By Casey FitzGerald.
Last Sunday I came home from a long day at church to find my family watching the second presidential debate. It is a favorite family pastime that debates on screen are accompanied by debates on the couch. On that particular night, voices were raised a little louder than usual. Accusations flew across the room. Hyperbolic statements were plentiful. Steam may have actually come out of my ears. I think we spent ten minutes arguing about who was less open-minded. Clearly, we have not mastered our debate skills.
That Sunday night, the division of the nation was made manifest in a smaller way in my basement. By comparison to what is often borne out on television and the internet, our conversation was loving and tame. We seem to be witnessing a normalization of vitriolic and abusive language.
Leading up to the debate last week, we heard Donald Trump speak about his sexual aggression toward women, followed by his attempt to pass it off as “locker room” talk. The old “boys will be boys” excuse, played out on the national political stage. I was not shocked by the language or that it came from Mr. Trump. We have heard him speak callously before, not just about women, but about African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, and refugees alike. No one is immune to his verbal attacks. Mr. Trump is not alone in his speaking. His patterns of speech have unveiled and unleashed the anger of many. Word by word we are divided. The level of civil discourse has plummeted, and it is hard not to descend with it.
How did we get here? How did we become so callous, so angry, so unable to see each other? How did we become so divided? Who benefits from this division?
Into this divided and often vitriolic atmosphere comes the gospel of Luke and the stories of Jesus.
Jesus uses storytelling is used to communicate truth. The often prophetic act of storytelling points us to deeper truths about God and humanity and hints at what might be. It invites us to find ourselves within the narrative, and provokes us, if we let it, to transcend our own narratives so that we might join God’s larger work–join the narrative of the kingdom-coming, unveil the kingdom that has already drawn near. Some of us will be comforted by these tales, but more often than not, their aim is not to comfort, but to provoke and invite. So when Jesus tells this story to his disciples, his aim is not to school them on temple etiquette, nor to build the case against the Pharisees, but to hold a mirror up to them. Jesus aims to show us the real divide: the divide between the world that is and the world God intends for us. And yes, the division is deep.
Our story is centered on two characters, a Pharisee and a tax collector. Two men, gathered in their shared house of worship, praying two very different prayers. Jesus notes that the Pharisee stands alone. He prays, ‘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’ (18:11-12). The Pharisee should be thankful! He is right to give thanks that he has been trained to live a life that is so focused on God and good works. Far away from this Pharisee, the tax collector beats his chest, hangs his head in shame and says his prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” The tax collector is also right to pray for God’s mercy. As my friend and scholar Dr. Richard Swanson points out: “The tax collector is correct to identify himself as non-observant. He is, in historical fact, a traitor to his family and his faith.” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke, 217)
We have no indication that either of them go home and change their patterns of behavior. It is not a change in behavior that Jesus lauds. The sin of the Pharisee is not the thanksgiving/bragging itself, but the distance he puts between himself and the tax collector—both people of God. The Pharisee stands alone, by intention. Swanson continues, “The Pharisee’s fault is a simple one: he submits (surprisingly) to the Roman colonial scheme by fracturing the people of God. He sees only the separation between himself and the tax collector, which is precisely what the divide-and-conquer regime needs him to see” (218).Who benefits from this division? The powers and principalities. The anti-other systems. Not the Pharisee. Not the tax collector. Not the kingdom.
The tax collector, who in this temple scenario is made an outsider, confesses. He is a sinner. He has missed the mark, turned away from God. In his moment of confession, he turns back. What would it look like if we all took the posture of the tax collector? There is a time to give thanks, to be sure, but in this divided time, perhaps it is time to confess. The call to confession should especially resonate with those of us that hold the power and privilege, with those of us might stand to benefit from a land that is divided, from a lack of shared interest and power. What might we have to confess?Jesus’ stories always provoke, but they also invite. This story stands as an invitation to be connected in our thanksgiving and especially in our confessing. Let the confessions begin in our homes: in the places we live, with the people we love. Let them continue in our places of worship. Let the confessions be made public such that they might reshape local and national discourse. With confidence, let us confess and receive assurance—even when we turn from God, God is faithful still.
One chapter earlier, Luke tells us that Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming. He answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” Perhaps the kingdom of God will draw near one conversation at a time. May the kingdom of God be among us, in our confessing, in our speaking, in our listening.
Bible Study Questions:
- Where do you see healthy confession taking place in your midst?
- Tell a story of a time you felt heard and known. What do you think gave you a sense of being known?
- Is there a particular aspect of the election rhetoric that has upset you? Rather than speak about what someone else said, speak about why you connect with the issue. Practice using “I” statements as a way of connecting rather than dividing.
For Further Reading:
- Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary by Richard W. Swanson
- Waking Up White by Debby Irving
- “How Racism Explains America’s Class Divide and Culture of Economic Cruelty” by Tim Wise
Casey FitzGerald is a Presbyterian pastor and Master Biblical Storyteller serving in Northern Virginia. She has her B.A. in Religion from Colgate University, M.Div. from Princeton Casey 5Theological Seminary, and her Master Certification in Biblical Storytelling through the Academy for Biblical Storytelling and is a member of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. She has performed biblical stories and led workshops in various settings including churches, seminaries, and national conferences. Casey believes that a return to the oral tradition of sharing the stories of God is essential for the formation of disciples now and in the future. Through her blog and podcast, Casey encourages all to learn and tell the stories of God. Check out her podcast, Story Divine, to hear biblical stories and storytelling prompts for the week ahead.
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