Sermon on Luke 18:9-14 for October 23, 2016, Pentecost +23 C
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Most of us have heard this parable and know the ending, which creates a huge problem for us. The whole point of Jesus’ parable is to call out people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” saying, in effect, “Don’t do that.”
But what do we do? We see the smug, self-righteous Pharisee, contrasted with the self-effacing, repentant tax-collector, and we identify with the tax-collector. So our problem is that we feel self-righteous and we regard the Pharisee with contempt. Well, this parable about people who “regarded others with contempt” ends up putting us in the bull’s eye. Holding the self-righteous in contempt is self-righteousness. Holding anyone in contempt is self-righteousness.
Anyway, the whole point of the parable teaches humility before God and other people. This was a huge theme for Jesus. Can you ever imagine a situation in which Jesus avoided people or looked down on people because he considered himself above them? It is unthinkable. In fact just the opposite. Jesus had a reputation and was criticized bitterly for hanging out with the very people that others regarded with contempt.
Let me clear the air about one thing first: it is good to feel good about doing good. It is good to feel good about accomplishments, about good grades, about good performances, about a job well done, a meal well prepared, a kindness that was appreciated. If you want to use the word “pride” for this, then there is a good side to pride. We all want to be looked up to and esteemed for doing things well – that is both natural and right.
Christian humility is not about being unwilling to take a sincere compliment with a simple “thank you” and feeling good about it. In fact receiving gratitude simply with a “thank you” is perfectly legitimate. I am sure you have noticed that when a person denies a compliment it makes you feel the need to offer it again, which is an awkward loop to get into.
The Goodness of the Pharisee
So, back to the story. The Pharisee was actually doing a lot of valuable, positive spiritual practices. He fasts twice a week – I do not know anyone who does that. He gives a tenth of his income to the temple. If we all did that we would never have any budget problems.
Nationally, Christians contribute about 2% of their income to all charities combined, church included among them. Clearly, then, this Pharisee takes his spiritual life seriously, even to the point of being willing to make significant personal sacrifices. He is also obeying the commandments, which is what I think he means when he thanks God that he is not a “rogue or an adulterer.” He is a good fella.
He should feel good about being good. He should feel happy about his disciplined spiritual practices. That is not where he went wrong.
The Ego and Contempt
The place he went wrong is, as Jesus said, in “regarding others with contempt.” This is exactly what the ego wants to do. The ego inside us all, wants to not only feel good about being good, it wants to feel superior. It is not good enough to merely be good, the ego wants to be better. The ego wants to compare and compete. The ego loves feeling self-righteous.
Humility, the refusal to regard others with contempt, is not our natural attitude, any more than courage or patience is natural. It must be taught and learned and practiced over time. In other words, humility is a virtue.
When we practice humility, our ego feels assaulted. Listen to this, from “Religion and Ethics”:
“It is well known that “humility” (humilitas in Latin; tapeinos in Greek) was not a virtue in Graeco Roman ethics. In fact, the word meant something like “crushed” or “debased.” It was associated with failure and shame.” source: “How Christian humility upended the world”
The ego feels crushed and shamed when it is not given permission to regard others with contempt. But humility is fundamental to Christian ethics. God, as the source of every human, has created all of us in God’s image (in Greek, icon). To hold someone in contempt is to have contempt for the icon of God. Contempt denies what is basic and fundamental to the Christian view of God, the world and all humanity.
Back to the story, the tax collector really does have things to regret. He should feel bad about the life he has lived. As a two-dimensional, cut-out character, he is foil for the Pharisee who tries to live a disciplined, obedient life. The tax collector is working for the Romans in a system that allows him to aggrandize his material holdings by legalized extortion. Of course tax collectors were resented and despised. They caused real suffering.
But somehow this one sees the light. He has an “ah-ha” moment. He realizes the harm he has caused. He rightly feels remorseful. Remorse and regret are also legitimate emotions. To have done wrong, and to recognize it, is the beginning of transformation. Jesus’ original message was not simply that the Kingdom of God had come, but rather, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” Repentance, or literally, an about face in thinking and acting, is a necessary first step to entering the kingdom of equals.
As Christians we regret every time we have treated others with contempt. We regret every harsh word, every condemning judgment, every time we have let our egos take advantage of another person.
We do not wallow in regret and remorse. We simply admit the truth that we have done something wrong, and set about to right it, to correct it, to stop repeating it.
Jesus’ Incarnational Model
For followers of Jesus, we hold humility as a core commitment. Central to our faith is the story of incarnation. When we tell the story of God, we tell the story of God becoming a human being. Not a human aristocrat, but a human peasant, born into poverty, born in an inglorious, out of the way, backwater village, on the fringes of the Roman empire.
Our story is of Jesus who lived his life on the margins, loving people whom others held in contempt. And our story ends with Jesus on the cross, looking at those who had done him wrong, who had repaid good with evil, saying
“Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
Humility is not a peripheral virtue, nor is it negligible. It is central, and it is significant. The core message of Christianity is that God forgives us. The core commitment of a Christian is therefore forgiveness of others. The only prayer Jesus taught us to pray says,
“forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive…”
But, forgiveness is direct assault on our egos. Our egos want the feeling of superiority that we get from being morally superior to others. It is a death to our egos to let go of the vengeance we think we deserve.
But Christianity is all about the process of resurrection only after a death. That is the pattern stamped into the universe: death before new life.
Beyond the Personal
Christian humility is so fundamental that it extends far beyond personal relationships. We not only refuse to hold individuals in contempt, we refuse to hold groups of people in contempt. This is the temptation to scapegoating we mentioned last week. To hold Muslims in contempt is to do exactly what that Pharisee in the parable did. “I thank you, God, that I am not a Muslim!” Did not God make Muslim humans in his image too?
Scapegoating Muslims or immigrants or any other group is a form of holding them in exactly the kind of contempt that Jesus is warning against.
Last week we spoke of the struggle we live with, as people of faith, in a world like this. We talked about how Jacob, “the grasper” was named “The One Who Struggles”, or Israel. I mentioned that faith causes me a great deal of struggle.
I lived in a part of Europe where the disease of nationalism was all around. It opened my eyes in a new way to the profound depths of the issue. How was it that the holocaust took place in Europe which had been “Christian” for nearly two thousand years?
How had the message of Jesus so totally failed to prevent the scapegoating of Jews? How in the world had it become not only tolerable but absolutely acceptable to hold other humans in contempt? And yet, masses of people who called themselves Christians in Germany, in Italy, in France, and also in Britain were anti-semitic.
I have struggled a long time with the kind of Christianity that failed on such a massive scale. And I struggle with the kind of Christianity I see in my day that seems to accept scapegoating today.
Is our faith not entirely centered in the story of a an innocent victim, scapegoated by the people of his day? Should Christianity not have brought the end of all scapegoating?
It is time for us to identify with the humble, repentant tax collector in this parable. It is time, now nearly 500 years after the Protestant Reformation to reassess where Christianity has come from and where it has ended up.
The great motto of the Reformation was “ad fontes” or back to the fountain; meaning back to the original sources. It is time to reclaim that motto. To return to the fountain of our faith, which is Jesus. Whatever happened, over the years, that ended up with a faith comfortable with having contempt for others is a long, dark story, but let this be the generation in which that story ends so that a new chapter can begin. The source we wish to return to is the humble Jesus who is not above coming to people like us, and extending God’s mercy and love.
Another great motto of the Reformation is “The church reformed, always reforming.” Let us be the church that is always reforming. We do not have to be in the future what we were in the past. That is the message of grace and forgiveness that we depend on every day of our lives. Transformation is possible as we orient our lives around the one “who humbled himself, taking the form of a servant”.
If it is the ego that is at the heart of the problem of our propensity to hold other people in contempt and scapegoat them, then the best practical help towards controlling the ego is contemplative prayer, or meditation. In meditation, we practice saying “no” to the ego that wants to chatter away in our minds. In meditation we shut down that voice that wants to compare and compete. Is it any wonder that Jesus, who was famous for not holding anyone in contempt, spent so much time in regular silent prayer meditation?
When we build into our lives the regular spiritual practice of silent meditation, we begin to get new insight into our own egos. Meditation teaches us to recognize thoughts, especially judgmental thoughts, for what they are. They are not the truth of the world; they are merely our own thoughts. We do not have to live controlled by them. We can let them go, to be replaced by a deeper insight, that we are all icons of God, made in God’s image. No one is beyond redemption. No one is contemptible to God. The God who can love and forgive us, can love and forgive everyone; and God calls us to do the same.