Nadia Bolz-Weber has become my favorite progressive pastor to pick on. Maybe I’m jealous of her success, or maybe I’m frightened by it. It appears to be the same old tricks from the 15th century dressed up in tattoos and comedy. This week she has some fun with a parable that ends with a bit of a paradox.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else,Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When understanding this parable, it’s good to know that tax collectors in the New Testament were not like IRS Agents working for a legitimate government in a comfortable job. They took the job because no one else would. They didn’t need accounting skills. They had probably lost whatever work they really wanted to do.
They could only carry out their duties because the Roman army backed them up, but the army and the government didn’t want any trouble from them either. The system was full of corruption. They had few friends. They “stood at a distance” in the temple, because that’s what you did when you were of such a low caste.
So is this passage telling us to be humble? How should we approach it?
Nadia consistently points out the problem of approaches to scripture that have been implemented in the past, and I always enjoy her sarcasm, but her solutions almost always point back to an alternative that has also failed in the past and holds no hope for the future.
The failure she points out in this case is what happens when you approach a parable with the intention of finding an item to put on your righteousness to-do list. Simply looking at the words, then rearranging them to say, “I will always be [fill in the blank]”, doesn’t work. In this case, the blank is filled with “humble”. I was in my early teens when I got the joke, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as me.” In case you haven’t heard that yet, she explains the trap:
So I guess that rather than the moral of the story being “try harder to be righteous”, the moral of the story is “try harder to be humble” right? And there it is.
Either way, you are trying to be something only because it will make you look better. There are several ways out of this, but she provides the absolutely worst one. She sends us right back into old theology, where the answer is always the place from whence the question came. Jesus spoke in parables, leaving us to interpret them, but if you have any trouble with that, just trust that Jesus will make it all right. For Bolz-Weber, the way out is to not think about it at all.
She unsets all the traps, but leaves us with no trap detection skills of our own. It even appears she does it by circumventing the Biblical lesson itself. To put it very simply, humility is better than righteousness. And the parable says, if you humble yourself, you’ll be exalted. But Nadia disagrees,
“If there is some kind of promise here then it’s not that we can use our humility to become righteous before God, the promise is not in what the ones hearing the parable can do to become justified.”
I don't know what Bible Nadia reads, but mine makes promises like that all the time and I know many people who keep repeating them. She follows this statement with a couple paragraphs about the cross, God entering flesh, we’re all sinners, and other random Christian statements that have summarized sermons for 2,000 years. They only have meaning if Christ is actually active in our lives right now. They do not help us with paradoxical statements like “intolerance will not be tolerated” and “humble people are better” or any of the dilemmas we find in this world of causes and affects, unintended or otherwise.
Although she spends most of the sermon dismissing the idea that you should try to be humble and pointing out that you can’t do it in any honest way, she does end with an acknowledgment of it’s value,
“So in the end, humility is not a virtue that makes us righteous. But it’s not unimportant either, because humility is just admitting the truth of being human…humility is the naked state in which we stand before a righteous God who sees us as we are – sees every jealous inclination, every racist thought, every selfish desire every good deed done for the wrong reason and God sees all of it through the lens of the cross and says to us you are free. “
But she already buried this in theology so deep, it’s difficult to get the actual lesson back out. Unless you really have a direct line to the divine, the closest the rest of us get to the type of vision she is talking about is our personal thoughts. We see ourselves naked, not everybody else. We see our own thoughts and desires. We know that others have similar thoughts through poetry, literature, intimate conversations with friends, and religion. Of those, only religion is designed to judge us for being human. It sets the trap; Trust religion, and it tells us we’ll be free to be a flawed human. Don’t trust religion, and religion tells you that you are imprisoned. Religion is either ambiguous about what will happen to you or grotesquely specific about what bad will come of not putting all your faith in it.
If I shared some personal thoughts with a friend, that I was afraid of someone based on the color of their skin, or that I judged someone who had stolen food rather than go hungry, or that I judged someone for being judgmental, and that friend said I had a problem and I should go to a meeting and confess my problem, I would doubt the friendship. If however, they acknowledged I was a mere human, that my thoughts showed that I wanted to be better, but like everyone everywhere always, I am not perfect, then I would be reminded why I have friends.