Two men went up to the Temple to pray. If we were to tell this story in our own context, who would these men be? One was a pillar of the community: a supreme court justice, or a bishop perhaps, a highly educated man who lived his life exactly as his faith directed; a good man.
The other was a crook and a scoundrel, who made his living through illegitimate means, maybe as a drug dealer or a corrupt cop, who swindled and conspired without compunction; by any reasonable standard a bad man.
They stood in the worship space and each reached out to God in his own way. The good man prayed in the standard form of his tradition, giving thanks for what he was and was not, and adding in a few pats on the back for his own exemplary behavior: prayer, fasting, even tithing. And why not? How many of us could claim as much?
The bad man didn’t even try to follow a formula: he simply hung his head, confessed his sin and begged for mercy.
It’s kind of a shame that Luke gives away the punchline to the parable right at the beginning: from the start we know who will be the villain of the piece. The Pharisee’s words of prayer betray him: he’s not there for a conversation with God; he’s there to advertise his virtue. He’s not listening for or expecting a response. He has taken care of his own salvation: follow the rules and in turn receive a gold star from the Lord. He lives in a transactional world where grace is earned, where mercy is limited, where there are insiders and outsiders, good guys and bad guys, and the people who decide who’s in which group call the shots.
Is this the world of Jesus?
Or is the world of Jesus a world where there are no outsiders, where you can depend on a welcome no matter who you are or what you’ve done, where hands reach across barriers and class divides to join in gratitude for undeserved grace, where everyone shares freely of the abundance they receive from God, so that all may be cared for and offered dignity? A world, in short, where we overcome our differences in order to love Christ, serve others, and welcome all?
I know which world I want to live in. But right now, our world is looking a lot more like the Pharisee’s version. We have unprecedented levels of division in our country. One statistic says that most Americans are opposed to the idea of their child marrying someone who votes for the other political party. We judge the people we meet on the basis of which TV news channel they watch or what bumper sticker is on their car. We don’t even trust each other to respect the democratic process. And yet what we have in common is so much more than divides us.
Growing up in Northern Ireland I witnessed the deadly consequences of allowing small differences to destroy a community, as Protestants and Catholics, indistinguishable to look at or listen to, people who shared the same Christian religion, demonized and attacked each other. It was tragic.
The perils of comparing our virtue to others’ sins are everywhere. I remember an interfaith clergy meeting, years ago, where we were sharing our criteria for deciding who we would allow to marry in our worship spaces (this was before same-sex marriage was on any mainline pastor’s radar). One Baptist preacher put his hand up and said categorically, ” I will not marry known sinners.” Before we had a chance to unpack what he meant by that, a Roman Catholic priest raised his hand and said, “Um, excuse me, but aren’t we all ‘known sinners’?” Who’s in, who’s out. We need to be very careful about excluding others from our own vision of the Kingdom of God, because our vision tends to be extremely limited, unlike God’s.
It’s easy to slip into that Pharisaic mode of self-congratulation, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time in church. I’m reminded of the Sunday School teacher who finished up a class on this parable by saying, “Well, children, aren’t we glad we aren’t like that nasty Pharisee?” Wow, even the word “nasty” has been politicized this week, with the hot new hashtag of #nastywoman trending on social media. There’s just no escape from the judgmentalism and divisiveness of our public discourse, is there?
In a couple of weeks the election will be behind us. I know I won’t be alone in breathing a giant sigh of relief. As you know, we will offer prayers here throughout election day, until an hour after the polls close. We will also offer healing prayers at the noon service on November 9, and there will be much to heal from. Please invite your friends – and especially those who don’t share your political views – to join us.
After we all take down the placards on our lawns and get back to posting cat videos on Facebook, how long will it take for us to forget that our neighbor supported the other candidate? How long will it take for those who voted for the winner to stop saying, “I thank you God that I’m not like those people” and for those who voted for the loser to let go of their anger and suspicion?
As the Cathedral for the City, this faith community has a responsibility to set an example of healing and generosity of spirit. We can invite those with whom we differ to pray with us, we can be willing to listen to the hurt, we can encourage one another to play down the triumphalism.
Because it is never OK for Christians to say “Thank God I am not like those people.” Those people are our neighbors. Those people are beloved children of God, just like us. We are just as broken as those we despise as tax collectors and sinners. We are just as much in need of grace and just as undeserving.
So, when you pray, beware lest your prayer turns into a speech and you start imagining that you have achieved righteousness all by yourself. Remember that it is God who acts, God who judges, God who takes the initiative in reaching out to us with unlimited love and mercy, exalting the humble and humbling the self-exalted, because all are equally unworthy and all are equally precious in God’s sight.
Two final thoughts: a decade ago, when the Episcopal Church was locked in conflict over the consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, two bishops offered reflections that deeply impressed me. Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia told his Standing Committee, “The most dangerous mindset is when we are certain that we are right. I have to keep reminding myself that we might all be wrong about this.” And the other was Bishop Robinson himself who said of Nigerian Archbishop Akinola, the most outspoken of those who condemned him, “I keep thinking about how surprised Peter Akinola will be when he finds me sitting next to him in heaven.”
To our merciful God be the glory for ever and ever.
October 23, 2016