Sermon on Luke 18:9-14 for Oct. 27, 2019, Pentecost 20C. Audio can be found here for several weeks.
[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.”
There is a sit-com I have been watching called “The Good Place”. The setting is in the after-life. There were two possibilities after death: you could end up in either “the good place” or “the bad place.” As the series opens, (spoiler alert) we think the people are in the “good place.” But it turns out that it is really the “bad place.” The characters (all but one) are shocked to learn that they did not make it into the “good place.”
One is a woman who was beautiful, smart, gifted, and who spent her life raising billions of dollars for charities. How could that not make you eligible for “the good place” after death, she wonders? It turns out that she did all of that fundraising for the sake of competing with her sister who always got the attention. She lived a life of resentment. Her concern was for herself alone. And, having been successful in her fundraising efforts, she was filled with pride and arrogance. So, she ended up in the “bad place.”
What is Good?
The show is a comedy and a farce, but, as comedies can do, it brings up real moral issues. What is goodness? What counts as a good act? Is goodness measured by the outcome alone, or should we consider the intention? And after we understand goodness, how should we think about people who are not being good?
Jesus re-defined goodness in radical ways, fundamental ways. He famously moved the central focus from purity to justice, which upset many people in his time. Nobody wants to hear that they are not as good as they think they are — nobody. We all want to think of ourselves as good. We all make excuses for ourselves that justify our non-good moments.
Do you remember the film “Good Fellas”? It was about the mafia. They were drug dealers, racketeers, even murderers, but they all considered each other “good fellas.”
One of the strategies we employ for thinking of ourselves as “good fellas” is playing the comparison game. “I may not be perfect,” we tell ourselves, “but I’m certainly not as bad as others. I’m not in the mafia; I don’t even commit petty crimes, so I’m a much better fella than others.” In other words, it feels good to be judgy. It feels good to look down your nose at other people who are less good.
Hearing the Parable Well
But for Jesus, judgments were out of bounds. So, he told a parable to make that point. But it is really hard for us to hear today. I often point out how far we are from the culture of the bible. That distance makes this parable difficult for us to understand. For starters, we have no categories that completely fit the characters in this story.
New Testament scholar, John Dominic Crossan, who was Catholic, suggested we re-tell this in modern terms. His version began: “The Pope and pimp went to church to pray.” Why the Pope and a pimp? Because the Pope is the representative moral exemplar and a pimp is the quintessential lowlife. That is how people in Jesus’ original audience would have understood by the characters he used: the Pharisee and the tax-collector. So, the categories of Pope and pimp are not perfect, but are about as close as we can come.
Crossan calls this one of Jesus’ “challenge parables.” It challenges us to interrogate our settled certainties, to question what we thought we knew to be true, to examine our assumptions. If we are going to hear the challenge even a little bit like Jesus intended it to be heard, we need first to think about these characters the way they were thought of back in Jesus’ time.
The Two Characters
How did people think about Pharisees? We know that Jesus had a lot of conflicts with Pharisees because he believed they had misconstrued the nature of religious duty, in other words, what goodness was, but nobody disputed the fact that they were as religious as you could get. Like the Pope, they were moral exemplars. They dedicated their lives to doing the right thing, as they understood it. They were far more disciplined than most of us: do you know anyone who fasts twice a week, who gives 10% of their gross income to the church, as well as attending services, praying with gratitude to God? And wouldn’t we rather have neighbors like that than having “thieves, rogues, and adulterers” around us and our children?
By contrast, the tax-collector really does share the moral low ground with pimps. Even if his collections were fair and honest, as a tax-collector, he was a tool of the Roman Empire; a collaborator in Roman oppression. But his collections were not fair. The system was designed for abuse. Here is how it worked: the chief tax-collector of a region, paid the tax for his district in advance, then hired agents who bid for the contract of collecting the money. They could charge whatever the market could bear, making whatever profits they could. Of course, they were despised and resented.
So, Who is Good?
So, we have the Pope and a pimp at prayer in church. But the Pope ends up not making God happy, while the pimp does. How is that even possible? That is the challenge. Jesus wanted people to re-think goodness, and how to think of people who were not being good. Of course, the Pope does a lot of good and the pimp does a lot of bad, but that is not the end of the story.
The Pope, in this parable, is full of himself. He is playing the comparison game, and being totally judgmental. The problem for us is that he is right, isn’t he? It is literally better to be honest than dishonest. It is better to be someone who contributes to the common good than someone who profits by causing suffering. What kind of society would it be if you praised pimps and put down the pope?
Looking Past the Surface
But Jesus saw it differently. He looked past the surface. He looked at the heart. The pimp, the tax-collector in the parable, hated himself for what he had become. I want to stop right here and ask, how does anyone end up a Jewish tax-collector anyway? Why would you do a job that you knew would make everyone hate you? Greed? I don’t know if that explains it. Wouldn’t you rather be a well-respected citizen, praised by your neighbors instead of scorned by them? Would money really compensate for that kind of life in which no one considered you a “goodfella”?
I don’t think so. Let us use our imaginations a bit. I imagine a man with a family who is not making it. He owns no land. It is hard to find work. Maybe he can’t be a day-laborer in the fields. Perhaps he has a disability, maybe just a bad back. What are his options? There is no social safety net. He could beg, but beggars barely survive. So he takes the worst job in the world; he becomes a tax-collector, and he hates himself for it.
How do the people that “good fellas” look down on get into their conditions? Nobody starts out wanting to be a drug addict or a criminal. No one begins as a homeless person.
We all begin as beloved children of God. Look at any newborn and say that isn’t true. We all begin, having been made in God’s image. And nothing we can do can change that. Fundamentally, at our core, our true self is beloved by God.
Remember, several weeks back, when we were looking into Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, we noticed that for Jesus, lostness was the category to use for people who had gotten off track, instead of the judgmental category of “sinners”. That tax-collector had gotten himself lost, but not unloved by God.
That is why being judgmental is out of bounds. Judgment implies we are better than others when the truth is that we are all equally loved by God, valued by God, precious to God.
The church has been a very judgy place for a long time, and some still are. But I am so thankful that we are trying our best to leave those days behind. We have made up our minds to be a non-judgmental, inclusive, affirming community. We are trying to look at people the way Jesus looked at them. And we are trying to look at ourselves as honestly as we can. We do not pretend to have arrived; we realize that we are on a journey.
So we have committed ourselves to being a serving congregation. We reach out to people who have gotten themselves lost, without asking how they got into that predicament. We do not pretend that if we lived their lives, we would have made better decisions. We recognize that we didn’t get to where we are alone. We had lots of help along the way. Most of us had at least decent, if not wonderful homes, schools, teachers, coaches, employers, churches, and many people in our lives that helped us, taught us, guided us, and who have forgiven us many times along the way. So, we commit ourselves to living lives of gratitude, not for being better than anyone, but for every good gift we have been given, and or every opportunity to share those gifts, without judgment.