Luke 18: 9-14
Do you think that being Christian is a better way of living life? Do you think that there are people who choose, for some insane reason, not to become a Christian? Why do you think that is? Isn’t living a Christian life the preferred way?
Well, I think so, but I have friends in my life who are not Christian. Some may be of another faith, and are perfectly happy in it, and find it deeply meaningful. They may even wonder why I don’t choose to become like them!
Some may be of no faith at all. Those friends may be of no faith because they were once, they came as the tax collector did, humble and repentant, and somehow ran across someone like the Pharisee, someone in authority who did something hurtful, said something stupid, or otherwise represented Christ differently than what they had read in the Bible or remember being told. Somehow, God wasn’t love, but was instead judgment, or willful ignorance, or fear. And they wonder how I can maintain my membership, never mind my vocation, in an institution that hurts so many people, causes so much pain.
They have chosen to reject the church, and for them, it may have been the right decision.
There are things we want from a life led in the Christian way. Stability. Somewhere that we know will support us and love us, even when we make mistakes. Somewhere that we know will give us the strength to overcome our own failures. Somewhere that will give us the companionship and help to live our lives well. And of course, we want to know, that when we die, we will be going to heaven.
But as we start to adapt to the new way of life, and we begin to have some success, we develop a paradox; we forget that there are people out there who live lives that move along perfectly well without God or the church. And the pride and love that we feel for the people who are with us in God can sometimes turn to judgment against the people who aren’t.
Unconsciously, we can sometimes give off the feeling that those who don’t choose our way are somehow stupid! Sometimes we can get uncomfortable around people who haven’t made the same choices we have. We want to avoid situations that will make us feel less than others, judged by others, or tempt us to behave in ways that aren’t right for us. We find that we have learned how to live life a certain way, and now we get tense around people who stand just a little too close, laugh just a little too loud.
So then, we read in today’s Luke passage that Jesus is warning us against becoming the person who feels superior because they do everything right. It’s not that being right makes you wrong somehow—the sin is not in proper religious observance or being a follower of Christ. Rather, it is in the feeling superior to others who live differently than us. In our pleasure at having success in living a certain way, we spill over into feeling superior.
Arrogance is the sin Jesus is trying to highlight in this parable.
It is very easy to become arrogant when you are a Christian. It’s a twofer; it is one of those great sins that in every case impedes our progress as faithful followers of Christ AND also blocks anyone else from being interested in it for the right reasons.
Do you know what some people see us doing on Sunday mornings? They see us as people who hop out of a perfectly warm bed, put a tie or pantyhose on when they aren’t even going to work, and go sing songs that no one ever listens to, listen to some person stand in a funny robe and talk about a piece of a book that can be as old as 5000 years, and then go home and start their day for real.
How can that possibly be attractive? What is the point of that?
It’s the same way some of us see people who go to bars all the time, drink, smoke, visit with friends, and go home drunk, smelly, and overtired. How can that possibly be attractive? What is the point of that?
We know we do this because we find meaning in it. The words have been around for as long as 5000 years because they have meant something to generations of people, and we find that it means something to us. The songs mean something to us, too. The robes have significance beyond the fashion statement. But all of it pales beside the real reason for gathering. All of those things, plus stuff like the architecture of the church, the windows, the smell in the air, the pads, the seats, are things that hopefully trigger the true reason why we live our lives as Christians.
This is that true reason, I think; there was a time when we realized that we couldn’t do this life alone, that we needed help to live it. And that the best bet we could find was God. Now, we may have doubts now about how the church gets us there. We may find that old hymns leave us cold. We may find that we don’t ever want to sing a new song, because we’ve got what works already. We may find that a preacher’s personality is too cold, or too rambunctious for our taste. A church may be a member of a denomination that makes choices we consider wrong, or misguided. But we’re still here. Why?
Under it all, there is God. God crops up in the kindness of people around us when we are in pain. God crops up in a feeling of peace when we pray. God crops up in the peace of a loved one who is dying. God crops up in the beauty of a hillside blazing with red and yellow trees against a brilliant blue sky. God crops up in the smile, the smell of a baby. God crops up in the unexpected forgiveness when we’ve been idiots. God crops us in a million different ways, and we respond in joy, in awe, in shame, and in seeking forgiveness. We respond in an awareness of our true place. We respond in awe, and humility.
That’s why this parable holds up the tax collector as the proper model. He knows God exists, that’s why he’s in the temple. He knows he’s not perfect, that’s why he’s standing so far away and beating himself up. He believes that God will forgive him, has in the past, so that’s why he’s there again, asking one more time. When Jesus says that the tax collector is the one who goes home justified, rather than the other, what he doesn’t say is that the tax collector probably doesn’t even know it.
None of us are perfect. All of us commit sins. And while it is true that we can sometimes stop habits that are bad for us, other sins do take their place. Smoking or drinking can be replaced with the zealotry of the recovering addict, insisting that everyone is addicted and must get better.
People who mock or heap contempt on the church can become people who mock or heap contempt on those who choose to stay home. There is a certain strong tendency among us all to consider some sort of “other” as fools, as willing disobeyers. Have you ever heard the terms “white trash”, “rednecks”, “longhairs”, “crackers”? We call people of other nations cowards or freeloaders. We call people of other faiths infidels or unbelievers. We call people of other opinions heretics, idiots or fools. We always find ways to call people who are different animals or somehow subhuman. We find ways to consider different as less. And that makes us exactly like the Pharisee.
And that is sin. And our awareness of it and struggle to repent of it is what justifies us, according to this passage. Not our success.