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Raise your hand if you’ve ever played the game Chutes and Ladders (or Snakes and Ladders). They’re basically the same game. Snakes and Ladders originated in ancient India. The British brought it to Europe in the 1890’s. Milton Bradley began selling it in the United States in the 1940’s as Chutes and Ladders.
What’s the best way to win Chutes and Ladders? Can you control the outcome? (No)
It’s kind of funny that in the Victorian era this game was used to teach morality. Good actions were depicted on the squares with ladders, and bad actions on the squares with snakes or chutes. The implication, of course, is that doing good things will bring you up in the world, and bad things will bring you down. But if the game is being played with the rolling of dice, then it’s fairly random whether one goes up a ladder or down a chute or snake and isn’t based on actions at all. Which is sort of like grace. We cannot earn it. We cannot be good enough to receive it or bad enough to lose it.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a story to certain people who thought that they were righteous and who looked on other people with disgust. Like the game of Chutes and Ladders, this story has some ups and downs. It says, “Two people went up to the temple to pray.” They went up because the temple was built on top of a hill.
In the parable that Jesus tells, the Pharisee seems to have a different understanding of grace. He’s praying in the temple, listing his accomplishments. ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ (Luke 18:11-12)
In other words, “God, thank you for making me better than other people.” It’s the opposite of saying, “there but for the grace of God go I.” Or bragging that “I am the most humble person in the world.”
We often have negative views of the Pharisees, but they were respectable religious leaders who zealously preserved God’s covenant by practicing holiness as dictated in the Torah: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19: 2b). In their view the best way to keep that covenant relationship with God and be holy was by separating themselves from all that was unclean. The word “pharisee” means “separated one.” That’s why the Pharisee boasted in his prayer that he has rigorously kept the law of holiness by separating himself from anything that might have made him unclean.
Tax collectors on the other hand were generally despised as traitors because they worked for the Romans and commonly made money by collecting more than the Romans required.
So Jesus is flipping the common views of Pharisees and Tax collectors upside down. If the Pharisee and the tax collector were both game pieces in Chutes and Ladders, then they’ve both gone up a ladder. They’ve both gone up to the temple to pray. That’s a good thing. They’re both seeking God in prayer.
But the Pharisee hits a chute and slides back down when he assumes that he’s the righteous one and looks with scorn on the tax collector. According to 18: 9, Jesus’ parable targets those who regard others “with contempt.” Luke uses the same verb to describe Herod’s mockery of Jesus (23: 11). When we treat people with disrespect, we deny their human dignity before God.
It can be really hard to change how we think about people. Elizabeth Blackwell, MD (1821-1910) wrestled with this reality when she wanted to become a doctor, something women didn’t do in her time. Nobody believed a woman could or should be a doctor. She was the first woman to receive a medical degree, but she was refused admission to ten medical schools before she found one that would accept her. The male students thought she was just there as a prank. Even with a medical degree, it was difficult to find people who would accept her as their doctor. “In 1857, she co-founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children to serve the poor. The hospital, like the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary she created in 1867 and many other efforts, was also intended to support and encourage women hoping to pursue careers in medicine.”
Why didn’t people think women could be doctors?
Maybe the Pharisee was also stuck in thinking only those who follow all the Levitical laws can be good, and that everyone who works as a tax collector is bad.
If someone in authority tells us something, we tend to believe it, even if it’s a fallacy. For example,“ Kaplan, the big test-prep company, once warned students to ‘exercise great caution if you decide to change an answer. Experience indicates that many students who change answers change to the wrong answer.’ …But a trio of psychologists conducted a comprehensive review of thirty-three studies, they found that in every one, the majority of answer revisions were from wrong to right.” Their research disproves what’s called the first-instinct fallacy.
Once we believe something, it’s hard to change. What would happen if we dropped a frog into boiling water? It’ll jump out. What if you drop the frog in lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature? The frog will die because it lacks the ability to rethink the situation, and doesn’t realize the threat until it’s too late.
Guess what? It turns out it isn’t true. Tossed into the scalding pot, the frog will get burned badly and may or may not escape. The frog is actually better off in the slow-boiling pot: it will leap out as soon as the water starts to get uncomfortably warm. It’s not the frogs who fail to reevaluate. It’s us. Once we hear a story and accept it as true, we rarely bother to question it.
My husband Rob says the problem is solved by putting a lid on the pot.
According to psychologist Adam Grant, “part of the problem is cognitive laziness… we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones. Yet there are also deeper forces behind our resistance to rethinking. Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.”
I think we have to trust God to walk us through this. God doesn’t change, but our understanding does.
Grant points out that “Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent and ever-changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”
We can see how that would be hard for the Pharisee who was so focused on keeping the law. But as Paul points out in his letter to the Romans, “For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.” (Romans 3:20)
Paul goes on to say:
21-24 But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ. (Romans 3:21-24 MSG)
Through God’s gift of Jesus Christ, and through his death and resurrection, we are set free from the guilt of our sin. Believing doesn’t make us better than others.
Grace is a pure gift. It cannot be earned. By the free gift of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus who sets them free. Romans 3:24 GNT
All. But if all means all, what about what Jesus says in verse 14: “I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee.” On one of the translation discussions I found online, there were questions about whether the verse could instead say that the tax collector was justified alongside the Pharisee. The word “para” can mean both. The verse that follows doesn’t really answer that question, but simply encourages us to be humble. “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” (Luke 18:14)
But our need to belong and be accepted, along with our survival instincts, makes it very easy for us to favor a group we are part of over another group. We might find ourselves thinking that those who shop at Dillons are better than those who go to another grocery store. Or that those who go to church on Sunday are better than those who don’t. Or that those who are in a particular denomination are better than those in a different denomination.
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13: 2). In other words, our religious observances and practices should make us humble before God and more loving toward others. It should not push us away from other people but rather draw us closer to them, whether they are saints or sinners.
Look around you at the people in this room. Family, friends, people you know well, some you barely know, or maybe are seeing today for the first time. Every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us does or says things that hurt ourselves, other people, and God, whether we mean to or not, whether we realize it or not. Look around again. Every one of us are people that God loves. “God made us and knows them, even the awful things they do, and God loves them. When we are honest with each other and with God about both the awful things we do and God’s love for each one of us, things work out OK.”
You’ll never meet anyone that God doesn’t love.
 Artist: Jesus Mafa, 1973 https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu//act-imagelink.pl?RC=48268
 VANTHANH NGUYEN, SVD in Long, Thomas G.; Long, Thomas G.. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (p. 423). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 VANTHANH NGUYEN, SVD in Long, Thomas G.; Long, Thomas G.. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (p. 422). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash
 Grant, Adam (2021-02-01T22:58:59.000). Think Again (loc 48). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Photo by Jeremy Foster on Unsplash
 Grant, Adam (2021-02-01T22:58:59.000). Think Again (76). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Grant, Adam (2021-02-01T22:58:59.000). Think Again (loc 64). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Grant, Adam (2021-02-01T22:58:59.000). Think Again . Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 VANTHANH NGUYEN, SVD in Long, Thomas G.; Long, Thomas G.. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (pp. 423-424). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.