The Bishop and The Bookie
I have been doing sermons by request, and what we have to think about this morning is the result of this note left under my door: “I have been so annoyed by self-righteousness among church people that for years I stayed home. Please talk about this.” Well, first of all, I thank this anonymous friend for a much easier assignment than I have had recently. What has bothered this questioner also bothered Christ, who composed a short story about it, one of those cameo pieces we call a parable — spoken, according to Luke, “to certain people who were confident of their own goodness and looked down on others.” One of the most famous of all the parables, it goes like this:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, the other was a tax collector.” Let’s pause to consider this cast of characters for a moment. The word “Pharisee” has a bad smell nowadays — partly because of this story — but for the most part they were highly respected citizens: decent, generous, patriotic, deeply religious. So, to give the story the shock value Jesus intended, let’s bridge the gap between his time and ours by dropping the word Pharisee and calling that character in the story “The Bishop” — goodness personified, white as snow, not a breath of scandal touching his life. The story is going to work itself out in terms of extreme opposites, because the other man is a Jewish Internal Revenue Agent, willing to do the nasty job of collecting taxes for the occupying Roman army — hated as a traitor to his own people, despised even more when he charges in excess of what the Romans require and sticks the extra money into his own pocket. We have no exact equivalent for him at the moment so I am going to call this unsavoury character “The Bookie.”
The Bishop stands up confidently, as bishops and priests and preachers are wont to do, and starts his prayer like this: “I really do thank you, God, that I am not like the rest of the world — greedy, dishonest, morally loose. I fast two times a week. I contribute ten per cent of all my income.” You almost expect him to smile as naively as a small child and sing the little verse: “I like me, I love me; myself I do adore; and every day, in every way, I love me more and more.” The Bishop is undoubtedly as good as he says he is, a more religious and a more generous man than most of us, and we can almost forgive him for feeling so good about himself, except for the moment in his prayer that gives him away. He doesn’t just remind God of what a terrific guy he is; he goes on to give thanks that he is not like the rest of humanity —which he heaps up together in a single large basket labeled “Failures.”. In other words, he is better than everyone else, standing like a tower of rectitude above the moral rubble around his feet.
By this time he should have felt deeply assured of his own superiority, but it seems that far down in some secret part of himself he has a doubt left. So he looks across at the Bookie who has dared to come into this place, and he does what we all love to do at times: he drags the Bookie on stage as a dark foil for his own gleaming whiteness. “To be specific, God, I’m glad I’m not like that Bookie standing over there.” For a few minutes, I suppose, he simply stands there and enjoys the thought of how much pleasure his good life must give to God. He doesn’t wonder at whatever brought the bookie into the house of God, or rejoice at the thought that perhaps this miserable man might be in search of a blessing. He doesn’t want to reflect on the advantages his parents and friends gave him, or on the sheer good luck that helped him find an honorable niche in society. He simply sets his virtues in the darkness of another man’s failure — a game you and I have played — and with that he is content.
Somewhere along the way, something has happened to this Bishop, so that his good qualities — by ever so slight a change — have become nauseating. The change in temperature at the moment when water freezes is so slight that only an instrument can alert us, but the result is obvious to anyone. The freezing point came into the Bishop’s life when he concluded that, damn it all, he really was better than other people. The righteous man has suddenly become the self-righteous man — the snob — and there is no justification for being snobbish. Not in anything — brains, taste, fashion — above all, not in moral superiority. Anytime you find someone who is snobbish about character, you have found a fraud — because snobbishness, all snobbishness, is a protective device to conceal one’s unconscious sense of insecurity. The snob is not content to list his own virtues. Like the Bishop he has to go on and list the failures of everybody else. He may go to the temple, pleased to be seen there, and pray with great ostentation, but while he appears to address God he is actually speaking only to himself. It is not God, after all, who needs to learn how good he is; it is the Bishop who needs desperately to convince himself. Now you can feel the force of that marvelously descriptive word Jesus uses when he says that this snob stands and prayswith himself” — not to God but with himself — a prayer that, like all self-congratulation, starts and circles and ends within the confines of his own insecure heart. It goes nowhere, but for a moment at least, it makes him feel good about himself — and he needs that.
The Bookie, on the other hand, stands over in a distant corner, hardly daring even to lift his eyes up toward Heaven, and with a physical gesture of despair he says, “God, have mercy on a sinner like me.” No hedging, no offering of excuses, no mitigating circumstances. Just honesty and need. He hasn’t brought even a short list of his good qualities. He would have had some, but in the presence of God they don’t seem worth boasting about. In that presence, he can only think how far he falls short of what he ought to be. And thank God, he doesn’t do that odd thing the religious sometimes do…..list their sins in great detail as if in some curious way they are almost proud of how diverse and creative they are! He cannot imagine that the great God wishes to hear such a list. In fact, somewhat embarrassed before the Almighty, he can’t imagine taking up God’s time at all except to say, “I’m not what I should be. Please be merciful.”
Once or twice someone has said to me that my pastoral prayers are too short. I tend to think they are more likely to be too long! I have never understood — will never understand — those ten and fifteen minute prayers I hear on occasion, when God is reminded of every crisis on the planet, just in case He has forgotten. You can hear presumption and arrogance in many of those prayers ….which may be why Jesus warned against them and said, “Slip into the closet and pray,” which I take to mean, “Public prayer is a great temptation to parade your eloquence, impress others, and forget your own embarrassing need.”
When the Bookie has said, “God have mercy on a sinner like me,” the story ends abruptly. In the deep sure tones of absolute conviction, Jesus says what must have staggered his audience that day. “I tell you, it was this man — this needy, desperate, longing Bookie, and not the Bishop — who went home justified in God’s sight.” You understand, of course, that these two men, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Bishop and the Bookie, are not typical. They are caricatures meant to shock audiences into new ways of thinking about the danger of self-righteousness and the rewards of humility. One of the fascinating things about the parables is that they keep repeating themselves. People really do get into churches and start thinking how much better they are than everybody else. And some outcasts and pariahs do occasionally yearn for forgiveness and a better life. This little diamond of a story calls on us to beware of pride, if we are Bishops, and to hope for mercy, if we are Bookies. It suggests that even in the most unlikely hearts and places there may be yearnings which rejoice the heart of God.
No one who saw it will ever forget what happened on the day George Bush, Vice-President at the time, represented the United States at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow. She stood motionless beside the coffin until seconds before it was closed, and then — just as the soldiers touched the lid — she performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: she reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest. There, in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong, that there was another life — represented for her by Jesus — and that this same Jesus might have mercy on her husband. She and the tax collector (the Bookie) of our parable this morning, are sister and brother across 2,000 years.
Our Bishop, the smug Pharisee of Jesus’ story, got caught up in the I’m-Better-Than-You-Are game. He chose to measure himself not by looking up to perfection, but down at a man obviously beneath him, and surely the main point of this story is that elevating ourselves by looking down on life’s failures will ultimately poison any virtue we possess. You need not be any more embarrassed than I am at what I say next, but this is why we enjoy gossip so much. I don’t mean idle chitchat in which, without malice, we wonder what others are doing, and how odd they are despite the fact that we really do love them. I mean that way we have sometimes of fairly sinking our teeth into people and getting a sensual pleasure as we whisper about their failures. There is no better way to forget the last look we had into our own dark closet than to flood with merciless light the disordered living room of somebody else. But it’s cheap, and it’s cheap whether it’s done crudely in a bar or a locker room, or by witty and sophisticated people in lovely homes. For some of us, that kind of gossip is the last perverse delight we give up on the way to Christian maturity.
The danger in holding up before God a list of our virtues is that we so easily forget how accidental some of them are. The plain girl who has not given herself cheaply or without love, and therefore prides herself on her virtue, might not have kept it if she had been beautiful and besieged. And the beautiful girl who prides herself on her friends and her successes might not have had so many of either had she been plain. The man who is accepted and secure and happy, and therefore not tempted to get drunk to forget himself, may have no idea of the weight of that temptation for another man in whose heart there is doubt that people really like him or want him around.
It’s mostly foolish to compare ourselves with each other at all, since our talents and opportunities are so different, but it is especially risky to elevate our opinion of ourselves by looking down on people who seem to us inferior. There is no quicker way to self-righteous smugness than by doing what I call “doctoring the target” so that we always make high scores. I read once about a Kentucky mountain man who built a great reputation for himself as a marksman. Whoever followed him found target rings on trees and fences, with a bullet hole exactly in the center of each one. Someone asked him finally to explain the secret of his skill. He said, “It’s easy. I just shoot and then draw the circle around the hole!”
If you sit and think about it for a while, as I did last week when I worked on these remarks, you may see a connection between that story and how we live our lives. We don’t have to publish all our misses; it’s painful and depressing for our friends to have to hear such a litany, in the first place, and it even becomes a strange, inverted kind of pride in some people who glory in their failures. But if it’s a form of gallantry to keep from inflicting all our failures on our friends, it’s a good and essential thing to have Somebody whom we do not try to fool, and some place — like this — where when we pray in those moments of silence we can be honest about how often we miss the mark. Or, if out of our fortunate home life and our supportive friendships and the advantages of good looks and good health, we really do hit the bullseye often, we can use our silent prayers to be grateful for the help we’ve had.
The Bishop in our story made the mistake of thinking God is a kind of celestial bookkeeper who was noticing that day in the temple which man’s moral life was in the black and which was in the red. He must not have heard the stories about the pure joy in heaven when a failed and hungry heart cries out for mercy and forgiveness. It was in that same temple that Jesus would forget the busy and self-important priests when some nameless woman made a sacrifice greater than any of them. Like her gift of pennies, the Bookie’s prayer is all he has to offer from a bankrupt life. It’s all he has to hold out in his crooked hands, but somewhere, Someone cheers. So should we.
Show us, gracious God, that being children of the kingdom means
we do not brood on whether we are worse or better than someone
else, but spend each day in gratitude for new dimensions of purpose,
grace, and dignity in our lives. Amen.