St. George’s United Church, October 23, 2016
Sermon: “Not Like One of Them”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
There was an article floating around a while ago on the internet. Posted and shared on various forms of social media. And the article’s title was something like this: “Supporters of Donald Trump Overwhelmingly Less Educated than Supporters of his Rivals.” Or, as another (less subtle) website put it “Majority of Donald Trump Supporters Have Low IQ’s.” Many continue to be shocked by this man’s continuing popularity, even in the face of ever-more outlandish policy suggestions and statements that seem to get more and more offensive. So there must be an explanation. Less education. Low IQ.
Now, I will say that as a follower of Jesus Christ I am no fan of Trump. I’ve made that clear a few times before. So I will also admit that when I read that article, a little shiver of glee went up and down my spine. Because all of my opinions felt validated. My own assumptions felt vindicated. But most of all, I personally felt justified. I felt like it was proof that I was on the right side of history. Because all of these other ignorant folks weren’t. But here I was standing on the moral high ground. Due to my seven years of university. And all my hard work. Justified, finally. Thank you, Lord.
You can imagine my disappointment, of course, when I came to this week’s reading and realized that Jesus once told a parable about me. Jesus told this parable, it says, to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt. Or, how Eugene Peterson puts it in more contemporary words: Jesus told this story to “some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance, and looked down their noses at the common people.” In other words, Jesus told this story to some people who were self-righteous. Reveled in their own goodness. And sense of self-superiority. Sounds familiar.
And this is the story Jesus tells them. Two different people head up to the Temple to pray. One’s a Pharisee. We’ve talked about this before… we only see the worst of the Pharisees in the Bible. Often they are portrayed as the villain twirling their moustaches with a damsel tied to the train tracks. But they’re generally good, pious people, people concerned with the spiritual insights of scripture permeating all life. People concerned with living good, ethical, and moral lives. Like a lot of good United Church folk, these people are concerned with justice for the poor and the oppressed. These people have a lot in common with Jesus’ social teachings.
The other one who goes up to pray, however, is pretty much the opposite. He’s a tax collector. Not your average Revenue Canada agent who we’d rather give us a bigger tax return. Tax collectors might be as bad as it gets. They shake down the poor for money. They have a quota they’ve got to meet, so they are using every trick in the book from blackmail to intimidation to meet it. The only thing that’s worse, though, than what they do is who they work for. They collect for the Romans. The occupiers. They funnel the cash and crops of the poor back to the empire. They are the Vichy French, they are collaborators. They’re dirt-bag bottom feeders. Whereas the Pharisee has a lot in common with Jesus. This guy has little in common with Jesus. If anything at all.
So they head up to the temple to pray, these polar opposites. And their prayers are as different as they are. The Pharisee finds the best spot. Alone in the spotlight, he stands up straight. He offers up a prayer of thanksgiving. “Thank you, Lord,” he says. “Thank you, Lord, that I’m not like other people. People who are dishonest, people who steal stuff. Or people who cheat on their wives. And especially, Lord, thank you that I’m not like this dirt-bag bottom feeder over here.” It’s easy to be better than this guy, really. But he’s not only better. He goes above and beyond. Gives way more of his money away than required. And he fasts, he abstains from food not only on special occasions. But twice a week. He practices a rigorous spiritual discipline and he’s in tip-top spiritual shape. He’s a good guy, doin’ good. He knows who he is. Thank God.
Funny enough, though, the Tax Collector knows who he is, too. The Pharisees right up and centre, standing right next to the baptismal font. And this guys off somewhere in the shadow, hoping nobody can see him. He’s on his feet like the Pharisee, but his head is hung with shame. He prays with his face in his hands. “God,” he weeps. “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” He knows exactly who he is. What he’s done wrong. And he lays it all out for God to see.
So we have a righteous man, a good person who is self-righteous. Looking down his nose at this unrighteous man, one who is able to look at his life with honest clarity. A liar and a cheat who is able to speak the truth with humility. And it’s the unrighteous tax collector, Jesus says. It’s the tax collector who goes home justified. Rather than the righteous Pharisee. The sinner goes home set right in his relationship with God. And the saint isn’t justified. He isn’t set right at all. Boom. Humble brokenness beats boasting righteousness.
One commentator says that we miss the point if we end up leaving church this Sunday thinking “thank God I’m not like this Pharisee.”[i] Like I said, always disappointing when Jesus has a parable directed towards me. But it’s not directed towards me. It’s directed towards all of us, especially those who deem ourselves as righteous, good people. We can be good, upstanding citizens. People who are intelligent, well educated. People who have our lives together and prospering. We can have all the right opinions. We can be for all the right causes. Who knows, maybe the article I read was right about the intelligence and IQ of Trump supporters. Who knows. We can be spiritual athletes, people who—like the Pharisees—not only take the good demands of God on our lives seriously. Maybe we might even go above and beyond on occasion. But we are always in danger of twisting the good in our lives. And turning the spiritual life into one big excuse for self-justification.
Because if there’s anything that makes us feel good and our lives justified in the eyes of the universe, or almighty God—it’s being better than other people. It just feels so damn good to be better than other people. In fact, what a lot of non-Christians would say one of the problems with Christians is that we are so self-righteous. That we are so intent on pointing out other people’s sins. That we become somehow blind to the fact that this itself is sin. Just like the Pharisee in our text. Not just cranky conservative Christians, but social-justice loving liberal ones, too. And non-Christians as well in their own ways. It’s all about ego. Which someone said once that ego—E.G.O.—stands for “edging God out.” For us and the Pharisee the spiritual life actually becomes a way to bracket God out. Because Goodness as well as living the spiritual life becomes about our privilege. Our moral high ground. Our self-justification. No need for God there.
So if following Jesus isn’t about finally having things figured out. Finally having the moral high ground, attaining spiritual superiority. What is it about, then?
To journey into the world of the scriptures, to journey into the parables of Jesus, to Walk the Way of Jesus Christ is a journey into the heart of God.[ii] But that journey begins with a journey first into ourselves. Not in a navel gazing, egotistical way. But a journey into the truth about the honest truth about our own lives. That’s the difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. He might be caught up in the deepest, darkest sin. But he stands openly and freely before God as he is. Because he’s able to trust in the life-giving mercy and grace of a loving God. Even while he’s in knee-deep. The Pharisee spends his time self-justifying. Holding up his own well-polished goodness to God. But the Tax Collector, is able to hold up the fragments of a good life. Trusting that God’s work is primarily a work not of handing out brownie points. But that God is already at work healing the common brokenness in all of God’s beloved creatures. From those of us who stand tall on our own goodness. To those who cower in the shadows of our own brokenness. Justified, set right, like a fractured limb by the grace of God.
This is the good news, friends. That the spiritual life, Way of Jesus Christ is not our way to get a leg up a ladder to the heavens. Or to get a leg up on others. It’s a way to come to terms with the darkness in ourselves. So it can be illuminated by the love of Christ. And we can carry that love to the world’s dark places. So I challenge you this week, friends. To accept Jesus’ challenge, and take this journey into yourself daily. To look at all the places where you self-justify, take a note of them. And offer them up in truth to the God already knows and sees you. And who accepts you as you are. Daily dying and rising. Holding up our brokenness so it can die with Christ on the cross. In order to be raised with him to new life.
We don’t make our way up to God in our goodness. But God makes her way down to us, where ever we are. God’s kingdom, God’s work in the world. It turns everything upside-down. May you leave this temple today, justified. May you leave today transformed by the unconditional love of God. With eyes and ears open, and a heart open to God’s justifying work.
For “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled,” Jesus says, “and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”
[i] See Joseph A. Fitzmeyer’s Doubleday commentary The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV.