Not an Easy Parable – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times, but it remains true: Parables are tricky beasts.  Eugene Peterson called them “narrative time bombs,” and he was right. Jesus plants them in our minds only so that they can explode with meaning several days later.  This is a problem in a world of soundbites and smartphones as our attention spans continue to shrink.  According to a 2015 study by Microsoft, the average attention span of an adult has fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015.  Keep in mind that scientists think that the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds![1]  Back when there weren’t eleven million things clamoring for our attention, it was easy to keep a story like the Pharisee and the Tax Collector bouncing around in your head for a whole week, but now-a-days, we’ve often forgotten what the Gospel lesson was before the opening paragraph of the sermon is over.

banner-goldfish-chedder_v4

It is impossible to plumb the depths of meaning in stories like today’s parable when we are fundamentally incapable of focusing on anything for longer than a goldfish.  So, we settle for simplistic readings, and make this parable a fable about humility.  We break the story down into its simplest parts: the tax collector is good because he is aware of his sinfulness while the Pharisee is bad because of his arrogant prayer.  Then we say something like, “Lord, thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee who is an arrogant jerk and that I am so humble.  Amen.”  Do you see the problem with that reading of the story?  It leaves us no better than the Pharisee we are so quick to judge.  It is an easy reading, but it is not the best one.  Instead, if we give this lesson time to mature, time to float around in our brains for a minute or two, we’ll start to notice details that we might otherwise miss.

First, we should note the audience to which Jesus told this story.  He told this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  That is, he told this parable to people who would hear the parable in the way I just described.  He told this parable to us.  When things are going well in our spiritual lives, it is really easy to forget who should get the credit.  Pride has a tendency to grow the more we pray, the more scripture we read, the more we give to the church, and care for the poor.  It is easy to say, like the Pharisee did, “I pray, I fast, and I give,” but the reality that it is only because of the Holy Spirit at work within us that any of that is possible.

The ugly side of thinking our righteousness comes from our own abilities is that we then tend to look down on those who aren’t quite at righteous as we are.  If only they could pray like me or care like or be as humble as me, they might be righteous too.  As we get comfortable with looking down on our neighbor for not being as righteous as we’ve made ourselves to be, eventually we begin to treat them with contempt: literally, we treat them as if they were worthless nothings.  We label them as sinners or liberals or closed-minded and dismiss them – ignoring the fact that they human beings worthy of love.  I Christianity, righteousness means being in right relationship with God and neighbor.  It is therefore impossible to treat others with contempt and be righteous.  Jesus tells this story to those who think they are righteous because of their own personal piety, but are not because of how they treat their neighbor.

The second detail worthy of note is the prayer of the Pharisee.  As off putting as it is to us today, his prayer might not have been that uncommon in the days of Jesus.  The Pharisee’s job was to be righteous and to help others lead righteous lives according to the Law of Moses.  He was, at least according to the teaching of his own tradition, totally in the right to think of himself as righteous.  In order to be in right relationship with God and with neighbor, the Pharisee was required to abide by the Law, and he followed it to the smallest detail.  He prayed, he fasted, he tithed, he didn’t steal, he didn’t lie, and he didn’t cheat.  He was a model citizen, and it was only right that he should thank God for that.  As much as we’d like God to smite this man right there in the Temple Court, or at the very least we might question how one can be considered righteous who so brazenly puts down others, the reality is that he went home just as righteous as when he arrived; having faithfully fulfilled what was required of him in the Law.

The third thing we need to notice is the tax collector who so often gets painted as the hero in this story.  Tax collectors were despised by just about everyone.  They were Jewish men who conspired with the Roman government to extort money from rich and poor alike.  Their livelihood depended upon how much extra money they could shake out of the tax payers.  I always picture this man as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Disney version of Robin Hood.  There is a scene where he barges in on a blacksmith who has a broken leg and can’t work.  Friar Tuck had just given the blacksmith a few coins from Robin Hood’s stash that he hid in the cast, and the sheriff promptly and painfully shook them loose.  Nobody likes the Sheriff of Nottingham, and nobody liked the traitor tax collectors.  It seems that the tax collector in our parable didn’t even like himself.  In his guilt and his shame, he knew better than to come right on into the Temple.  Instead, he stood a safe distance away, wouldn’t even look up to heaven, beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  And then he left.  I can’t help but wonder how our reading of this story changes if he came back and did the same thing the next day?  And the day after that?  What if he had been asking God for forgiveness every day for 20 years, but had no real interest in changing anything about himself.  What if he went to work, shook down his fellow Israelites, asked God for forgiveness, woke up the next day, and did it all again.

Either way, Jesus tells us that he went home justified: that is he was made righteous by God’s action and God’s action alone.  Which seems to be what this story has been about all along: the grace of God to forgive us and declare us justified.  It is easy to consider the tax collector as justified given his obviously repentant language.  It is less easy to consider him justified by God if he did the same thing day after day after day.  And it is next to impossible to think of the Pharisee as anything close to righteous or justified, but it seems that all of the above are true.  I’ll spare you the boring Greek details, but it is equally plausible that the tax collector went home justified “rather than” the Pharisee as it is he went home justified “alongside” the Pharisee.  See, whether we approach God trying our best to do it on our own, on our hands and knees begging for forgiveness, or bowed low for a moment, pretty sure we will do it all again tomorrow; it is God’s very nature to return us to righteousness and restore us to right relationship.  It might mean he has to humble the exalted before he can exalt the humbled, but one way or another, God is going to do everything he can to let us know that we are loved by him.

It would be easy to look smugly at the smugness of the smug Pharisee, but if we take more than eight seconds to pay attention and let this parable marinate a bit, the meaning is much richer.  Rather than a story that casts another line in the sand of us versus them, this is a parable about the love of God for all of us: whether we are first century tax collectors and Pharisees, sixteenth century Roman Catholics and Protestants or twenty-first century Republicans and Democrats.  God loves us all and his deepest desire is that we might be justified, made righteous, restored to right relationship with God and every one of our neighbors through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/humans-have-shorter-attention-span-than-goldfish-thanks-to-smart/

Advertisements

Thank God I’m not like those people

103584721-hillaryclintonvtrump-530x298

If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.

Mutually Exclusive Behaviors

It has been a good long while since I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some blogging banter with my good friend Evan Garner, but he went to the Greek in his post yesterday, and that’s just an invitation for me to nerd out for a minute.  In his post, “Rather Than or Alongside?” which I encourage you to read in its entirety, Evan played with an idea posited by the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend, Professor of Homiletics and New Testament at the University of the South, that the Greek phrase that is translated in Sunday’s Gospel as “rather than” in the sentence “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.” could just as easily been translated “alongside” as in, “This man [the tax collector] went down to his dome justified alongside the [Pharisee].”  The argument, for those who might care about the Greek, is that the preposition para plus the accusative case “can mean ‘rather than’ but far more often means ‘alongside.'”

With all due respect to Dr. Brosend, “can mean” and “far more often means” does not an ironclad argument make.  While I am certain that this phrase could be translated as “alongside,” I’m also certain that it should be rendered “rather than” because of two very important factors: math and context.

First, the math.  In the study of probabilities and statistics, we find the idea of mutually exclusive events.  That is to say, there are things which can not overlap; they simply cannot happen at the same time.  Take, for a very simplified example, flipping a coin.  It can land on heads or tails, but never both.  These are mutually exclusive events.

mutually_exclusive_venn

Now we turn to context.  Luke tells us that Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to a group of people who trusted in themselves “that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  These two things are mutually exclusive.  To be righteous is to be in perfect relationship with God and neighbor.  One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous.  It is impossible.

Jesus has taught this parable in order to make the point that righteousness does not belong to those who treat others with contempt, and as long as we engage in such behavior, we remain outside of the perfect relationship that God longs for.  Sure, God could forgive the sins of the Pharisee, but it seems far more likely that God would demand some sort of repentance from him.  To be unrighteous in one’s prayers may be the most damning unrighteousness of all.

I agree with Dr. Brosend that it could be that the both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went home justified, i.e. made righteous, but math and context seem to argue that only one was made righteous.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”

gut-01

This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.