In today’s gospel we are introduced to two very different people praying two very different prayers. The story begins, “Two people went down to pray.” One is a Pharisee – a good, bible-believing, church going, moral person. The other is a tax collector – a hated collaborator with the repressive Romans, who stole money from poor widows and grew fat off the pain of his fellow Jews. Other than the Romans themselves, no one was more hated than the tax collectors who did the Romans’ dirty work, and skimmed some off the top for themselves.
The Pharisee probably watched from his usual seat up front as the tax collector wandered through the front door. All eyes were squinted on him as he struggled to make himself invisible. He probably snuck in late hoping to find a seat at the back, so not to be noticed. But just like good Lutherans, the seats at the back of this house of worship were already filled by the time the service started. So, the tax collector slinked down near the front, under the hard stare of the faithful.
The synagogue leaders began to pray.
Above the chorus the Pharisee lifted his voice to God, “God I thank you that I’m not like these other people: thieves, criminals, adulterers, or even like that tax collector.” And all eye lids opened and the tax collector could feel the weight of their condemning gaze bearing down on him. He knew this prayer was directed to him as much as to God. “I fast twice a week;” The Pharisee continued, “ I give a tenth of my income. I am faithful.” Heads nodded in agreement. Yes, the Pharisee was faithful, every one knew it.
Then the tax collector, tears of fear trickling down his cheeks, and with joints cracking and muscles tensing up, knelt down on the floor, he whispered, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
What do you think happened next? Did the place erupt with boos and hisses because this sinner spoke such utter blaspheme? Who is this tax collector to believe that God hears his prayers? Who is this sinner to believe that God cares for him? Everyone knew the Pharisee was right. The Pharisee was diligent. He was committed. He was faithful He was righteous. He did obey the law better than anyone else. And everyone knew it. That’s what makes Jesus’ comparison so devastating to those who heard him.
But maybe more importantly, I think everyone has a prayed a prayer like the Pharisee, at least I know that I have. Mine goes something like this:
“I give you thanks, O God, that I’m not like these cold hearted politicians, who limit peoples’ freedom and call it security, or these sleazy TV evangelists who exploit your name in the pursuit of unfettered personal wealth, or these cigar chomping corporate execs who plunder your good creation leaving it desolate for future generations, who keep their feet firmly planted on the throats of developing countries. I put cloth diapers on my kids, I recycle, I eat organic vegetables. I am faithful.”
I can really whip myself into a righteous lather, when I want to.
So what’s your prayer? Who are you glad you’re better than? And what does that look like in your life?
Alexa McDonough, MP for Halifax once confided to me that some of the most hate-filled letters and abusive phone calls that she receives as a politician come from Christians pitching bible verses at her. This saddened me, but didn’t surprise me. We Christians can get really bent out shape when we put our minds to it. But I read an article recently that reported that when asked what a Christian is, most people outside the church believe a Christian is someone who is opposed to abortion and gay rights. What I find astounding about that is that there is nothing about Jesus, love of neighbour, or even going to church. So despite our best efforts, they don’t know we are Christians by our love, but by our opposition to various causes. It’s not the hand reaching out in love that people see. They see the fist raised in anger.
Of course, it would be easy to blame the media who are more interested in the lunatic fringe than reporting the good things that churches do. Or we could ask ourselves why those outside the church don’t hear from us the good news of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation. They only hear angry shouts of protest.
Maybe it’s because being righteous is easy. Being loving is hard.
When I was in seminary I helped organize a group called the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty or OCAP. We were an ad-hoc group of students, homeless people, university professors, and “middle class do-gooders.” Our mandate was to help raise public awareness of how certain government policy decisions were hurting low income people and forcing more families onto the streets. The more radical members of the group were known to protest in front of government offices and banks. And one of these folks, took it upon himself to organize a protest in front of the church where a major political leader was attending the funeral of his mother. Most of the group had no idea they were planning this until we saw them on the news sporting signs with the name OCAP, yelling at the mourners as they left the church.
Afterwards, I asked the group if such a display of hardhearted and callous disregard for a family in pain would advance our cause. Many of them didn’t care. The cause was just, they said. The ends justify the means. As a follower of Jesus, I wondered if such lack of caring revealed a self-righteousness that broke the heart of God. It wasn’t long after that, I left the group because I knew that I was in danger of becoming just like them.
Because it’s easy to be righteous. It’s hard to be loving.
Baptist preacher Tony Campolo tells a story about how he got turned around on how he dealt with a controversial issue: “I had a friend who was a pastor at a church up in Brooklyn.” Campolo says, “It was one of those inner-city churches that was dying. It was down to a very small number. Pastor Jim survived there by doing funerals that nobody else would do. One Tuesday morning the undertaker called Jim to tell him that a man had died and that nobody wanted to do the funeral because the man had died of AIDS.
I asked, “Did you take it.”
He said, “Sure.”
I asked, “What was it like?”
He said, “When we got there, there was about 30 or 40 gay and lesbian men and women. They were sitting there with their heads down. And as I preached, as I spoke, they never once looked up at me. Their heads were down and they were staring at the floor.
“When the service was over we got into the automobiles that followed the hearse out to the cemetery. I stood on one edge of the grave, read some scripture and said some prayers. And on the other side of the grave were these gay men. They stood there like statues. Not a nerve, not a sinew seemed to move. They were riveted in place, their eyes had a glassy appearance, and they seemed to be staring off into space. When I finished and said the closing prayer no one moved. It was an awkward moment so I asked if there was anything more I could do. One of the men said “yes. They always read the 23rd psalm at these things and you didn’t do that. Would you read the 23rd psalm for us?” And he did.
Then another man said, there’s a passage in the 3rd chapter of John where Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit,” and he read the “Spirit blows where it wills and you cannot tell from where it comes or to where it goes.”
Then a third man said, “My favorite passage is at the end of the 8th chapter of Romans,” And Jim read to these men, “Neither height nor depth, nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, neither life nor death, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.”
Campolo then says, “When I heard Jim tell this story, I hurt inside because I realized that these men at the funeral had an understanding of scripture, but they would never set foot inside of a church.” They won’t step foot in a church because they know they are not welcome. Like the tax collector, eyes will bear down, squinted, wondering who let them in.
You have to remember that both Campolo and his friend Pastor Jim are Baptist preachers. They are not some feel good, anything goes, wishy-washy liberals. Both of them have an uncompromisingly conservative view of the so-called “gay lifestyle.” But I think the lesson they learned is a good one. We can be right when we point to bible passages that talk about homosexual activity, but does that advance the cause of the gospel? According to the letter of the law we will be righteous. But being righteous is easy. Being loving is hard.
But Jesus doesn’t want righteousness from us, because Jesus knows that being righteous isn’t what being his follower is all about. Following Jesus isn’t about rules. Life is not a final exam. Jesus wants us to love. And that love comes from knowing that we all are sinners; that the tax collector could be speaking for any of us. But the good news is this: there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less. We come to God just as we are, broken, sinful, hurting, to receive the healing and the salvation that comes from the hands of a loving God. As Christians, we take our cue from Jesus, who instead of reaching out with a fist to condemn the sin of the world, stretched out his hands in love and died for the sins of the world, so that on the third day he would rise again to bring new life to all people. May this be so among us. Amen.