October 23, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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.' 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!' 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."
This past Friday, Bob and I found a series on Netflix called “Black Mirror.” It’s a kind of modern day “Twilight Zone” – a television series that puts a scary twist on the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Every one of the plots involves something about modern technology, particularly smart phones, the internet, and social media. The plot twists are not as predictable as the old Rod Serling shows, and the story lines are scarier, because they are more like our real lives, only frightening.
The episode we watched was about a young woman who lives in a world that is utterly and completely dominated by social networking. Everyone has a smart phone, and everyone is constantly rating everyone, the way you would rate a movie, or a restaurant or a B&B. People upvote you at work, or at a party, and the more stars you get, the higher your status goes. The closer you get to a five star rating, the better everything in your life becomes – better friends, better cars, better airline seats, a better job, even a better house in a better neighborhood.
Trailer for "Nosedive" episode of Black Mirror on Netflix
If you get too many bad ratings, you lose your job, you lose all your friends, and eventually you become a complete social outcast. In the program, a young woman who is striving to improve her social ratings realizes through a series of terrible experiences that she is striving for all the wrong things in life. Ridiculous, of course, complete fantasy… except for the multiple ways in which it is very, very real.
Think Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Uber. Your status on those applications relies on the ratings you get. Someone writes a 140 character tweet, puts it out on Twitter, then waits to see if it trends – becomes popular. Snapchat awards a score based on the number of snaps you send. People who use the Uber ride sharing service rate their drivers. That seems fair, but did you know that Uber drivers rate passengers, too? Even on Ebay, too many bad ratings can get you kicked out.
On Facebook, a friend posts a picture, then counts how many people like it. For organizations on Facebook, like a business, or churches like us, the number of likes a page gets improves that page’s prominence. You can actually pay to “boost” a post. There are services you can pay that get people to like your page. They don’t really like it – they don’t care about it at all. But it looks impressive.
Unfortunately, all that social comparison on Facebook can be the source of dissatisfaction, even depression. Last year, Forbes magazine published an article about how comparing ourselves to others leads to unhappiness. It’s a shame that Pharisee didn’t know that, right? If he’d had the Internet, maybe he could have avoided the last 20 centuries of disapproval.
Of course, it’s just a story, this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus told it to make a point. Last week, we heard the parable of the persistent widow, a reminder to persist in prayer, and to persist in the pursuit of justice. The scripture says that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Okay, Jesus, point taken. Comparing ourselves to others, and regarding ourselves highly while holding others in contempt, is wrong. We get it.
The point of the story, then, is not to be like the Pharisee, but to be like the tax collector. But we are not like the Pharisee, right? We don’t look on others with contempt. None of us would stand up in church in front of everyone and brag about how righteous we are. We don’t compare ourselves to other people. And we don’t depend on the approval of others. We don’t base our sense of self worth on the number of likes we get. Our happiness does not depend on how many people follow us on Twitter.
Phew! Good thing we aren’t like that Pharisee! Oh darn. Wait.
The minute we say that, we’ve done exactly what we aren’t supposed to do!
See what Jesus did right there? Like most of his parables, this one puts us in a bind.
That Pharisee? He really was a good man. He was careful to do what was right, to treat others fairly, to be faithful to his wife, generous to others, obedient to God. He is a guy we’d be glad to have join our church! He’s the kind of church member most pastors would want to have in droves!
And that tax collector? He was not a nice fellow. Tax collectors in Jesus’ time weren’t hated because they collected taxes. They were hated because they were extortionists. They contracted with the local or regional authorities to collect taxes, then kept whatever additional money they could get out of people. They were rich, at least richer than most people, but they were despised. They were held in contempt. He is probably not the kind of fellow you’d want to have sit next to you in church. Nobody really wants to be like the tax collector!
So, as you hear this parable, who do you think you are?
Are you that good Pharisee, pleased with yourself and ready to report to God what a good guy you are? Or are you that contemptible tax collector, misusing vulnerable people and then asking for God’s mercy?
The famous 19th century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, “Comparisons are swords with two edges, which cut both ways.” This parable, too, is a sword with two edges, and it cuts both ways.
So if you think this story is about you, you are probably too vain.
If you don’t think this story is about you, you are probably too proud.
This story is about all of us, and the posture we take before God.
And this story is about God.
When we gather for worship and pray together our prayer of confession, there are times when we read the prayer and say the words, but secretly we are thinking that the confession has nothing to do with us. We imagine that we’ve done pretty well this week. Deep down, we may be saying, "Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? I work hard, I'm an honorable person.”
Or we may be thinking that we can just say a quick prayer and wipe the slate clean, without any real change of heart. In either case, prayers for ourselves, whether self-deprecating or self congratulatory, come dangerously close to self-exaltation.
In the evangelical church tradition in which I grew up, there is a practice of sharing personal testimonies. When done well, a testimony can be a powerful story of faith, a personal sharing of God’s work in your life. But there is a dark side to the testimony, one that many evangelical Christians call the “bragimony.” The online dictionary of Christianese defines a bragimony as “a testimony that has slipped into the fast lane without using its turn signal. A bragimony is less of a story of what God has done and more of a story about the good things the Christian himself or herself has done.”
By that definition, the Pharisee’s prayer is a bragimony. On the flip side, I’ve heard what sounds like a negative bragimony, too. That’s when the person testifying shares every terrible thing they have done, every sin and failing, in excruciating Technicolor detail.
When we live our lives on a rating system, seeking the approval of others, seeking status or fame or popularity, we can end up sounding like that Pharisee. When we spend too much time comparing ourselves to others, whether favorably or unfavorable, we can end up depressed and despairing.
When we live as if God is watching every move and upvoting us for heaven, or downvoting us for eternal damnation, our lives become an agony of calculations, and we become entirely focused on ourselves.
So the parable asks us this question: who do you think you are?
And at the end, although obliquely, it gives us an answer.
Fortunately, Jesus didn’t tell these stories as morality tales. If he had wanted to just teach us to be nice and moral people, he could have done so with a lot less trouble. Jesus didn’t need to die and go to the grave for us to be nice. Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again in order to demonstrate God’s mercy.
The one who went down to his house justified was the one whose posture before God was one of repentance. His stance in prayer was humble, fully reliant on God’s mercy. His view of himself was clear and honest. But God’s mercy was not granted to him because of that. God’s mercy was granted to the tax collector because of who God is.
The humbling and the exaltation of self are not the final word. The free gift of God’s mercy is. God is not waiting for us to report on our exceptional piety, nor is God checking out our ratings, likes, and upvotes on social media. God is persistently, relentlessly, lovingly granting mercy. God in Christ has given us that mercy, regardless of our social status, regardless of our social media ratings, regardless of our popularity or the high acclaim of other people.
Who do you think you are?
If you think that you are a righteous person, made so by your own act of will or the great humility you have achieved, if you think that you are good by right of the good deeds you did yesterday, you have missed the point of Jesus’ parable.
Who do you think you are?
If you think that you are a worthless person, made so by your bad choices or by the humiliation dealt to you by others, if you think that you are irredeemable and unlovable by right of the terrible things you’ve done, you have also missed the point of Jesus’ parable.
Who do you think you are?
It has been said that hurt people hurt people. Wounded people wound others. People who feel contemptible hold others in contempt. I think it is also true that forgiven people forgive people. Loved people love people. Knowing whose we are makes us who we are.
Who do you think you are?
Let’s let the third chapter of Titus remind us of who we are: We “ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit was poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by grace, we became heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Who do you think you are?
You are a sinner, saved by grace.
You are a precious, beautiful, beloved child of God.
You are loved beyond measure, simply for the fact that you are alive.
You are forgiven, set free, made glorious by God’s boundless mercy.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Thanks be to God!