I am tired of the incivility and contempt that permeate public discourse. I was also pretty tired of it during the 2004 election season. Looking back at that year’s sermon on Luke 18:9-14, the gospel lesson for October 24, I see that the ugly political climate was much on my mind. I found a key to preaching the text in the pericope that follows. Here’s the sermon in case it might help you get ready to preach about the pharisee and the tax collector this lectionary go-round.
I’m ready for this election to be over. Maybe the candidates always treat one another with contempt, but it seems to me that this year they have been especially scornful of one another: lobbing contemptuous barbs at each other, flashing scornful looks, smearing each other’s character. And I’m not just talking about the presidential campaign. The campaigns in our state have sounded pretty ugly. I heard pieces of some of the gubernatorial debates, but there was little real constructive debate. It was mostly finding every way possible to slam the other candidate. David Crabtree of WRAL was moderating one of those events, and he asked the candidates to name three positive points about the other candidate. And they couldn’t do it.
The tension is showing up in the electorate, and some religious leaders are feeding it. They’re coming right out and saying so-and-so is THE Christian candidate, and if you’re a real Christian, that’s who you’ll vote for. People for one candidate are saying, “Our candidate’s got the right position on moral issues like abortion.” People for another candidate are saying, “Wait a minute! That’s not the only moral issue. War is a moral issue, too. Our candidate’s got the right position there.” On and on it goes. And good Christian people are calling each other’s faith into question. “Thank goodness we’re not like those other people!” they say to those who agree with them. “Our side is the one that’s really serving God’s purposes.”
I think Abraham Lincoln was right as he reflected on the war between the Union and the Confederacy in his second inaugural address. Each side prayed to the same God. People on each side believed that God was on their side. Lincoln said, “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
We’re seeing extreme contempt in the political campaigns. But contempt also comes in everyday forms. Maybe it’s because it just feels good, temporarily at least, to feel that we are better than somebody else.
To people who had a habit of regarding others with contempt, Jesus told a parable.
Jesus described two people who were polar opposites: a Pharisee and a tax collector. The people who first heard this parable would have immediately seen the Pharisee as the good guy and the tax collector as the bad guy. We tend to do the opposite because we know the story so well.
We need to remember that the Pharisees were the very kind of people we would want for a neighbor, a leader, a church member, an elder. They were faithful and responsible. All the good that this particular Pharisee had done truly was good. It truly was to be commended. But I wonder why he felt the need to make comparisons? “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like other people.” Why did he feel the need to pray this way, with a sideways and downward look at the tax collector?
I wonder about the tax collector, too. People saw him as a traitor, a collaborator with the hated Roman government. Maybe he was corrupt. Maybe he scammed the people. Maybe not. But he himself knew something was definitely wrong. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” was his prayer. I wonder. Was he truly repentant? I’ll bet you he’s going to go out, do the same old thing, then come back here and pray the same prayer of confession next week.
Surprise! Jesus says nothing about whether he truly repented or changed his life. Jesus simply says, “I tell you, the tax collector, and not the Pharisee, was in the right with God when he went home.” How can this be?
The very next story in Luke gives us an excellent clue. People brought helpless babies to Jesus so that he might touch them. The disciples tried to shoo them away. They thought Jesus had more important things to do than hold little babies! “Wait just a minute,” Jesus called. “Let these little children come to me, and don’t stop them, because the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Remember this! Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”
To receive the Kingdom, to participate in it, we have to come empty-handed like children, children who cannot earn their own way, babies who have no achievements to stand on. All they can do is receive what God gives. They can’t lift themselves up into Jesus’ arms. They have to let him do the lifting. That’s what the tax collector did. He knew he was empty-handed. He knew he had nothing to stand on. All he could do was let God do the lifting and the saving. All he could do was receive God’s grace and mercy as a gift. He received God’s grace as a child does. According to Jesus, in God’s eyes the Pharisee, the tax collector, and all of us are in the same place, in the child’s place.
The church has had such a hard time learning that. Comparing and ranking and feeling one-up on others remains a temptation. We still want to be better than somebody else. The Christians at Corinth were doing it, and Paul was quite concerned. Some of the church members considered themselves to be more spiritually advanced than others, and worthy of more respect and authority in the church. A few had the spectacular spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, and they felt this put them head and shoulders above the rest. Others felt that their superior wisdom and knowledge put them on a higher rung. At the same time, others who did not have these gifts saw themselves as inferiors. The result was pain in the church. Division. Dissension. “This is not love,” Paul wrote to them. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, for example, but don’t have love, my speech is just a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” “No, my sisters and brothers at Corinth, the way you are regarding one another and behaving towards one another is not love!”
Regarding one another as superiors and inferiors causes pain in the church now. Others know it when we think we deserve special respect and greater authority. They know when we think they are less advanced. People know when they are being regarded with criticism or even contempt. People who consider themselves on the lower rungs tend to hesitate and hang back.
Jesus’ challenge is this: start playing the rating game, get in that track, and we’ve missed the point of the gospel. God is gracious. Salvation is a gift. It’s all grace. When we get in the mindset of contempt, looking sideways and downwards at others, that’s a sign that we need healing. When we start thinking that God’s grace towards us isn’t so amazing after all, why look how well we’ve done, we’re in trouble.
According to Jesus, in God’s eyes, everybody’s in the same place. The child’s place. And actually, that’s a wonderful place to be. Think of that other parable, which is found only in Luke, the parable of a gracious, generous father who was filled with love for both his children, the elder son who never gave a minute’s trouble, and the younger one who wandered far away before coming back home. The Pharisee and the tax collector are two children in God’s eyes, and so are we. When we stake our lives on the gift of God’s love, on the solid rock of love incarnate, Jesus Christ, there is no need to keep a grade book on ourselves or each other. Our security is in him forever.
And if we are all in the child’s place, that means we are side by side with each other, not one up or one down. This other one who is by my side is like me. I am like him. I am like her. When we begin to see that the other is like me, yes, this tax collector is like me, this Pharisee is like me, and I am like them, compassion is born. We begin moving from contempt towards compassion. Now there’s a chance to learn what real love is, the kind that is patient and kind, not jealous or conceited or proud or ill-mannered or selfish, the kind that doesn’t keep records of wrongs, and the kind that never gives up.
Now we can learn how to be a true community of all kinds of people, instead of lone rangers always out to prove ourselves to somebody—whether to God or somebody else, or even to ourselves. For all any of us can do is come to God as children, just as we are, allowing him to do the lifting the welcoming, the healing, the pardoning, the cleansing, the relieving. We’re all helpless. We all rest 100% in God’s grace.
What if the Pharisee learned a different way to pray? What if the Pharisee actually prayed for the tax collector instead of scorning him? What if he said, “Lord, thank you for the blessings that have helped me be able to serve you. Thank you for all your gifts. Show me where I need to repent and learn and grow. Help the tax collector. I don’t know what is in his heart. I don’t know what led him to work for the enemy. Surround him with compassion, and lead him to your path. He is your child, like me.” (Inspired by a prayer by Robert C. Morris, “Meek as Moses” in Weavings, vol. XV, Number 3, May/June 2000, p. 41.)
I remember noting in a sermon last spring that I knew that some of us at Morton would definitely vote for George Bush in this presidential election, and others definitely would not. Some of us are voting for John Kerry. Faithful Christians can come to different conclusions and vote differently, sometimes for the very same reasons. We respect that. We respect each other. We recognize that only God knows all the truth. We stand side by side as children before God, beloved family of God together. This is love. Children of the Lord, can’t we show the world the way out of contempt and into compassion? I think so. Let your light shine, children of God. Thanks be to God for his wonderful glory and grace!