Ps. 51: 1-12; Luke 18: 9-14
“A Little Reminder”
October 23, 2016
Rev. Rosemary McMahan

In regard to our current society, I can’t imagine two more appropriate readings than the ones we’ve proclaimed this morning. It’s no newsflash that the division in our country is more hostile that I can ever remember. No matter where I go, I cannot escape polarized conversation about the presidential election. No matter what I pick up to read, I cannot escape the sharply opposing views on that topic. One article that I read this past week suggested that emotions are so charged that they are causing rifts in friendships, marriages, and families, and the pervasive anxiety has caused a steep rise in therapeutic appointments.

During WWII, when C.S. Lewis published his satirical The Screwtape Letters, his analogous character for the devil, Uncle Screwtape, offered this suggestion to his young apprentice:

“Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue, character, and the things a patient can control. Make sure to keep the patient in a constant state of angst, frustration, and general disdain towards the rest of the human race in order to avoid any kind of charity or inner peace from further developing. Keep up the good work. – Uncle Screwtape”

What we find today in the place of civility and respect are reactivity, judgment, and self-righteousness, not just about politics, but about almost anything. Our country needs a little reminder about living with one another, and perhaps so do we, so let’s consider our gospel lesson with fresh ears.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”

Even if all we know is just a little bit about the New Testament, we know that any story Jesus tells that begins with a Pharisee is not going to end well for the Pharisee.  Were the Pharisees such “bad” people? Not according to the Pharisee in today’s lesson. He fasts twice a week. He tithes. He comes to the temple to pray. He is religious. The Pharisees were, in fact, similar in role to that of church elders and Sunday School teachers. They knew the laws of Moses backwards and forwards, and they were the perceived spiritual leaders of the people. Though they did not have the priestly lineage or wealth of the Sadducees, the Pharisees were often the most vocal and influential leaders who kept a very critical eye on what was going on with their people. The title Pharisee in its Hebrew form means the separated ones. They were “not like” the sinners. They were not like “other people.”

No doubt living under Roman rule played a large part in the changing role of Pharisee during Jesus’ time. To keep their own particular power, the Pharisees could not afford to rock the boat with the Romans. Control over their own people was paramount. Eventually, they became so devoted to the literal meaning of the Law that they became extremists, assuming the role of insuring that everyone toed the official religious line the way they thought it ought to be toed. When Jesus didn’t follow suit, the Pharisees became threatened.

Some Pharisees were, no doubt, in the very crowd to whom Jesus shared this story. Some might have been those who were, we are told in verse 9, “confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” We can assume that this story caught them completely off-guard and left them angry and insulted, so much so that perhaps some of them were even part of the crucifixion process just five chapters later.

So why would Jesus offend this particular group? Perhaps because he felt it was this group—the religious and rigid righteous—that needed a little reminder.

One of my female colleagues told me that in seminary, her assignment was to rewrite this story, using contemporary characters. If Scripture is indeed the Living Word, then it helps to put this story in a more relevant context. In my friend’s revision, she began the story like this: “A member of the Presbyterian Women and a single mother went to the sanctuary to pray.” The nicely dressed Presbyterian Woman, far across the aisle from the tired woman in faded jeans and a t-shirt, thanked God for her social upbringing, her longtime marriage to a CEO of a local firm, her knowledge of scripture, and she reminded God that she did, in fact, attend every family night function, worship regularly, raise money for the children in the orphanage, and occasionally clean out the church refrigerator. If she had any reason to ask for forgiveness, she couldn’t, at that moment, think of it. She was not, thankfully, like that “other” person.

The exhausted mother, on the other hand, begged God to look after her three children, especially at night when she had to work third shift in order to put food on the table and buy their school supplies. She apologized that she couldn’t always attend worship or make Bible Study because at those times she was tending her ill mother who had no other resources. She asked to be able to forgive the ex-husband who had cheated on her and walked out on the family. She also asked God to forgive any choices she had made that were not of God’s will, and she prayed for whatever need the woman across from her, also praying, had.  

So who went home justified?

My friend’s assignment reminded me about someone I once knew who told me that he had a serious problem with the prayer of Confession being included in worship. It was a “downer,” he claimed, when worship was supposed to be joyful. Besides, he added, he just wasn’t guilty of the sins that were most often mentioned. He was a capable and honest employee, a faithful husband, and a patriotic citizen. He was a church-goer who also volunteered for several non-profit agencies. Overall, he felt very good about himself.

Sometime later, this same person and I had lunch at a busy restaurant. I don’t know how many tables our waitress was responsible for, but this fellow’s impatience with her was so unjustified and so embarrassing that I wanted to leave. When his comment about not having sins to confess came to mind, I realized that if he could be so confident about his own righteousness, then maybe I could, as well. Or maybe even you.

Two people went up to the temple to pray:  one a man named Donald Trump and the other a woman named Hillary Clinton.

Two people went up to the temple to pray: one a lifelong Democrat and the other a staunch Republican.

Two people went up to the temple to pray:  one an employed white American and the other an undocumented Hispanic.

Two people went up to the temple to pray:  one insured by Obamacare and the other with full Blue Cross/Blue Shield coverage.

Two people went up to the temple to pray:  one a retired general and the other a pacifist.

Two people went up to the temple to pray:  one a Roman Catholic and the other a Protestant.

Two people went up to the temple to pray:  You and me.

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”

Same God. Same temple. Same religion. Two children of God. What happened? The Pharisee objectified his brother: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—especially that tax collector over there.” God, I thank you that I am not like that lazy bum asking for a handout on the corner of Governor’s and the Parkway. God, I thank you that I am not like that fat woman at McDonald’s who just ordered a Big Mac and a large Coke. God, I thank you that I am not like that liberal flag-burner or like that conservative tea party supporter. God, I thank you that I am not like my brother or sister who doesn’t pray as much as I do, attend church like I do, give time like I do, work hard like I do, contribute like I do, worship like I do. God, I thank you that I am not like.

Not like. Other-ness. Separation. Judgment. Enmity. Bitterness. Poison.  Sin. Jesus did not come to reward the righteous.  He came, he clearly said, “to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). One of editors of The New Interpreter’s Bible says that this story is about grace and writes that “those who trust in their own righteousness will regard others with contempt, and those who regard others with contempt cannot then bring themselves to rely on God’s grace.” The contempt for the “other” that the Pharisee displays helps him live into his name as “separated one,” for he separates himself from both brother and God. Only when we can humble ourselves and admit our own faults are we able to receive grace, and from that grows empathy for others.

We’ve said little about the tax collector, that “other person.” This man doesn’t stand up in the front of the temple courts, so that his spiritual performance can be seen by those present. This man can’t even look heavenward as he prays. He can only fix his eyes on the ground as he beats his breast and pleads with God for mercy. The weight of his sin rests heavy on his heart. He doesn’t identify himself as a do-gooder or a spiritual hero, like the Pharisee does. Instead, as he asks for God’s grace, he uses only one word to describe himself:  sinner.

What we tend to forget is that what unites us, what makes us community, is not our shared doctrine, not our Book of Order, not our good works, not our agreement on worship style, and not how economically alike we are. What unites us is our sinfulness, our brokenness, and our utter reliance on the grace of Jesus Christ. In God’s eyes, we are equals because we all stand in need of his love and mercy.

The quotation I read from C.S. Lewis actually ends with this piece of advice to Screwtape’s apprentice: “Ensure that the patient continues to believe that the problem is ‘out there,’ in the ‘broken system,’ rather than recognizing there is a problem in himself.”

So the little reminder I mentioned earlier has nothing to do with the Pharisee or the tax collector, but with the opening verse of this story: “Jesus told this parable to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.” This story is addressed to us, we who worship the same God, go to the same church, share the same faith, are citizens of the same country, and yet who sometimes forget that our call as believers is to practice and demonstrate charity and grace, not judgment and contempt. Only God knows each person’s heart. Only God knows why another person doesn’t live his or her life the way we think they ought to. Only God knows because only God needs to know.

Let us pray: “Create in us clean hearts, O God, and put new and right spirits with us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation, and sustain in us willing spirits.” Amen.

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