[Jesus] 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." (Luke 18:9-14)
Look outside your window and see the fiery trees or go for a walk and feel the chilly tinge to the breeze, and you will know that we are squarely in the season of autumn. But turn on your television or listen to the radio, and you will also know that we are in the thick of election season. In an average commercial break, you can hear that you should vote for this guy, because he’s not a liar, cheat, or elitist like the other guy. And you’ll hear that you should vote for our candidate, because he isn’t as young, inexperienced, and self-serving as the other guy. You’ll hear about all of the scandals and inconsistencies that we’ve scrounged up about the other candidate, and how you’re better off voting for our candidate because, well, he’s not the other guy. This is the public discourse of politics these days. We find ways to demonize those who disagree with us on any issue, big or small, and then say to ourselves and our cronies, “Thank God I’m not like those people.”
Jesus was speaking to a group of people who believed themselves righteous and looked at others with judgment and contempt. He told them a parable: There were two men who went to the temple to pray. The first was a Pharisee who kept the law faithfully, was an upstanding member of society, and who generally had his life together. He stood, fixed his gaze up toward heaven, and prayed to God, “I thank you that I live such a righteous and upstanding life, not like these other people - adulterers, rogues, tax collectors, thieves and the like. Look at how faithful I am, God! I give money to the temple and I fast. By all counts I am a great person, unlike so many others around me. Thank God I’m not like those people.” The other man at the temple was a tax collector. Knowing his own faults and failings, he couldn’t even lift his head. All he could do was beat his breast and repent for his shortcomings, praying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And which one do you think was justified in the sight of the Lord? The one who came humbly into the sight of the Lord, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
We are hard-wired to draw lines. It is our instinct and our first defense, to talk big and to find ways to distance ourselves from people who represent the worst in our societies or in our own selves. We always want to believe that we must be better than those others. A humorous example of this would be the following statement credited to Dave Barry: “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above average drivers.”
But even as we chuckle, we know that the human, sinful, broken desire to draw divides between “us” and “them” has tragic and unthinkable consequences.
A few weeks ago, we heard the news report of a Rutgers University student who took his life after being embarrassed and harassed by his college roommate. Over the next two weeks, more stories emerged of other students taking their lives after being bullied mercilessly by their peers. The news cycle began telling the stories of children who have anxiety attacks every morning because they fear going to school and stories of children having to change schools because their harassment is so severe. One news story focused on children who were being excluded and bullied on the playground as early as kindergarten. Another news story told of a teenage girl who had taken her own life because of a group of bullies at school, and how these bullies had shown up at her wake to mocked her and laughed at her even there, standing next to her casket.
The human desire to draw lines between “us” and “them” is always a tragedy.
If you have ever been bullied, if you have ever been teased on the playground or excluded by the cool kids at school or at work, if you have ever been the subject of gossip and rumors, if you have ever been attacked over your political leanings or your social values, if you have ever been on the receiving end of a judging look or disparaging comment, you know that people get hurt when we indulge our human tendency to mutter “Thank God I’m not like those people” under our breath.
We are in no position to judge or to draw lines. We are ALL “those people,” for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Not one of us is righteous. We are all born broken and sinful and in need of God’s grace. This is what the Pharisee couldn’t understand.
“His utter conviction of his own righteousness leads him to hold others in contempt. His righteousness becomes the standard by which he judges all others. The world, for this man, is utterly, irrevocably divided into two sides: between the righteous and unrighteous, the moral and the immoral, the just and the unjust, those who are in and those who are out. Such a moral geography leaves no room for either ambiguity or grace” (workingpreacher.org).
The Pharisee doesn’t understand that we can’t make ourselves righteous merely by being good people or faithful churchgoers or upstanding citizens. Righteousness and justification are God’s business, and grace is offered just the same to people who do good things and to swindling tax collectors and to smelly kids with acne and braces and to alcoholic fathers and to inconsiderate coworkers.
For all have sinned an fall short of the glory of God. But, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
This is what the tax collector understood. We have a God who doesn’t cast us aside because of our sins, and we have a God who does not exclude us based on our brokenness or our differences. We all have the ear of a God whose heart is moved by even the simplest and most desperate prayers: God, be merciful to me, a sinner. God, be merciful to me, an outcast. God, be merciful to me, an oppressor. God, be merciful to me, a struggling human being.
Prayers like these stand in stark contrast to a world of snarky political ads, cruel playground taunts, and divisive self-righteousness. Prayers like these join us to all of God’s broken, suffering, longing children who are powerless to seek anything else but the grace of God, which draws no boundaries and takes no heed of “us” or “them,” but is instead offered for all.
God transforms our hearts so that we no longer can say “Thank God that I’m not like those people,” but instead, “Thank God that Jesus came to save those people, of whom I am the worst.”
In Christ, we no longer depend upon our accomplishments for our self-worth, nor do we secure our identities by puffing ourselves up and putting others down. In Christ, we have no use for drawing lines and creating divides, defining ourselves by defining others. Because in Christ, we have received the identity, “redeemed child of God,” an identity that is offered freely to all.
With our identities grounded in the grace of God, we are called to live graciously. We are called to work in faith to mend the divides that we see all around us. We are called to be dissatisfied with voices of division and disturbed by voices of violence. We are called to proclaim God’s reconciliation in places of exclusion. We are called to be hopeful voices of God’s liberation and peace.
As today’s gospel continues to search our souls and challenge us to seek out opportunities to build bridges where right now there are only divides, we join our hearts in prayer, using these words attributed to St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.