I mostly enjoyed my weekend at the abbey. I loved the remoteness and hard beauty of the land. I loved the chanting of the Psalms at Vespers and Compline. But the preaching, not so much.
I woke up early on Sunday morning and figured I’d check out mass since I dig ritual and it had been years since I had sat through a Catholic Mass. I’m good with all of the up and down, bow and straighten, genuflect and sign of the cross stuff. I even do some of it because I like the way it feels. But when it came time for the homily (sermon), I rankled.
The priest chose to talk about a story in Luke which concerned a pharisee and a tax collector and the differences in how the two pray. As a lead-in, he had told an amusing anecdote about overhearing part of a cell phone conversation and then proceeded to teach that context is important to understanding what you hear. So, to better understand the parable, he said, it is important to know that, between the pharisee and tax collector, the latter was, in principle, the lesser of two individuals because the tax collector exploits his own people. (How this is not also true of pharisee in Jesus’ time and place, I’m not clear.)
Now, if you’ve studied the socialist perspective on history and theology, you’ll immediately know why I rankled. “Tax Collector” is pretty much a euphemism for “Money-Grubbing Jew”. And, boy, if we are going to talk about “telling the whole story”, then let’s talk about how, historically, nobody wanted the job of tax collector (since these folks were hated by the people) and it was typically Jews (trying to avoid being crucified, sold into slavery, or exiled from wherever they were allowed to live at the moment and trying to preserve some of the self-rule autonomy promised to them by said rulers) who settled for roles in the ruler’s administration or were able to set up businesses in the merchant class (thanks to their culturally valued education in math, reading, writing). Once this less-than-perfect relationship was set up, the ruling class would send the Jews out to do the dirty work and then encourage the working class (who, in the time of Luke’s writing, would have been the poor, mostly illiterate sots ruled by the Roman Empire–basically all of Europe, Western Asia, North Africa, and down into Egypt) to focus their resentment on the Jews, deflecting it away from themselves.
We don’t talk much about anti-semitism in America these days. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still lurk in our psyches. In fact, I’d venture to say that it is more buried than our racism because at least with our racial bigotry we know better than to mouth off with racial slurs or act overtly racist (at least in public). However, I still hear friends–people I otherwise respect–use phrases like “Jew someone down” or make reference to a person’s Jewish heritage when the topic of their greediness comes up (as if that really explained anything). My jaw drops open every time.
Why do we Gentiles so often assume that Jews are characteristically manipulative, duplicitous, and greedy? I’ve heard it said (or left unspoken) that they do seem to be preoccupied with money so therefore their character must be the reason for the behavior? But this is not so different than saying that people on welfare are inherently lazy. Or that black people have poor self-control. Where do we get these ideas?
Too often a group of people is blamed and persecuted for a behavior that they were forced into by circumstance. That is the essence of the machine of oppression of any sort. (You can see the same dynamic with women in the Old Testament: They are often forced to react to circumstances that could have been prevented by their husbands or kings (i.e., the actors with real power) and then, when less than ideal circumstances yield less than ideal results, they unfairly suffer the blame.) By any of us presuming, as the pharisee did in the parable, “[we are] not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:10), we set ourselves apart from outsiders, from the parable’s tax collector who “stood at a distance” in prayer.
Now, to their credit, Luke (or rather the two individuals that are historically considered to be the author of Luke) and Jesus, who he is paraphrasing, point out that those who think themselves above others will get the smack down and it is the truly humble who will come out alright in the end. But until we openly talk–especially in our churches, temples, and mosques–about how we (or rather our ancestors from whom our bigotry was passed down) could easily have behaved the same in the unsavory individual’s position in order to survive, and how it is each individual’s responsibility to overcome the tendency to burden a vulnerable group with the carrying of our own unsavory tendencies, then these little errors of omission, like the one in Sunday’s service, take with the left hand what insight they give with the right.
That priest taught more by counterexample than by his words. And I learned that, until the Church’s day of self-reckoning, I’m likely better off standing “at a distance”, away from the temple, doing my most sincerely to be humble and protecting the awe and grace I naturally experience in my conversation with the divine from any who would propose to co-opt it from me by way of insufficient mediations.