness, only to throw us into the trenches of religious obligation? Is God on the side of the self-righteous and the judgmental, the ones who promote themselves by finding fault in others? The answer from Jesus’ parable is an emphatic, “no.” God is not “two-faced”, he is not merciful and gracious and at the same time ass-kicking and demanding. Jesus is teaching us that God actually has “favorites” but his favor is not determined by the standards that we often use. The parable reveals two important things about God: 1. He does not share our contempt for others 2. He favors the humble over the prideful and he shows mercy to those who depend on him and not themselves for their “rightness.”
And after all of that, if we are still uncertain as to the true identity and the real “face” of this God that Jesus reveals to us, we need only to look into the face of the Man himself who says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Mat 11:27
Thanks for joining us in the OC! This little message is just a catalyst for further reflection and discussion. If you haven’t registered for “comments” please do so, we’d love to hear your thoughts and your perspective on this topic!