Less than two weeks ago an explosive device was thrown through the window of the North Carolina Republican Party office in Hillsborough, NC. The words “Nazi Republicans, leave town or else” were painted on an adjacent building. The attack was condemned by both Republican and Democratic leaders for obvious reasons. It’s a sign that things have gotten way out of hand during this long and difficult election season. It’s a sign that the demonization of those whose political views are different from ours has gotten way out of hand. I pray that it doesn’t get any worse, but I’m afraid we’ve not seen the end of this kind of violence.
What is happening to our country? It used to be that we could discuss and debate our differences. We could talk things out, work on compromises, and find a way of moving forward together. Now, it seems like hate speech is the norm. This is not limited to the politics. Conservative and Progressive Christians are hurling words at one another, and seeing those they disagree with as tools of the Devil. Intolerance and violence against the LGBT community is on the rise. I have heard hate speech aimed at Hispanics, women, immigrants, Blacks, Muslims and even Jews. I never thought we would go there again. But alas we have arrived this same low point in the history of the world, once again. What is happening to our country?
Furthermore, what is happening to the Church of Jesus Christ where this kind of behavior is not only tolerated but we are told that this is what Jesus would do, this is how Jesus would act, when nothing could be further from the truth.
If you’ve been paying attention, I’m certain that you’re as concerned as I am. You’re wondering how in the world we’re going to recover from this. You are wondering how can we heal the deep divisions that exist in Church and society. I wish there was an easy answer, but there isn’t. Life is messy and complicated. The challenges we face as a nation are messy and complicated.
That being said, I see a glimmer of hope in our gospel lesson for today. If there was ever a time that we needed to hear this particular word from Jesus, it is most definitely now. It may provide a clue regarding how we can begin to heal our divisions, and quell the fires of hatred that are burning out of control in these troubled times.
Luke says that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Right away, this should get our attention. If this doesn’t sound like a description of the state of our nation, I don’t know what does. The word “righteous” in original Greek means “those who see themselves as innocent, faultless, and guiltless; those we believe they are keeping the commands of God and have no need to change their hearts or their lives.” We call this doing the “superior dance.” It means I’m right, and you’re wrong. I’m Jesus little sunbeam, and you’re not. I have God’s seal of approval, and you’re an instrument of evil. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
The attitude the righteous have, according to Luke, is one of contempt. Contempt means “the feeling that a person or thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn.” Ding, ding, ding. We have a winner! Contempt is a good way of describing the overall attitude of our nation today. These days, it’s not okay to simply have a difference of opinion with our neighbor. We need to fire-bomb their election headquarters, call them derogatory names, or punch them in the face at a political rally. We need to pass laws in the name of “religious liberty” that are simply discrimination in a pretty packages. To have contempt for another human being or group of people means we fail to see them as beloved children of God. There is NOTHING righteous about this!
So when Luke tells us this parable is for those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt,” it means we should pay attention because Jesus is talking about us! We are all guilty as charged, including me. We may not have verbalized our contempt, but we all hold contempt in our hearts. Therefore we need to have “ears to hear” what Jesus says this morning.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” Jesus’ listening audience would have a preconceived notion of what this meant. The shorthand is “Pharisee, good. Tax collector, bad!”
As the story develops there is nothing that would indicate otherwise. “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.’”
Now we hear this prayer as self-righteousness at its worst and see the Pharisee as having contempt for the tax collector. However, if a 1st century Jew heard this prayer, they would think nothing of it. It’s pretty standard stuff and is a Jewish prayer of thanksgiving.
A real life example of this kind of prayer occurs in the Talmud. The prayer goes as follows: “I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, that you have set my portion with those who sit in the house of study and you have not set my portion with those who sit in street corners. For I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.”
Sound familiar? The structure of this prayer is similar to the one in our gospel lesson. The Talmud does not view this prayer as self-righteous or boasting. It is simply a rabbi giving thanks to God for the many blessings in his life. Therefore, those who heard this parable for the first time would not have raised an eyebrow at this prayer. It reinforced what they were already thinking: “Pharisee, good. Tax Collector, bad!”
Isn’t that the way it is in life when we surround ourselves exclusively with those who look like us and think like us? These days, it’s an easy thing to do. We can watch news channels that support our political point of view. We can go the churches who echo our religious beliefs as well. We can isolate ourselves from anybody and any opinion we don’t agree with.
I don’t have to tell you that this is a dangerous thing. It leads to the mess we’re in as a nation. We need people in our lives who think differently than we do. We need people in our lives to help us see things from another perspective. It’s the only way we will ever grow.
But the tables are about to turn in the parable. Jesus sets up both his audience and us for a reality check. “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!’
Those who heard this parable for the first time would think that Jesus was one of them. “That’s right, Jesus.” they would say, “He’s a sinner. We all know what THOSE kind of people are like. He should be asking for forgiveness…but I doubt that he’ll get it.”
It’s at this point in the story that Jesus completely annihilates this kind of attitude: “I tell you, this man, this tax collector, whom you regard as a unredeemable sinner, 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.”
If we are feeling good about ourselves when we hear these words, we need to listen to them again. Jesus is telling us that any time we feel superior to another human being and treat them with contempt we are going to be humbled. Jesus is going to work on our hearts and minds to tear down this kind of prejudicial and hurtful thinking. The real attitude we should possess is a spirit of humility which, in the original Greek, means “to level, reduce to a plain, to bring low.”
Humility seeks a level playing field. Humility does not try to get ahead at the expense of others. Humility means we admit we don’t know everything there is to know about God and our world. Humility means our ears are open to what others say and believe even when we disagree. Humility means we do not feel superior to others, but have the capacity to see everyone as a beloved child of God.
Earlier I asked the question “What is happening to our country?” Our gospel lesson provides an answer: our problem is a lack of humility. Our problem is treating others with contempt while failing to see our own fault and failures. Our problem is exalting ourselves to the point of ridiculousness, while demonizing everyone else who doesn’t agree with us. Lord, have mercy! As we say in the South, we are a red, hot mess as a nation. My friends who live in other countries are seriously worried about us! That being said, I do see glimmers of hope. I do see a way forward.
After the firebombing of the GOP headquarters, Democrats set up a Go Fund Me page. The campaign’s goal was to raise $10,000 to cover the cost of rebuilding the GOP office. In less than four hours they raised a total of $13,167. I see that as a sign of hope.
Several months ago, when Trump spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, The crowd outside was on the verge of violent behavior. Our bishop Tim Smith, along with Lutheran pastors and lay people, formed a human chain between opposing sides. They began to sing “Jesus Loves Me This I Know” and were able to deescalate the situation. I see that as a sign of hope.
Every time we resist the temptation to repost all the political garbage and hate speech that is polluting our Facebook feeds, I see that as a sign of hope.
Friends in Christ, Jesus told us that we are the light of the world. Right now, the kind of light we need to be shining is a spirit of humility. We need to model for others a different kind of behavior than what we’re seeing in the world around us. We need to make sure that we are not viewing others with contempt and adding to the problem. We need to be creative in the ways we show Christ’s love, so that the world might be transformed by it.
I know most of us look at what’s happening in our nation right now and think that the situation is hopeless. But we serve a God who is always bringing new life from death and new beginnings from dead ends. We are called to take up our cross and do the same, showing the world what it means to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Amen.
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck