Sunday, October 23, 2016

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.”

Two people went up to the temple to pray, one a Canadian and one American. The Canadian prayed “Thank God I’m not American, too many Trump supporters, nativists, xenophobes. We have Justin and his ‘sunny ways.’” But the American stood off at a distance and prayed “Lord have mercy on us and save us from this election.”

Two people went to the temple to pray, one a sailor and one a power-boater. The sailor prayed “thank God I’m not a power-boater, the price of gas, the pollution, the awful noise.” The power boater stood off and prayed “Lord have mercy on me for the noise and the pollution, but I can still have fun when there’s no wind.”

Two people went to the temple to pray, a Torontonian and someone from somewhere else. The Torontotonian prayed saying “thank God I’m from the precise centre of the universe (except when I’m at the cottage). And anyone from anywhere else says “Lord have mercy on me if I have to face Toronto traffic.”

These things seem to write themselves. Luke gives us the formula and Jesus gives us the best example, and then you proceed from there. Hearing Luke’s opening (“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else”) most of us can’t help but have a flush of recognition: “I know that person!” There’s usually someone we know, even if that someone is us.

So what is it about life-on-earth that lends itself so neatly to self-righteousness? On one level, it’s seems a natural extension of being intentional. People who make choices in life—what they do, where they live, what they eat—tend to put some care into those choices. And having taken the time, develop a sense of comfort or even pride in the way they live. Confronted by others, those who make other choices or those who live without choices, there is a general tendency to feel superior.

As a matter of fact, those who study conflict in congregations (but not this congregation, of course) discovered long ago that when you analyze the source of most conflict in congregations it usually comes down to preference. Old hymns versus new hymns, cookies versus squares, west versus east, and so on. Conflict specialists (yes, they exist) tend to spend much of their time in congregations sorting through what is preference and what is a real conflict.

But beyond the tendency to feel superior in our choices, there is self-righteousness. Now, self-righteousness is tricky, because on the surface at least it ought to be a good thing. If righteousness is good (and being righteous is being good) then being self-righteous (confident in your goodness) ought to be good too. Right? Well, no, it’s not. And Luke tells us why.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.” Luke is reminding us that one inevitable lead to the other. Confidence in your own righteousness tend to become looking down in everyone else. And that’s the soft version. In the King James Version we get a much more literal translation from the Greek: “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” We should use the word ‘spake’ more often. O that we spake the word spake, friends.

And despising is what the Pharisee did. He literally says “thank God I’m not like other people” and gives us a bit of a list: “robbers, evildoers, adulterers” and then he makes the fatal mistake. He looks around and he sees a tax collector and adds him to the list. This is more or less the point he crosses over from confidence to despising everyone else, and Jesus puts the cherry on top: “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would’t even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Now our friend the Pharisee might try to do some backpedalling, maybe say ‘yeah, but everyone hates tax collectors,” but it’s too late. He took people that are easy to condemn and he added someone that requires a bit of context. He took people that are easy to condemn and he added someone else who was in the temple, someone who also felt the need to pray.

Interesting people, tax collectors. Then, as now, tax collectors are agents of the state, charged with the unenviable task of getting everyone to so something that no one wants to do: pay taxes. In the Roman world, the tax collector was more of a private contractor, returning what Rome required and keeping whatever other monies they could squeeze out of the people. Hence the hate. But despite this, or perhaps because of this, tax collectors has a special place in the heart of Jesus.

He truly was about the least and the last, the ones the world hates most, and top of this list were tax collectors. And perhaps because he took the time to eat and drink with tax collectors, to get to know their stories, to understand that at least some lived with regret, he placed one at the centre of his parable. “The healthy are in no need of a physician” (Mark 2.17) he said, after being asked specifically why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners. And thank God for that. The minute we begin to judge others, we go from self-righteous to sinful, and then we’re the ones in needs of Jesus.

Soon we will stop talking about the mess south of the border (“Believe me” as someone famous might say). But today there seems to be an important bit of context that is missing from the story that ought to be told, both so we can pin the blame where it truly belongs and also so we can begin to feel for the people trapped in a mindset not entirely of their own making. It begins in 1994.

In the months before he became Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich sent a memo to fellow Republicans with the rather sinister title "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control." In it, he offered words and phrases that colleagues could use to bolster their brand while denigrating the other brand.

So for Republicans, he suggested words like “common sense, freedom and prosperity.” And when describing the other side, he suggested “bizarre, corrupt, or pathetic” along with a long list of others. If I said “Greedy liberal traitors betray and steal from you while self-serving unionized bosses protect the status quo” I would be using words all found on Newt’s list.*

But it gets worse. By the 1960’s, Washington had become the ultimate company town, where legislators and their families all knew each other. People on both sides of the aisle socialized, their children went to the same schools, and they attended church together. Work stayed at work, and people regarded folks from the other party as friends and neighbours. Then Newt Gingrich become speaker of the House.**

Beginning in the mid-90’s House members were told not to live in Washington, but to keep families back home. Weekends were spent campaigning and raising money in their districts, and Tuesday to Thursday was spent confronting the Democrats, now considered the enemy. Take the famous memo, and add the fact that socializing came to an end, and you get the seeds of what we now see in the campaign. Listen to Trump and you will hear words from the memo, plus weak and disgusting, a couple of Donald’s personal favourites.

When we no longer see our opponents as human, when we no longer speak or try to understand what they might think or feel, we spiral into mistrust and hatred. This is the real lesson of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Confidence in ourselves and what we do can quickly become “looking down on everyone else, or to use Jesus’ words, it can become hatred.

And it never seems to stop, like perpetual motion. Listening to certain politicians, the people who follow them, the people who created them, it’s hard not to feel self-righteous, even hateful. But Jesus said “The healthy are in no need of a physician.” So where would we find him, in October of an election year? On Hillary’s plane, or hanging out with Bernie at the cottage? No, Jesus would be tailgating with Trump supporters, maybe drinking Bud and waiting for his moment to share a word of life. And thank God for that. Amen.



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