9[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The 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. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But 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!’ 14I 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.” (NRSV)
|Horses by Gary Campbell-Hall on Flickr. CC BY 2.0|
At 9:50 this morning, we rang our church bells eleven times… because one year ago today, a gunman burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, killing seven worshippers and wounding six more. He allegedly shouted “All Jews must die” during the attack.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks a parable about two men who walk into the Temple to pray: one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prays “thank you, God, that I’m not a miserable sinner like thieves, rogues, adulterers, and that tax collector.”
I hear the Pharisee’s contempt for the tax collector, and others, in the echo of the gunfire that shattered the holy silence inside Tree of Life one year ago. The shooter was a man whose contempt for Jews, immigrants, and human life in general, had consumed him to the point of violence.
Throughout the Gospels, we witness the Pharisees’ utter contempt for Jesus. They antagonized him at every turn. They were among those directly responsible for conspiring with the Pontius Pilate government to have Jesus crucified.
Yet for as often as Jesus clashes with the Pharisees, and as harshly as Jesus speaks to them, at no point does Jesus ever declare that they are beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Truth is, it wasn’t a sin to be a Pharisee. They were part of a movement within Judaism that emphasized strict obedience to the Law of Moses. This wasn’t so much about snobbish legalism as it was a concerted effort to bind themselves to God and each other in a world where the social and cultural forces of the Roman Empire constantly threatened to tear them apart.
If, then, we lump all Pharisees into being enemies of Jesus, and associate all Pharisees with hypocrisy and self-righteousness, we become guilty of the same sin as this Pharisee.
You don’t need to be a Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite. And you don’t need to be a tax collector, thief, rogue, or adulterer to be a sinner.
Jesus’ parable is not an indictment on Pharisees as it is an indictment on anyone and everyone who would single out their neighbor as an enemy beyond the reach of God’s grace. And we do this all the time.
Life in this complicated world becomes much simpler when you adopt a binary view of reality—reducing life into a struggle of good versus evil. It’s quite a boost to your self-worth to place yourself on the side of God, the angels, and everything good. And who wouldn’t want to be the mighty hero who vanquishes evildoers, like Batman, Superman—or even biblical heroes like David and Joshua? The synagogue shooter certainly saw himself this way… as a hero.
God, however, doesn’t operate this way. The cross makes this undeniably clear. And the promise of redemption through the cross is not subject limitations we humans may see fit to impose upon others—or even on ourselves.
Living decently doesn’t give anyone bragging rights. It doesn’t make you a hero. And it certainly isn’t going to get you any closer to God. God can’t raise you up to new life as long as you sit atop your high horse!
All anyone can do is what the tax collector does: to say, “I know I’m wrong, and I can’t make myself right. God, have mercy on my life” And Christ, through the cross, makes you right with God. And no one—not this tax collector, not this arrogant Pharisee, nor even the synagogue shooter—is beyond the redemptive power of God. If, perhaps, you’re riding high on your high horse, God may have to knock you down! It happened to the Apostle Paul—who, incidentally, was a Pharisee!
The invitation for you, then, is to throw away the contempt you have for others—whether you see them as having cheated into privilege, or a disease upon all that is good and decent in the world. This contempt suffocates the life of God out of you and makes the world even darker than it already is.
Truth is, you have something to learn from everyone you look down upon: fundamentally, that God never regards you with such contempt—even when you are unrepentant. God is nothing like those who stoke fear and hostility towards the “other.” The hallmark of bad religion is an arbitrary set of criteria to summarily judge good and evil; who’s eligible for eternal life, and who’s bound for destruction.
Furthermore, there are people everywhere (and you may be one of them), who know nothing but contempt—due to either tragic misfortune or the sins they’ve committed and/or the poor choices they’ve made. They’re stuck. They’re losing hope. And in many cases, they’re dying. They can’t help themselves. The grace and mercy they need, just to get by, is nowhere to be found. You can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you don’t have boots! Yet when sinners answer with contempt, God answers with mercy. And there’s no better way to know the wideness of God’s mercy than to get off your high horse and join Christ in lifting up the lowly. There is no contempt in the kingdom of God—and with a little bit of mercy, patience, forgiveness, and grace we will all taste the resurrection life.