Luke 18:9 (NRSV) He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Phar'isee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Phar'isee, standing by himself, was praying thus, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 13 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!' 14 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."
This is the gospel lesson for Sunday...and as usual it seems especially poignant today. I was having a conversation with a friend this week. It started innocently enough, but soon it turned into a free for all. I inquired about another friend and asked how the two were getting on these days. I didn't realize the land mine I had stepped on. Before I could respond, she began to categorize all of the things she believed this other person was doing that were inappropriate, foolish or downright wrong. I think my jaw dropped open slightly at some point. I wasn't sure how to respond to her criticisms. I mostly listened interjecting to defend the other person on occasion. Perhaps some of the criticisms were valid, but mostly they seemed petty and insignficant to me. Though clearly they were serious concerns for her. Her message seemed to be, "Thank God I'm not like HIM."
I'm not certain what we do when our ability to convey a message becomes hindered. When we simply cannot reach the other with our intentions/our heart. Whether it's because of his or her baggage or our own, sometimes we lose the ability to effectively communicate with another person.
I think back to a time when my ex-husband and I really enjoyed one another. We would talk for hours. Politics, religion, life, love, all matter of things. In the beginning when I was still a student, I would drive to his flat on the weekends, and we would lie in bed for hours. Besides the sex there was always a commonality of ideas. We were gentle with one another, and we could disagree without it being dramatic.
Somewhere along the line life got in the way. We stopped really seeing one another. The fact that we had a history together seemed to almost complicate matters even more. Our conversations became stilted, forced. Our disagreements became occasions for silence or bitterness. I don't know what day things changed. Or what even precipitated it, I just know things changed.
If I think back on some of the other relationships that I've had, I can see the same pattern. And if I'm honest, I can see my own participation. Whether it be that I withdrew from the relationship because it became hard. Or that I struggled with my own feelings of inadequacy or my fear of intimacy. I'm not certain. Regardless the pulling apart happened. And oftentimes I stood, in my self-righteousness, and thought to myself, "at least I'm not like that person." At least I'm smart or liberal or open to new ideas or saavy or rooted in faith or... And of course I should be able to trace these thoughts to the beginning of the end. When the beloved becomes an "it" or an "other" it becomes easier to be critical. I know for myself that I become condescending, dismissive and distant. And at some point down the road, I seem confused about how I got there.
Therein lies the lesson. I'm fairly certain the gospel's tax collector didn't feel glorious when he walked away after baring his soul to God in the temple. He wasn't smug or self-righteous or even particularly pleased with himself. Rather, it says he "could not even look up to heaven." When we are our most vulnerable with others, our most honest, it often is hard to look the other person in the eye. But that moment is where true relationship begins. Suddenly someone's faults, whatever they may be, seem to be less serious and certainly can be overlooked in favor of love you feel for him or her.
I have found myself saying often in the past year that if we could just start with the premise that people mean well, that we could get much, much further down the road in our conflict resolution. Whether it's in my mediation practice or my life. If I can push aside what I think I know about someone in favor of simply believing for at least a few minutes that he or she has the best of intentions, I can really hear the other. And when I can hear him or her, I can love the person, for the person that he or she is.
And so what is the good news? That we can start anew each day with one another. No, I think it's better than that. I think the good news is that despite our differences, we can love one another anew each day. And that love means forgiving what we think is wrong or mistaken about the other person. Whether that person is a sinner who knows full well his or her shortcomings or a pharisee who will never admit wrongdoing - both of these are the beloved.