Getting Right with God (and everyone else): A sermon

When we read this parable (Luke 18:9-14), we are automatically prejudiced against the Pharisee. In fact, Luke turns us against the Pharisee in his introduction to the parable. Luke says that Jesus told this to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt (18:9).

Right off we judge the Pharisee as bigoted, judgmental, exclusionary, self-righteous, condescending, and so forth. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Pharisees function somewhat symbolically or representatively of toxic religion or legalistic religion in general. So, we immediately distance ourselves from the Pharisee.

In the original setting, when Jesus first told this story, this would have been reversed. The original hearer would have favored the Pharisee and been biased against the tax collector.

We read the story as if the tax collector were a good guy; just someone who got caught up with the wrong crowd, while the Pharisee is a pinch-nosed snob. But it would have been very different for the first hearers.

We could think of the Pharisee as equivalent to a Baptist minister who preaches God and country, or for that matter, a Methodist or Presbyterian minister (let’s spread this around). This is the outstanding citizen who wants to do good for the community and genuinely thinks God is on his side.

The tax collector is a traitor. Think about who tax collectors were in that day and time. They were Jews who decided to join up with the oppressive Roman government against their own people in order to make a buck. Popular opinion was that they sold their souls to the Devil. They made money on the backs of their Jewish sisters and brothers. They were collaborators in the oppressive regime of Rome.

If the Pharisee is the minister who cares about the country, the tax collector is the guy who sells national security information to the highest bidder. And he does this, not because of some ideological principle or belief, but simply to get rich, to acquire possessions, position, and power.

The minister, on the other hand, is glad to be a worshiper of God and thankful to be able to keep God’s commands. He is thankful that he has not given in to the greed that would motivate a traitor to sell out his friends and family to the enemy. The minister thinks, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The minister does not take credit for his piety; he gives God thanks for his capacity to worship and serve God.

It should be obviously clear that the minister is the good guy and the traitor is the bad guy, right? But then in a stunning reversal, we read that it is the traitor, the greedy scoundrel who leaves the synagogue “justified”—that is, in right relationship with God.

What happens? The traitor, this reprehensible sinner, has a kind of “aha” moment and realizes how despicable he has been.

We have a tendency to read stories like this and create “in” groups and “out” groups. A common way to approach a story like this is to identify with the tax collector, while we distance ourselves from the Pharisee. We tell ourselves that we have nothing in common with the Pharisee and then we say, “I thank you, God, that I am not like that.”

We do this all the time in one way or another. I do this, too, even though I know better. In the recent political debacle of the government shutdown and coming right up to the edge of the debt ceiling it’s easy for me to look at people like Ted Cruz and judge them harshly, to distance myself from them and talk about how crazy they are.

You may have noticed that our governor has recently been on headline news for the work that he has done with Kentucky Connect. He recently told CNN that the Kentucky Exchange is signing up 1000 people a day, that people who never had health coverage are now able to get coverage, that the health exchange in Kentucky is working and is a gold standard for the rest of the country. People who support Affordable Health Care are pointing to Kentucky saying, “Here’s how it can work.”

In that same segment, CNN interviewed congresswomen Renee Ellmers from N.C. who completely ignored and dismissed everything Gov. Bashear said and keep insisting that Affordable Health Care is “a failure at monumental levels.” The CNN reporter, who was hard-pressed not to show her frustration, said to her: “But you are discounting everything that the Kentucky governor is saying. Instead of sitting down with him and saying, governor let’s talk and figure this out together. . . You’re discounting what he has to say outright.” The only thing Congresswoman Ellmers could say in response was: “You’re getting awfully angry about this situation.”

I have to admit to you that when I listen to political representatives say things like that and when I listen to people like Ted Cruz, my first thoughts are, “Thank God, I am not like that.” But then, I have to ask, “Am I not being just as dismissive as the Pharisee in our story?” Am I not rejecting such people outright when I categorize them as crazies and judge them?

So, what can I do? I can approach life with a more inclusive faith. If I approach life with a more inclusive faith then I have to acknowledge that I share in the failure, I share in the human condition that creates such obstructive and diminishing rhetoric. I am part of the problem. And Ted Cruz is my brother and Renee Ellmers is my sister, no matter how much I might dislike what they are doing. We are one people, we are all children of God.

And so we come back to the story. Who is put right with God? Not the minister, but the traitor. How is it that the greedy scoundrel is made right with God, while the good minister is not? How did that happen?

What kind of faith, what kind of interior posture, disposition, orientation, and change can put the most disliked and hated person in right relationship with God and make possible healthy, holistic, healing relationships with others and our planet?

To use traditional language one could say that it is the faith and humility that acknowledges and admits that we are sinners, that we have a sinful and selfish bent that brings about the change. And while that is true, the problem in describing it like that is that for many of us who have grown up in church and heard those words used over and over again, such language has little or no meaning for us.

So let me try to put this in more contemporary terms. Justifying faith—the kind of faith that puts us right with God and each other—is the kind of faith that recognizes and admits our complicity in oppression and injustice. Some people are more complicit than others, some people are greater sinners than others, but we are all culpable, we are all at fault, we are all complicit in injustice.

Remember the story of the rich man who lived in luxury while the poor man was reduced to begging at his gate. I am the rich man, and so are you. Remember the story of the prodigal who without regard for the father took his inheritance and left home, squandering it all through selfish living, thinking only of himself. I am the prodigal, and so are you. Remember the elder brother, who was bitter and angry and resentful when his father killed the special calf and threw a party when his younger brother came home. I’m the elder brother, and you are too. Remember the warning Jesus gave to those who would cause a little one to stumble. I am the offender, I am the one who causes the little one to stumble and so are you. Even though I preach and work for restorative justice, I have to admit that I am complicit in the injustice of our society, and so are you.

Episcopal priest, Martha Sterne, tells about being in her local county Domestic Court as part of the mission of the Ecumenical Council to have a clergy presence there, and this was here day to serve. Mostly, she says, she just sits and prays. It’s so very chaotic. Trials get set time and time again. Victims don’t show up, either because they don’t want to prosecute or are scarred to prosecute. People sit in little clumps scattered around the room, and after a while it becomes apparent which clumps are furious with the other ones. She says that it is a difficult place to gather a lot of hope for the human condition.

This particular morning, the head public defender approached the judge with some papers and said, “Your honor, I hate to bring this up, but Mrs. Smith called me and she said she was kind of wondering why she was still in jail after you said you’d let her out. And I checked around and it looks like you put the wrong case number on the discharge papers.”

The judge looked at the paper and looked at the lawyer and frowned a very cynical kind of frown, and said, “Well, now let me tell you that I am just mightily sick and tired of having my mistakes brought to my attention.” Isn’t that a great line: “I am mightily sick and tired of having my mistakes brought to my attention.” I can understand that, can’t you?

It’s hard, sometimes, to face all our failures and faults and shortcomings. It’s easier to ignore them. It’s even harder to admit our complicity in injustice because we are all caught up in unjust systems and after all, we are just doing what everyone else is doing right?

We are all somewhat like the drunk trying to walk a straight line. He looks down at the line right in front of him; it’s so simple really and he’s so intent on doing it right, but he staggers all over the place.

We stagger. We can’t find our balance. Our vision is skewed. We don’t think straight. We can’t make our actions conform to our will. We don’t want to be complicit in injustice, but we can’t help it. The current we are caught up in is so swift and fast, we are just swept along and we don’t know how to get out.

Sometimes our vision is so skewed that we become grateful for our complicity. I came across this little cartoon by David Hayward titled: The fault with default Christianity. It’s a take on the prayer of the Pharisee. A man kneeled over very humbly prays: “O Lord, I want to thank you that I was born in the west and not some other God-forsaken place, and that I was able to become a Christian by default. I’m thankful that I don’t have to think hard about what I believe. I can accept without a second thought everything that’s fed me, and that I can support the status quo with a clear conscious without interrupting my comfortable way of life. You’ve made me what I am today without any effort on my part. I haven’t had to think, question, or change a thing, and for that I am truly grateful.”

I am not a proponent of what some call “worm” theology. I don’t believe we have to wallow around in our wretchedness. I don’t think we have to keep blaming ourselves and punishing ourselves to the point that we think ourselves no good at all or that would cause us to withdraw in timidity and self-contempt.

I believe that original blessing is more important than original sin. That as God’s beloved children we have the potential to be divine image bearers, we have the potential to overcome our biases and prejudices, we have the potential to overcome our meanness and ugliness and nurture compassion and cooperation. We may do evil, but that’s not who we are. I believe that we are first of all God’s daughters and sons and have the potential to do much good.

But if we are to do much good, then we have to realize and admit our involvement in that which is not good, we have to see and perhaps in some real sense “feel” how our complicity in injustice has hurt others.

The parable only tells us about how this traitor gets right with God. That’s where the story stops. But if we wanted to add another segment to the story, we could write it. We could go on and tell how the tax collector went out and made amends, how he got right with all the people he took money from and cheated, we could tell how he did right by all the people he oppressed and made life hard for. We could write that chapter to the story, because once he became aware, once he became enlightened, once he became open to the mercy of God and once he received that mercy, then he would have extended that mercy to everyone else, because that’s how it works. The humility, honesty, and repentance that puts him in right relationship with God is the same humility, honesty, and repentance that puts him in right relationship with everyone else.

If he had not extended the mercy he had received to others, then he would not have really received it to begin with. He may have presumed he received it. He may have convinced himself he had received it. But if he had not extended that mercy to others, then he would not have been “justified.”

Gracious God, we are so blind to our own sin, our own complicity in evil, to the many ways we are swept and carried along by our biases and prejudices. Help us to see the ways we have been complicit and still are complicit in systems of injustice. Help us to see the ways we have been dismissive and condemnatory of others. Help us to be aware of our propensity toward exceptionalism and elitism and classism and all the others isms that are so life diminishing and deadly. We are so prone to divide the world between the saved and the lost, and we don’t realize how lost we are and how much we need saving. We fail to realize how much we need to grow and change. Help us to nurture the kind of faith, honesty, humility, and compassion that puts us in right relations with you and every one and every thing else. Amen.


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