Oct. 24, 2010
Thank God, I’m not like that Pharisee! (I think we’ve all said it, under our breaths.) Thank God I’m not a self-righteous, judgemental, hypocrite like that Pharisee. Thank God I don’t look down on other people like those people do. Thank God MY religious practice is purer than theirs. Thank God I am not like . . .
The problem is, the moment we think it, we ARE like that Pharisee. Jesus has set a trap for us here, telling us a story that, the minute we enter into it, imaginatively - closes - SNAPS SHUT on us and has us wondering ‘what happened here?”
Well, before we begin to gnaw our own collective leg off to get out of this trap - let’s take a minute to admire how carefully and thoughtfully the trap is made.
Jesus . . . the Pharisees are a group that we’d probably admire if we were reading about them. Their goal is to sanctify every moment and every situation for God. To make the everyday sacred and holy. That’s nice.
That’s why they pray!
That’s why they fast - this one twice a week!
That’s why they tithe - which I keep telling you is a wonderful and spiritually rewarding way to put your financial life into God’s hands - to sanctify your checkbook.
These are good things to do and the Pharisee does them. But here’s the trap that the Pharisee falls in head first: he begins to believe that HE is the one making himself holy. His religion becomes self-referential. His holiness becomes something he acheives, rather than something he recieves. He is even “praying with himself” - (a sermon title I was BARELY able to resist using)
And God gets pushed out of the picture. Because God is too big and too mysterious and too holy to fit within the frame work of any individual’s religious practice. So God gets to be a little tiny object within the religious practice.
the pharisee’s god is . . .
Not too holy.
Not too great.
Not too creative.
Not too merciful.
Not too loving.
Not too fierce.
Just . . . domesticated and small enough to enhance the very lovely life that I (I mean the Pharisee) is living.
My judgement is always the right judgment. (No need to put myself in other people’s shoes.)
My prayers are the sincere prayers. (Too bad about yours.)
My standards are always the correct ones. (For me and for you, too.)
My morality is fine for me. (And it would be fine for you, too, if you’d just be like me.)
God’s larger perspective, God’s longer time, God’s wider and deeper love. . . who needs to worry about that? I’m doing just fine, thank you. In fact, Thank You, God, that I am not like those others who haven’t figured out how to live such a nice life. There but for the grace of God, go I.
But let’s not go there.
It is so easy, so easy and so pleasing, to forget how radically dependent we are on God’s grace. To think that we’ve earned how nicely things have fallen in place. And that THOSE PEOPLE who are struggling so must be struggling because they aren’t as hard-working, as wise, as good hearted, as we are.
This past week a candidate for office in this district made some outrageous statements about African American men - generalizing about the choices and interests of thousands of the people he’d like to represent, without any nod of understanding of individual differences, collective challenges, or the larger culture’s role in focussing interests and choices. It was just - here’s what THEY do and here’s why THEY do it. There’s US - Thank God - and there’s THEM. Thank God that WE aren’t THEM.
Jesus sets us up, tells us this crazy prayer story just so we’ll notice that we are them - the ones we think are “other”. (The Pharisee opens his prayer, “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like OTHER men.” And we thank God that we aren’t like the one who is OTHER than the OTHERS. And Jesus just winks at us and smiles.
Hey Christian! Haven’t you noticed that I don’t draw those lines. I don’t see those lines. I certainly don’t respect those lines that get drawn between the ins and the outs, the natives and the immigrants, the Cubs and the Cardinals . . . men and women, Jew or Gentile, bond or free? Jesus crossed so many of those lines in his day. Eating with sinners, arguing with scribes, teaching women, forgiving tax collectors. Jesus crossed all the lines and brought close all the ones who, like the tax collector in the story, were “far away” from God. Because just in BEING he had crossed the line between God and humanity.
His life and death and resurrection are about the fact that that line, the one between God and humanity, couldn’t possibly be penetrated by the best efforts of the most well meaning people on earth. God is simply too magnificent for little human minds to grasp, too compassionate for human hearts to comprehend. We can’t get there from here.
I recently, just for fun, asked Google Maps to calculate directions between here and the place I stayed in Nicaragua this year. You know what it said, “Unable to calculate route.” You can’t get there from here.
That’s the message of Jesus to all our human striving to become acceptable to God by means of praying the right words, giving the right amount of money, arranging our life the right way, belonging to the right groups. “You can’t get there from here. Unable to calculate route.” We can’t make it there - and the Pharisees mistake, our mistake, is to think that we’ve arrived on our own steam.
The truth of the matter is, we can only “get there” - get in right relationship with God - by radical dependence on God’s goodness and grace. Which is freely offered - poured out like the latter rain upon the heads of the believer.
This is a story about what God can do.
God can make a way for human beings - tax collectors, even. even Pharisees - as prone to sin and selfishness and self righteousness and self deception as we are - to come into the presence of the Awesome and Holy God and say a truthful prayer. God can make a righteous way for every single one of us here this morning to enjoy fellowship with Him. God can draw to his warm and loving embrace all of Philo, all of this country, all of this hemisphere, all of this world.
And it’s not because we smell so good and look so fine and talk so well that he scoops us up in his arms and loves us. It’s because God’s heart is so big and his love is so deep. It’s God’s love that saves us and not good works, great gifts, or spiritual gymnastics. And when we understand that, then we don’t look at the Pharisee and say, “Thank God I’m not like him.” We don’t look at anyone and say, “Thank God I’m not like those others . . . “ We say, “Thank God there are no OTHERS. There is just US - those upon whom God has mercy, whom God makes right and saves.”