Year C, Pentecost 23
This past week, one of the big news stories was a German Roman Catholic bishop who was accused of spending millions on lavish renovations. Shortly after the news broke, Pope Francis called him in to speak with him. He then temporarily suspended him. Apparently the renovation project was over 41 million dollars, and a portion went to the bishop’s private residence. (Makes our renovation project seem pretty minor.) The timing of this scandal is rather ironic because Oct. 31st marks the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses on the door of Castle Church in Whittenberg Germany. One of the things that Martin Luther condemned in the 95 theses was the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. This action marked the beginning of the Protestant reformation. So now around the same time, a bishop is condemned in Germany for the very same thing. I grew up Catholic and I remember every time something like this happened, I found myself having to defend the Roman Catholic Church. Yet this time around, I thought, thank goodness I am an Episcopalian.
It’s easy to do that, isn’t it, compare ourselves to one another? One of the reasons that I think reality TV is so popular is because it makes us feel better about ourselves. “Well I have done some stupid things, but at least I have never acted like those people on the Jersey Shore or Desperate Housewives.” (Which admittedly is a fairly low bar.)
We do it as Christians more than we would like to admit. I sit on the Commission on Ministry for the diocese. We are the commission that interviews people who are seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church. One of the questions I often ask people is, “How would you describe the Episcopal Church to someone who knew nothing about the Episcopal Church?” The majority of the time, people describe the Episcopal Church as what we are not. “We are kind of like the Catholics, but we do not have a pope and we ordain women. We are much more open-minded than most Christians. We are not nearly as judgmental.” And I admit it, in desperate times, I have used the same tactics to describe our faith. Sometimes it is just the easier way to go. Unfortunately it does not speak much to the richness of our faith or our tradition if all we can say is what and who we are not.
“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 like this, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector…” You know the rest…hopefully because I just read it. The Pharisee goes on to recite all the wonderful things he does, which are rather impressive. Then we see the humble tax collector who cannot even lift his eyes to heaven. Instead he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” This man went home justified rather than the other one. The moral of the story is clear: Pharisee is bad, the tax collector is good. Thank goodness we are not like the Pharisee.
It is important to note something about tax collectors in this time period. People who work for the IRS right now might not be on everyone’s dinner party list, but they are not nearly as maligned as tax collectors were in Jesus’ day. Tax collectors were considered traitors because they worked for the Romans, a government that oppressed the Jews and taxed them, but gave them no rights. Tax collectors were part of this oppressive government, and to make matters worse, they often earned their living by asking for more taxes that even the Roman government required. They were basically stealing from their own people. That was why he was beating his breast and asking God to be merciful. He is often described as humble. He wasn’t necessarily humble, he was just honest.
The Pharisee on the other hand, was probably a pretty good person. He was devoted to his faith. He went above and beyond what the requirements were of that day. Yet in this story, the tax collector is the one who returned home justified. The Pharisee was not justified, because he started off as righteous. The words justified and righteous both have similar meanings. One is not better than the other. The problem was not that the Pharisee started off as righteous, the problem is that he was righteous because he trusted in himself and regarded others with contempt. He trusted in himself. Again, that does not sound so bad. Most people would not think poorly of a person who claimed to trust in his or herself. In fact, we would probably say that person has a healthy self-confidence. There is nothing wrong with being confident. There is nothing wrong with being righteous. The problem comes when we forget who the source of that righteousness is. The Pharisee believed that he was able to make himself righteous with his own actions. He did not realize that it was only God who could make him righteous. The tax collector knew that he was nothing without God.
As long as we think that what we do justifies us, we will always compare ourselves to others. When we compare ourselves to others, no one wins. Because we are either judging the other or we are judging ourselves. Either they fall short, or we do. There was only one human who was ever fit to judge and he died and was resurrected almost 2000 years ago. So if you have to compare yourself to someone, compare yourself to Jesus. That sounds like a tall order, right? Jesus was sinless. So how about we stop comparing and we start striving, striving for the example that Jesus set for us and continues to set for us. Then when we weary of striving, we forgive others and we forgive ourselves.
Did you all notice how many comparisons I made in the beginning of the sermon? I wrote those on purpose to make a point, but those thoughts, those all came naturally. I really compared the Bishop’s renovations to ours when I first heard about it. Before I heard about this recent scandal, I was even kind of jealous of my Roman Catholics friends and family because I am experiencing pope envy. This new pope is awesome. So I get it. I get the Pharisee. But you know what, I’m also so tired of having to be good enough. I think a lot of us are. That is why everyone is so busy and stressed. We are all trying to be good enough. So let’s just admit that we are never good enough…and we do not have to be. We have a God who is the source of all goodness. When we are weary of the effort, we can let go of the pretenses and scream or just mumble, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That is all it takes to be good enough in God’s eyes.