along the wilderness trail
In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus tells a little story about two men standing next to one another praying in the temple. The one man is an upright citizen, a devoutly religious man. The other is an outsider, a public sinner who lives at the margins of accepted society.
The righteous man utters a long and loud prayer thanking God that he is not like the man standing next to him. The upstanding citizen reminds God of exactly how righteous he is - he says his prayers, follows every aspect of the law, gives money to the temple. He is the "poster boy" of what it means to be on the "right" side of God.
The sinner, the outcast in the story, stands next to this righteous man and he simply lowers his eyes asking for mercy.
As I reflect on it, this tiny little parable is jam-packed with shades of meaning, and it delivers a wallop to "anyone" listening to it - cleverly exposing a darker side of the human condition.
I have heard this story hundreds of times, and it always has the same effect on me. I listen to the arrogant rantings of the righteously religious man and it infuriates me. I think about how many times I have seen this scenario played out over and over again in my own life experiences.
I think of how many times in my life I have heard those long and loud prayers uttered by righteous religious people directed against the "sinners"standing next to them in life: Gays and Lesbians, divorced people, women who have had abortions, foreigners, liars, thieves, atheists, and those who have rejected the church: "Thank God I am not like those people- I say my prayers, I follow the law, and I'm on the 'right' side."
The thing is that a parable like this is cleverly told to have many shades of meaning. The story invites the listener to insert themselves into the plot. So, of course whenever I have heard this story I have always played the role of the humble sinner with eyes downcast while the righteous "do-gooder" rails on next to me.
But this morning, as I read the story over again, the little parable worked its magic on me, and I suddenly realized that I could just as easily be in the role of the righteous man - the one who is on the right side of things looking down my nose in judgement at the bums standing next to me. In fact, I know lots of people who think like me, and believing they have the moral high ground, sit in judgement against those on the wrong side.
I can almost hear myself lifting to full stature, chest puffed up, saying "Thank God I am not like those redneck simpletons who refuse to welcome immigrants or embrace same sex marriage. Thank God I am not like those war mongers who see tanks and guns as the solution to the world's problems. Thank God I am an honest man, I don't cheat, I'm not a thief. Thank God I am not like those others standing next to me."
The magic this little story has worked on me today was to remind me that, while I can be very clear about how I see the world, while I can also be unabashed about what I think is right and wrong, I cannot nor should I ever sit in proud judgement against those who I perceive to be standing next to me on the "other" side.
This little story reminded me that we all have our failures and our flaws and no one has the right to look down on anyone else:
The Buddha taught:
The faults of others are easier to see than one's own; the faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one's own faults are hard to see.
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own. Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Friend, let me take the speck out of your eye?..You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye.
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