Monday, October 24, 2016

We're Better Than That

Luke 18:9-14
October 23, 2016

“Oh Lord, I thank you for not making me like the Pharisee,
all self-righteous and proud of himself.
I thank you that I am humble
and Christ-like in all I say and do.”

It’s hard not to end up putting ourselves
above the Pharisee when we hear this parable.
I mean it’s easy to get that the point of the parable
is that the Pharisee was wrong because he was
not humble about his righteousness.
So if we could just have more humility
The Pharisee and the Publican
James Tissot, 1894
then we will be better than the Pharisee..

So being humble is just another task in the check list.
One more thing that we can remember to do
as part of our religious practice to make us
the best Christians ever.

Now, if all Jesus was talking about was check lists
then the Pharisee would win with or without
being the trophy for most humble.

Jesus was at odds with the Pharisees in the New Testament,
but they didn’t actually do bad things.
By religious standards, they were very good.
They were not fundamentalists,
They were not horribly authoritarian.
They had dedicated their lives to God.
They were enthusiastic for teaching the Word of God.
If they were Christians,
they would be considered “Good Christians”.
Good, dedicated church leaders.
Actually models of the Jewish community.
And Jesus doesn’t say that this Pharisee
was lying to God when he enumerated
his own good deeds: fasting, tithing.
Those were all extra-credit items on the check list.
Just to make sure.

On the other hand,
Tax collectors were not good guys – religiously or otherwise.
They weren’t just IRS workers who had an unpopular job to do.
Tax collectors were Jews who
were employed by the Roman government.
And their job was to get money from
other Jewish people.

They only made money when they got more
than what was required of the taxes,
so they did it by extortion, offering protection.
They were like the Mafia going around
making offers you can’t refuse.
They were the slimiest of slime balls of the time.
Terrible by any stretch of the religious imagination.
And this one probably didn’t tithe and fast.

And yet, he is the hero of this parable.
Jesus is not saying, Be a good person,
but be humble about it.

The problem with the Pharisee is not something he does.
it’s his whole mindset.
Yes, he is trying to sell himself and his good deeds
before God (which is kind of pointless when you think about it
because doesn’t God know everything?)
He’s trying to say that he’s done enough to earn God’s love.
That is obvious.

But the real problem is the result of that.
In the process of selling himself,
he feels the need to put down other people.
He claims his righteousness by giving demerits
to those that do less than he does.
“I thank you that I am better than those
Thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors.”

This is the inevitable by-product of lifting your
accomplishments up, you compare yourself to others.

Now, we all do this whether we like to admit it or not.
It’s a very human thing to compare yourself to others,
and build yourself up by putting someone else down.
We may do it in subtle  ways, we may not say it out loud.
And maybe we’re not using words like thieves and rogues,
but maybe we’re thinking,
“at least I’m not that spoiled rich kid,
or at least I’m not racist like that person.
or at least I’m not person who over dosed with her kids in the car.”

We know a lot about this now in this election time,
Candidates make an art of building themselves up
by tearing down their opponents.
It creates a divide that seeps into the rhetoric of their supporters too.
“At least I’m not like those democrats,
at least I’m not like those republicans,
at least I’m not like those republicans or democrats,
because I’m an independent voter.”

And the division doesn’t just end in words.
This week, there was a Republican campaign office
that was firebombed in the middle of the night in North Carolina.
And last week, in Virginia, there was a Trump supporter
who stood outside a Democratic campaign office
with a shotgun for 12 hours trying to intimidate workers.
And we can’t say:
at least I’m not like those violent people.
That just adds to the division.
They’re just playing out our division to its conclusion.

For humanity, the route between
“at least I’m not them”
and violence has been pretty short.

And throughout the ages, religion has been
a reflection of this rivalry.
There is a right way and a wrong way and the right way
is the way that we have been taught to do it and
and if everyone would just get on board with our way,
it will all be fine and beautiful and God will reward us.
Any other way is impure and wrong and downright dangerous.

In Christianity, it happened right away
in the rivalry between Paul and Peter and other factions,
We saw it in the battles in the early church
around the creeds and condemning heretics.
And we saw it in the church’s treatment of Martin Luther
(and Martin Luther’s treatment of other factions, by the way.)

When religion is mixed in,
our rivals become the enemies of God.
it becomes about the purity of the faith,
your lack of orthodoxy or commitment is
a threat to me and to my relationship with God.
if we can’t convert them, we best get rid of them.

Extremism starts with the statement,
“At least I’m not like that one over there.”
The Inquisition, The Holocaust, Slavery
all started with comparison and division.
Building ourselves up by tearing others down.
But Jesus says in this parable:
We don’t earn points with God by giving
demerits to everyone else in the world.
What Jesus is proposing
is not about earning points with God at all.

When the tax collector prayed, he said,
“God, be merciful to me a sinner”

It wasn’t the content of the Tax Collector’s prayer
that Jesus was praising in this parable.
It was the content of his heart that Jesus praised.
He knew that he was not better than another person
he was sorely aware of his shortcomings and sins
and he went to God for forgiveness.

For all his terrible doings as a tax collector,
this man did not look down on rogues or thieves,
he knew he was no better than them.
With this prayer, he would not be comparing
his acts of righteousness
with his neighbors, he would not be
judging the orthodoxy of another person.

The tax collector opens himself up to God’s mercy.
Completely revealed and vulnerable,
and honest, completely trusting in God and not himself.
He doesn’t need to put down thieves and rogues and Pharisees.
For all the bad he’s done, he doesn’t create a divine
division between him and anyone else.

The hero of this story is not the religious figure in the story.
Jesus tells us now that the model of our faith -
the one we should look up to and honor and emulate
is the slimiest of slime balls, the tax collector.

The hero of the story is not the religious figure
because Jesus did not come here to
bring us another religion, another set of tasks
in order to bring us closer to God.

Jesus is actually trying to pull our whole
religious rug out from under us with this parable.
Jesus is trying to take the do’s and don’ts
of all our old time religion away from us
because it really hasn’t been working to God’s ends.

Jesus didn’t come to us to bring us religion.
Jesus came here to reveal to us a God
who loves us, who will never leave us,
not one we have to prove ourselves to.

And he came to heal the divisions between us,
to stop rivalry and leave us
without scorn for our brother or sister,
no matter who they might be.

Jesus didn’t just come to bring us new rituals and rites of worship,
He came to show us that we are all joined
to the tax collector and to the Pharisee
in so many different ways.

Jesus didn’t come to create a new religion,
Jesus came to create the kingdom of God.

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