From Luke’s Gospel:

Jesus 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 far 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.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 8:9-14 (NRSV) – November 24, 2012)
Lieutenant Cable and Liat from "South Pacific"Although from a modern perspective, the prayer of the Pharisee is rather bigoted, but we should try to see it from his perspective and from within his culture, which Jesus shares. When we do so, we can see that Jesus is not criticizing the individual, but rather condemning an entire system of religion which divides and categorizes people. Jesus is denouncing any system, religious, social, or political, which separates people on the basis of bigotry and fear.

We know that from the early Second Century some rabbis taught that every Jewish man was obligated to recite three blessings daily, and it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that these, or some earlier version, were in use in Jesus’ time. These three blessings express gratitude to God for one’s status or position through negative comparisons with others. The man blessed God that God had not made him a gentile, a woman, or a slave (or, alternatively, a boor). Modern scholars call these the “blessings of identity.” They may not have been universally required prayers at first, but we know that by the Fifth Century they were part of Judaism’s most authoritative teaching, The Babylonian Talmud, and at the end of the first millennium they had become part of the preliminary prayers of the Jewish daily morning service. So, again, it doesn’t take much imagination to think that perhaps Jewish men were saying something similar in the time of Jesus.

And they weren’t alone! Such divisive, negative, comparative thanksgiving was not and is not limited to the Jews. Thales of Miletus (d. 546 BC), traditionally the first of the Greek philosophers, reportedly gave thanks to Tyche, the goddess of fortune, “that I was born a human and not a beast, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a barbarian.” Similar sentiments have been credited to Socrates (d. 399 BC) and Plato (d. 348 BC)! Scholars have wondered whether the blessings of identity might actually be of Greek origin, a bit of Greek philosophy that was “Judaized” and crept into the Jewish morning prayers by the First Century.

Whether of Greek or Jewish origin, it is this sort of divisive thinking that Jesus condemns in today’s Daily Office gospel lesson, not merely the self-congratulatory, self-righteous, and fine-tuned religious conceit of the Pharisee. It’s not pride that Jesus denounces; it’s bigotry. Paul would be the first to understand this well and spread Jesus’ gospel beyond its Jewish origins. To the Romans he would write, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” (Rom. 10:12) To the Colossians, “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11) And famously to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) A modern 20th Century hymn familiar to all Episcopalians picks up the strain:

In Christ there is no East or West,
in him no South or North,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

In him shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find,
his service is the golden cord
close-binding all mankind.

Join hands, disciples of the faith,
whate’er your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
in him meet South and North,
all Christly souls are one in him,
throughout the whole wide earth.

(Words by John Oxenham, 1908)

The Jew praying in the temple was doing only what he’d been taught, but that is the nature of bigotry. Bigotry, prejudice, fear and hatred of the other are not natural. They have to be taught. There’s a short, little remembered song from the musical South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sung by the character Lieutenant Cable as he struggles with whether to marry Liat, an Asian woman with whom he has fallen in love, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught may be the most powerful song of the show:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Well . . . this is getting a bit long for a simple morning meditation, but the point is that Jesus isn’t simply comparing two individuals and saying one is better than the other. That would be no different from the divisive prayer he condemns. Jesus is denouncing a religious system, any system, that builds up some at the expense of others. Better to stand before God and acknowledge who we are, and where we fall short of God’s expectations, than to enlarge ourselves through negative (and most often wrong) comparisons with those who are different from us. To do either, however, requires that we be taught to do so. You’ve got to be carefully taught.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.