October 23, 2016
Pentecost 23, Year C
Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
In an episode of the sitcom Cheers, everyone is sitting around the bar, as they often were. Norm is commenting on how bad he’s feeling about himself, at which point Cliff enters into the conversation, saying something that has nothing to do with anything – something that makes no sense to anyone. The initial response to Cliff’s comment is a brief moment of awkward silence – followed by Norm leading the others in an enthusiastic round of, “We’re not Cliff! We’re not Cliff! We’re not Cliff!”
As was so often the case with that particular Sit Com, the writers were using humour to point out a common pattern of human behaviour. That is, we often enjoy recognizing the shortcomings in others, largely because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Norm, in that moment was feeling terrible about himself, but in highlighting Cliff’s limitations he was able – all of a sudden – to feel better about himself.
In his book ‘Repenting of Religion’ Gregory Boyd talks about this human tendency within the context of the Christian mandate to love God and each other. He talks about sitting in a mall on a Saturday afternoon, quietly studying people as they pass by. He notices that some are pretty and some are not. Some are slender; some are obese. On the basis of what they wear, their facial expressions, the way they relate to their spouses, friends, or children, he concludes some are “godly” while others are “ungodly”. Some give him a warm feeling as he watches their tenderness toward their children.
But suddenly he notices that he is guilty of noticing all this – and making judgments based on what he thinks he sees. So after thinking about this for a moment he realized that it was on some level making him feel good/better about himself. It was in a sense feeding him. It was satisfying some need of his to stand in judgment over other people. Deep down, he realized that he actually enjoys being the one who at least before the tribunal of his own mind gets to pronounce the verdict: Pretty. Ugly. Good figure. Not such a good figure. Godly. Ungodly. Disgusting. Cute. And so on.
And then, with this insight he recalled that Jesus taught wherever we go, our first responsibility is to bless people. He recalled – in particular – the teaching in at least a couple of the epistles - which point out our mandate to think and speak evil of no one. And instantly he was convicted by how many unkind thoughts he had been entertaining without even being aware of it; and how natural it was for him to think in this way.
During the past few months, and increasingly over the past few weeks, much of our time and attention has been devoted to the dynamics around the U.S. election. We have been shocked and dismayed to discover the recording of one particular candidate making unthinkable comments about women. We have been shocked and dismayed over that same candidate’s racist remarks. We have been shocked and dismayed over so many things that have unfolded with this particular candidate throughout the election campaign, and long before this campaign began. And, certainly, shocked and dismayed are reasonable – and appropriate - responses to much of what we have seen and heard.
At the same time, though, I think there is a part of this dynamic which makes us feel superior. I can think of all sorts of reasons why this situation is newsworthy, but I wonder if perhaps – at least in part – we long to hear such news because it makes us feel better about ourselves. I mean, after all, whatever sinfulness for which I must repent – I’m not nearly as bad as that particular candidate. And not only that, I have been feeling within myself, and hearing lots from others, which suggests that in Canada, we are feeling that much better about the country in which we live because our neighbours to the south are currently in such turmoil. There is something intrinsic about the human condition where other people’s failings make us feel better about ourselves.
So, our Gospel this morning tells a story that highlights some of this human behaviour. It tells the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector standing in the temple to pray. The Pharisee – standing by himself – prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income!” If he was sitting around the bar with the characters on Cheers, he would be leading the others in a round of, “I’m not them! I’m not them! I’m not them!” But the tax collector, standing far off would not even look up to heaven, was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And the story ends with the realization that it was the tax collector who returned home justified; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
A few points in this story are worthy of particular attention. First: It is important to recognize who Jesus is addressing as he tells this parable. Luke suggests that Jesus directed this story/parable to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I think this backdrop is critical to the story, because a brief glance at church history along with this present time suggests that Jesus has needed to challenge the church in particular with the message in this story. I have participated in numerous General Synod gatherings (that is the once every three years gathering with representatives from throughout the Canadian church), and even more Diocesan Synods where I have heard self righteousness exemplified in numerous ways. (This past Synod there were multiple reports of such behaviour.) Whether we’re talking about political or environmental concerns – or the endorsement of new liturgies – or the rewriting of the marriage canon to include the LGBTQ community – or whatever – we hear voices from both sides of the argument clearly believing that they have discovered the way that is good and faithful and right – with a clear assumption that those others are somehow lesser in the eyes of God. And then, the really devastating moment comes when I realize that my thoughts in these moments make me guilty of the same sin I’m recognizing in others. Indeed, self righteousness can only lead to regarding others with contempt.
Secondly: Notice the distance between the two men. The Pharisee stands by himself; the tax collector stands far off. Self righteousness – judging others – regarding others with contempt creates divisions between people that absolutely oppose the unified way in which we are called to live. And that’s not just as Christians – but the whole of humanity – despite and maybe even because of our differences.
The third thing I need to highlight is the surprising way in which everything is turned upside down with the punch line of this story. Pharisees were considered to be very, very good, Scripture abiding people. The Pharisee’s virtues are highly valued. He not only obeys the requirements of the law but goes beyond the requirements of the law in his righteousness. He would have been regarded as a model of piety.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were assumed to be very, very bad; they were considered to be the primo models of sinfulness/ poster children of sinfulness. They were in cahoots with the much hated Roman authorities. They collected the resented Roman taxes, often over-charging, pocketing both the fees they earned and the excess they essentially extorted.
So, the contrast between these two men makes all the more surprising Jesus’ verdict – the man considered to be very, very bad returns home after worship justified, made right with God, reconciled with God, but not so with the Pharisee.
So what is it that allows the tax collector to become reconciled with God? Well, it is his own humble, sincere recognition and acknowledgement of sin. It is the recognition and acknowledgement of sin that directs a sinner toward God.
And truth be told: we are all sinners. We all stand together at the foot of the cross. Naming our sin brings us without pretense before God and ready to be redeemed; ready to be made right with God.
The tax collector displayed a genuine contrite heart. He recognized his own sin and he recognized God’s merciful nature. The tax collector’s capacity to confess his sinfulness was the result of his recognition of the gift of God’s Grace. God’s mercy inspires our own repentance and brings us into a right relationship with God. As we know God, we come to know ourselves, and in honest humility we find ourselves “justified”. And this is why Jesus says that the tax collector “went home . . . justified.” He did not achieve justification, nor did he justify himself; he was justified by God, the only one who justifies humanity.
Our first reading this morning was that powerful passage from Joel which Peter cites in his great Pentecost sermon in Acts. This great message of hope, according to Peter, has been fulfilled by the work of the Spirit in the church. And this gift has been made possible by/through Jesus. As we stand before him confessing our sins in honesty and truth, we meet him on the cross. And as we return home justified, that is, made right with God, we share in his resurrection. We share in all the new life and new possibilities that come with forgiveness.
As Gregory Boyd began his day sitting in a mall feeling qualified to make judgments about those who were passing by, he then chose to stop himself (in that moment) and choose to have one thought, and one thought only, about every person he saw in the mall on that afternoon: it was to love them and bless them as people uniquely created by God who have infinite worth because Jesus died for them. Whatever they looked like, however they were behaving, whatever their demeanor, he simply agreed with God that each of them has infinite worth. He just simply chose to love them.
As he replaced judgmental thoughts with loving thoughts and prayers of blessing, something extraordinary began to happen. He began to see the worth he was ascribing to people, and he began to feel the love he was offering them. As he ascribed worth to people, not allowing any other thought, opinion, or feeling to enter his mind, everything within him seemed to change.
He would suggest that in that mall on that afternoon, for that moment in time, he was experiencing the heart of God. He suggests that it felt like finding home after having been lost for a long while. It was like waking up from a coma. It was like discovering for the first time undiluted truth. He also suggests that this moment of unconditional, non judgmental love also led to compassion. In that moment, leaving judgment behind, he sensed on a profound level the loneliness, the fear, the pain, and the emptiness of many people he had observed. In that brief moment, he had a deep sense of what it is to participate in God’s love.Since then, he has become convinced that the central goal of the Christian walk is to learn how to abide in this place, to remain awake to this truth.
Well I am convinced that this was the purpose of creation right from the very beginning. It is the most fundamental reason why each of us exists. Scripture calls it “abiding in Christ”. God’s desire is for us to participate in his own eternal love and life and therefore in his own eternal joy and peace by dwelling in the Son. We are to dance with the trinity in the joyful celebration of this eternal love and life.
Gregory Boyd confesses that he has not yet learned to dwell permanently in this place, though he is learning how to visit it more frequently and for longer periods of time. I pray that each and every one of us may grow continually in God’s Grace which makes abiding in this blessed place possible.