Psalm 65:1-13; Luke 18:9-14
There was a period in seminary where I began to get worried. I was pleased with my journey into the church, and I loved my studies. But the more I read the Bible, particularly the gospels, I started to think to myself, “I’ll never live up to Jesus’ teachings. How can I possibly preach the messages and lessons of Jesus if I myself was not fully living those out? I’ll be a fraud. What am I going to do?” Thankfully I mentioned this concern to one of my mentors, and I got an answer that was both surprising and anxiety reducing. This person said, “Trevor, you don’t have to live out of the spiritual heights of Jesus to be a preacher. You can teach from and through your own brokenness”. My own brokenness? “Yes”, said my mentor friend, “if you speak about and from your woundedness and brokenness, it will allow others to open to their own brokenness too. And then God can begin healing”.
This was a startling notion to me. I had come to Christianity through the world of New Age spirituality and people seeking enlightenment. I’d been on long retreats and sat at the foot of so-called spiritual masters. Many of who turned out to be abusive gurus, but that’s a story for another day. Basically I’d been in spiritual communities where everything was about aiming for the highest spiritual heights, nondual awakening, liberation from samsara, Zen Suchness, people blissing out on the Power of Now. But now I was hearing a different story. Yes, strive to love God with all of your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. Those are good things. But let’s not fool ourselves that we’re not all broken on some level. We’ve all had difficult childhood’s and family relations and life struggles that leave us less than whole, less than the transfigured Jesus on the top of Mt. Hermon. And that’s totally ok. It’s when we admit to this woundedness that we’re able to heal. We open to God’s healing mercy.
This is how the theologian and priest Henri Nouwen puts it in his book The Wounded Healer- “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not “How can we hide our wounds?” so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but “How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?” When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.
Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed. Jesus’ suffering and death brought joy and life. His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love. As followers of Jesus we can also allow our wounds to bring healing to others” (1).
In our parable from Luke’s gospel today, Jesus teaches about the possible pitfall of spiritual pridein the religious life, and how it can get in the way of our relationship with God. How it can block us from humility and God’s healing grace. As usual with Jesus, so much is said in so few lines. The opening line says, “He told a parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”. Jesus obviously has some disciples or some followers who are getting big heads about how spiritually fit they think they are. And they’re prone to turning up their noses at the less evolved plebs around them. So Jesus has a little story for them. He says, “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and one a tax collector”. We know these two characters from other places in the gospels. The Pharisees were a sect of Jews who were very strict about religious observance. They took the laws and rituals of their religion very seriously, and practiced them diligently. The name Pharisee means “separated one”. “They separated themselves from society to study and teach the law, but they also separated themselves from the common people because they considered them religious unclean” (2). Tax collectors on the other hand were Jews who collaborated with the Roman Empire, and they were greatly disliked for it. They were seen as, and often were, dishonest cunning and crooked. So these are the two people who walk up to the temple to pray.
Jesus says, “The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I’m 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’”. The Pharisee stands alone. He doesn’t want to be close to anyone beneath him, like that dirty tax collector over there. And notice how he uses so much I language. I thank you, that I’m not like other, I fast, I give my money. He’s basically saying, God, look at how awesome I am. Aren’t I great for keeping all the rules? The Pharisee probably did fast twice a week, no small feat, and he probably did tithe ten percent of his money, which is laudable. But he’s still got a big puffed ego as he relates to God. Jesus then says, “But the tax collector”. The word but showing us that Jesus is a making a distinction between the two. He says, “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!” And then Jesus says, “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 tax collector can’t even stand close to the temple he’s so ashamed. And he won’t look up at heaven either. He’s beating his breast, which was a sign of anguish in the culture of that time. The man is anguished, saying God have mercy on me, for I’m a sinner! And he probably was. The tax collectors stole from people, they took bribes as a matter of course. Who knows what this guy’s been up to. But he’s sincerely asking God for mercy, admitting that’s he’s a broken sinner. And Jesus says that it is he who is justified by God, which basically means it’s the tax collector who’s now in right relation with God. It is he who is now the recipient of God’s mercy and grace, not the Pharisee with his puffed up self-image.
One of the lessons here is that we cannot earnGod’s grace. We can only meet God in humility, ask for mercy, and then accept the free gift of God’s grace and give thanks. We can serve on nine committees, say a thousand Hail Mary’s, pray for hours at dawn, bring food to the homeless, and none of that will matter to God if we do it without a humble and merciful heart. In the gospel of Matthew Jesus accuses the Pharisees of looking the part on the outside, but not on the inside. He says, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt. 23:27-28).
Spiritual pride is a real danger, and I saw it a lot in the spiritual communities I moved through during my twenties and thirties. There was a lot of what’s been called spiritual bypassing. I looked up the term this week, thinking that it might relate to what Jesus is talking about in the parable, and there was a remarkable overlap. The term spiritual bypassing was coined in the early 80’s by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. Welwood says this about it- “When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it…Being a good spiritual practitioner can become what I call a compensatory identity that covers up and defends against an underlying deficient identity, where we feel badly about ourselves, not good enough, or basically lacking. Then, although we may be practicing diligently, our spiritual practice can be used in the service of denial and defense” (3).
Spiritual bypassing is when use our spiritual practice to create an inflated self-image that lets us bypass the messier sides of ourselves. That let’s us deny and suppress things like shame and negative self-image, or the crumby things we’ve done to others. We float up into a “look at me, I’m so spiritual or righteous or enlightened” bubble, and all kinds of important healing and therapeutic work gets left behind as unnecessary. And as I discovered along the way, few things are more toxic to spiritual communities that a whole pile of suppressed pain, trauma and wounding. It all seeps out somehow, and a lot of the communities I was around eventually became poisonous and destructive, despite all of the well intentioned people within it.
I also looked up the phrase “spiritual narcissism” this week, to see what was out there, and found an article on the topic by Doug Todd of the Vancouver Sun(3). In that piece spiritual narcissism is defined as, “The unconscious use of spiritual practice, experience, and insight to increase rather than decrease self-importance. Spiritual narcissism makes the spiritual quest a self-aggrandizing process rather than a journey of deepening humility”. There are all the same themes again. It appears that our Pharisee was a bit of a spiritual narcissist. This can really block our connection with God, as Jesus understood long ago. And it’s still a possible pitfall for any of us today. And our culture doesn’t help with this problem either, with our obsession with selfies and self-image and self-promotion, all spurred on by social media. How many Instagram accounts are there of beautiful people doing yoga poses in beautiful places? There are a lot of them. The trap of spiritual narcissism is an easy one to fall into.
There’s good news in all of this though. Which is that a life lived in intimate relationship with God doesn’t require that we read all of the church fathers, or meditate for thirty days in a cave, or do the perfect downward dog on a Caribbean beach. Jesus says that if we approach God with honesty and humility, and without any expectations or excuses, we’ll be forgiven. If we just say, “Here I am Lord, warts and all. A sinner. Someone who has done things I regret. Things I’m ashamed of”. If we do that, if we’re honest with God about our failings, we’ll immediately be connected to God’s healing grace. God’s mercy will rain upon us. Our brokenness and imperfections are not something to be ashamed of, or to be hidden away from others. We don’t have to have it all together. If we humbly bring our woundedness into the light, and put it before God, we’ll be healed. And we’ll open space for others to begin their own healing process too. We’ll become wounded healers. And if that forgiving mercy is open to even the tax collector, then it’s open to all of us.
I want to finish today with one of those great rabbinic stories. A story is told about a man who asked his rabbi why people couldn't see the face of God. What had happened that they could no longer reach high enough to see God?The rabbi, a very old man, had experienced a lot in his life and was very wise. "My son," he said, "that is not the way it is at all. You cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low. How sad this is, but it is the truth. Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and stoop and you will be able to see God face-to-face”. (4) Those who humble themselves will be exalted. They will be raised up into the light. A beautiful paradox at the heart of the gospel. Let us all accept the gift of God’s mercy, and be merciful to others.
A transformed earth awaits us.
May it be so. Amen.
(1) The Wounded Healer. Henrinouwen.org https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/the-wounded-healer/
(2) ‘Who were the Pharisees in the Bible?’ learnaboutreligions.comhttps://www.learnreligions.com/who-were-the-pharisees-700706
(3) Douglas Todd. ‘Spiritual narcissism works in subtle ways’. https://vancouversun.com/news/staff-blogs/spiritual-narcissism-creeps-in-quietly