I just returned from a week long trip to Nairobi where a group of us traveled to visit the work of our Street Psalms colleagues with The Center for Transforming Mission – Kenya.
On the second day, we participated in an an Islamic/Christian interfaith dialogue where they were discussing the question, “Who is my neighbor?” This discussion of the “neighbor” was rich with meaning for each group, both theologically and practically, as they gathered to seek peace on behalf of the community they share.
The notion of “neighborliness” or lack there-of, sheds a little light on today’s passage.
Who is Justified?
Everything the Pharisee said about himself may have been right. It was, after all, the unique vocation of Pharisees to set themselves apart by their faithful observance of the law. He perhaps was justified in thinking what he thought about himself. Where he went “wrong” was when he compared his righteousness to that of the tax collector. He went wrong when he passed judgement.
The Pharisee and the tax collector are different people. Each one stands differently in prayer before God. They pray for different things. Their attitude in prayer is different. One prays as they judge the other, and the other prays, acutely aware of his utter brokenness and need of God.
Obviously, the parable teaches us the importance of humility demonstrated by the tax collector, but it goes further to show us that there is no merit in judging ourselves in comparison to others.
To not judge ourselves in comparison to others is extremely difficult. Sometimes, the only way we know we are “right” is when we judge and compare ourselves against others; our opinions, our strongly held views, our values. The binaries of “right-wrong”, “good-evil”, “us-them”, etc. define who we are. We have difficulty opening space for “others” especially if we feel like we will become diminished in that process.
In subtle and not so subtle ways, we believe that being “right” means someone else must be wrong or be made “othered”. Our sense of “rightness” is over and against others.
I am more right than you/them.
My values and beliefs are right – not yours/theirs
My culture is right – not yours/theirs
Our way of life is right – not yours/theirs.
Our country is right – not yours/theirs.
Our religion is right – not yours/theirs.
Do you see how this works?
Rivalry rooted in a false sense of right-ness convinces us that we are not “neighbors” but enemies. Every waking moment of our lives is filled with the temptation to judge others, and to compare ourselves. The tax-collector shows us that we are invited to resist rivalry and to consider our common frailty and brokenness before God.
Neighbors – Not Enemies
When we were preparing to visit the interfaith dialogue, we were told that this gathering isn’t broadly well-received. Though they’ve been meeting weekly for 10 months, there are still questions about what is happening. And it’s not always safe either. There is usually a security detail assigned to their meetings. Countering rivalry is not intuitive and it usually creates a measure of doubt and distrust.
Both sides came holding their sacred texts in high regard but not against the other. They agreed that they would not try to convert the other. Their goal was to listen and to learn and to seek understanding on behalf of their community.
Resisting the temptation to claim their position and sense of “rightness”, they instead opened space for God. This modeled for me a courageous “neighborliness” that is rooted in mutual respect and humility.
These are “enemies” coming together as “neighbors” to imagine peace, while under suspicion and even the potential threat of violence. They are countering the narrative of rivalry and discovering a third way of being human through their common love for their community.
I saw a glimmer of resurrection hope and promise that morning. Real community is being formed – enemies are becoming neighbors. And their neighborhood conversation centers around this one holy question: “How do we seek the peace of the community we share?”
May God continue to bless their efforts!