Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Lent is a forty day season—exclusive of Sundays—in which Christians are encouraged to engage in introspection and spiritual practices designed to increase our intimacy with God and our relationships with each other. The symbols of Lent can be stark—a cross, a pile of ashes, nails. They can also be comforting—oil for anointing, a chalice representing sharing communion with Christ. There is no one right way to observe the season of Lent—certainly not in this time of COVID where many of us are cut off from the regular worship and support activities that feed us.
This Lenten season I would like to offer a daily meditation, based upon one of the readings assigned for the day in the daily lectionary. I will admit up front this has as much to do with my own desires—the discipline of daily prayer and scriptural reflection—but in sharing it I pray it might be of some benefit to others. Perhaps the insights I arrive at will be different from your own, and that is perfectly fine. Together we can reflect on the season, the scripture, and the spirit.
The gospel passage assigned for today, Ash Wednesday, comes from the 18th chapter of Luke, a parable-or story-familiar to many.
"Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. 'Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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, I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. But the tax collector, standing for off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! 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."
The story of the publican and the pharisee—so named after the familiar words used in the King James version—is oft told. Jesus contrasts a tax collector who falls to his need in penitence with the Pharisee who sees no such need in himself. But before the story is even told, Luke tells us a detail or two that is worth our focus. The first is the word “some”. Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves. Not all. That is to say, not everyone in the immediate audience needed this bit of correction. While all of us are prone to, or capable of, this behavior, the parable is not a wide net spread over all. It is directed specifically to those who needed to hear it, which meant probably it was directed at those least likely to hear it. Sometimes we hear the words of Jesus and we immediately assume they are calling us out. Perhaps not. If we understand the words of Jesus—as he himself said “if we have ears to hear”—then we can be content in the knowledge that we are not reliant on ourselves for righteousness and we do not treat others with contempt. But many do.
It really is a contradiction, isn’t it. That we might consider ourselves righteous while having contempt for others, or looking down on others, or believing ourselves to be superior to others. By definition, our contempt for others places us outside of the realm of righteousness.
This is the substance of racism and all such forms of discrimination. If we are to being better than, superior to—then there must be the one who we are better than and superior to. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber addressed this in his 1923 book “I-Thou”. Buber’s thesis was that to be human is to be in relationship with others—not in a superior/inferior way—-which he referred to as I-It, but in a way in which we recognize the essential humanness of each other—which Buber contends is what brings us into relationship with God—the ultimate thou relationship.
It is important to note that Luke is framing this story not just as one in which self righteousness is condemned, but a very specific form of self righteousness… one that takes its identity from the dehumanizing of the other. Only when we first understand that our righteousness comes, not from our own glory, but from God in Christ, can we look at our fellow human and see clearly that before he or she is anything, they are a child of God, a sinner of God’s own redeeming. We are flawed, to be sure, and it is hard to resist the temptation to build ourselves up at the expense of others. Jesus calls us to something different. By relating first to him as the thou he takes us for, can we live in mutual love with the thous with which we share this earth.