Sunday, October 27, 2013

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

All I really need to know I learned in a cave.

Or perhaps, all I really need to know my ancient ancestors learned while living in a cave. Well, that’s not quite true either. Fun fact for today: our ancestors didn’t actually live in caves, it just happens that caves better preserved some of the things our ancestors left behind, including bones of themselves. There you have it, a halloween reference.

So let’s listen in while our forebears become the proud cavepeople who developed righteousness, but were not quite evolved enough to stop using the sexist term ‘cavemen.’

“Wait a minute, look at these fantastic berries!”
“No, no, those are bad berries.”
“Bad berries? How could they be bad? Look at them!”

“Yes, very bad. Imagine eating them and then spending the afternoon in a small room that hasn’t been invented yet.”
“Steady on! (ancestors were British) How do you know they’re bad?”
“Everyone knows they’re bad berries. Feeding these bad berries to your family makes you a bed person. Village rule says ‘only evildoers touch the berries of badness.’”
“Makes sense to me.”

Righteous, we learned as recently as this past week in our book study, is an important part of being human. Jonathan Haidt argues it is part of our evolutionary design: that righteousness developed in order to help us survive. And if you don’t like thinking about the latest ideas in moral psychology, you can go old school, because that works too. Listen in:

“Did God really say ‘eat any of the delicious fruit you find in the garden, except for the apple tree over there?”
“Yes, snake, he did. And if we eat it, we will surely die.”
“You’re not going to die, Eve my dear. You’ll actually gain righteousness, the knowledge of right and wrong. And then there was something about childbirth, but I can’t remember just now.”

So you see, whether you are a Darwinist or a Creationist, the need to be righteous was pre-planned, and an aid to our survival, from both bad berries and talking snakes. And if righteousness is good, then it must follow that self-righteousness is good too. But first, a definition:

According to, self-righteous is an adjective that means, “confident of one's own righteousness,” (so far so good), “especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” Again, we say ‘steady on,’ but it gets worse. goes on to give us a couple of synonyms: sanctimonious and pharisaical.

Presuming you’ve left your tablet at home, sanctimonious means “making a hypocritical show of religious devotion” and pharisaical means “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit.” Who knew that could simply write a sermon for you?

Needless to say, we dictionary readers may not want to appear self-righteous. What logic tells us might be a good thing, Jesus and the dictionary tell us is as bad as the berries from cave days. I’m going to posit a theory that the dictionary authors must have been hanging out in the worst kind of churches, but first Luke 18:

Jesus tells a tale of two men, one a religious authority and the other a tax collector: they go to the temple to pray. The religious one prays: “Thank God I’m not like this tax collector and all the other sinners; I fast and I tithe.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, the tax collector won’t even look up to face God and says “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus gives a summary, but we already know which one is truly righteous.

Or do we? You see, if we could add a third character to the parable, let’s call him ‘the preacher,’ you might see him running down the centre aisle shouting ‘wait, reader, it’s a trap!’ And he would be right. We might smile and nod and understand that we are the truly righteous ones like the tax collector, but the minute we do it we run the risk of becoming the Pharisee.

To recap: by judging, we are judged. By not judging and feeling good about it we are judged. Judging or not judging, we have fallen into a trap whereby the moral place we find ourselves begins to resemble a funhouse mirror rather than the certainty we crave. And we’re not the only ones who are confused, if you look back at

Whenever you read “smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others” or “making a hypocritical show of religious devotion” you might just be reading someone who’s been to church. Not this church, of course, but some other church where the worst excesses of self-righteousness are present.

Imagine the only family reunion we’ve had since the last big funeral, and my cousin (one of the religious ones) is avoiding me all weekend long until the very end of the last day when she comes to me and says: “You’re United Church, aren’t you?” Yes I am. “And your church ordains gay people, doesn’t it?” Yes, we do. “I thought so,” and she walks off without another word.

Now you see, I’ve fallen into the very same trap. Convinced of my cousin’s destructive self-righteousness, convinced of the correctness of my church’s position, and just now convinced that righteousness does more dividing than bringing together. Is there another way?

The answer, as always, is Jesus. Jesus gives the most important words to the tax collector who says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We think we must be the friendliest church in the village: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

We must be doing the most effective outreach and helping the most people: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

We must have the very best denomination with all the best official positions: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Luckily for us, God is merciful and overlooks that very human tendency to feeling smug about ourselves and the people we hang out with. God is willing to overlook the very human tendency to create tribes and tell everyone our tribe is the best. And God is especially willing to overlook these tendencies amount the most religious, because we just can’t seem to help ourselves.

Back in the day when the United Church was preparing for a major ad campaign under the banner of Emerging Spirit, the organizers began by polling people to discover how they perceived the church and church people.

The answer was clear and overwhelming: church people are self-righteous, intolerant, think they have all the truth, and generally not-so-nice people. The next question? Have you actually ever been to church? The answer, for the majority, was no. See, I’m doing it again, always judging, but at least this time I’m doing with the help of scientific poll data.

I’m supposed to let you chew over all of this over lunch and not give you ‘the bottom line,’ but I guess I just can’t help myself. Blame the talking snake. We are burdened with the knowledge of good and evil and we have to live with it whether we like it or not. But we must always live gently with this knowledge, both because we may sometimes be wrong, and because we may sometimes be right. Wrong makes us foolish and right makes us self-righteous, and neither is good. God help us. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home