Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sinners having contempt for sinners

“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

For whom do you have contempt? I’m going to guess that in this particular season of our lives, every one of us has had contempt for at least one person, and probably for at least one if not several groups of people. If you don’t think you have, and yet you have found yourself saying something along the lines of “I just can’t believe those _______ believe/do that,” you’ve probably had contempt for someone.

“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

Good news: yet again, Jesus is talking to us. All of us. Let he that is without contempt cast the first stone. I struggle with contempt. I struggle with not despising those who I view as ignorant; or hateful; or hypocritical… and I fear the vulnerability of admitting those groups/people for whom I am inclined to have contempt from a pulpit. But it’s honest.

How do I appreciate and value my education without having contempt for those who are less well educated; how do I celebrate my ideal way of life—one that is welcoming to people regardless of their gender or sexuality or race, however imperfectly I actually embody it in reality—without having contempt for those who are biased against those groups; especially when the biases of those for whom I have contempt put the safety of myself and my friends at risk?

I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance’s provocative new book about his life growing up as a hillbilly in Ohio and Kentucky, before escaping poverty, joining the Marines, and graduating from Yale Law School. He’s a conservative commentator with whom I don’t have a whole lot in common, politically or culturally, but he’s very good at describing communities for whom I might be tempted to have contempt with honesty and sympathy. He wrote in the Atlantic a few months ago:

“A few Saturdays ago, my wife and I spent the morning volunteering at a community garden in our San Francisco neighborhood. After a few hours of casual labor, we and the other volunteers dispersed to our respective destinations: tasty brunches, day trips to wine country, art-gallery tours. It was a perfectly normal day, by San Francisco standards.

That very same Saturday, in the small Ohio town where I grew up, four people overdosed on heroin. A local police lieutenant coolly summarized the banality of it all: “It’s not all that unusual for a 24-hour period here.” He was right: in Middletown, Ohio, that too is a perfectly normal day.”

If I do not live in a section of the world where four people overdosing on heroin in a weekend is normal… how can I possibly know enough to have contempt for the members of that community, and the choices and values they espouse? When I ask myself “How did we get to this place as a people?” JD Vance offers some explanations that are uncomfortable for me… but have the ring of truth.

Jesus explains our contempt by telling us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is the person who is outwardly very devout and successful—but trips over his ego on his way to the goalposts and crashes spectacularly. All he had to do was stop at “God, I thank you.” If he had just done that… and left off the “I thank you that I’m not like all the other people, and I thank you that I’ve done all the right things.” He’s praising himself—not God—in his prayers.

And we have the tax collector, who by virtue of being a tax collector we know is corrupt and takes bribes and profits off the occupation of his own people by a foreign government. It is the Pharisee’s beliefs and actions that cause the tax collector to be ostracized and isolated; it is the tax collector’s actions that put in peril the life and faith and stability of the Pharisee. There is a huge chasm between these two men, despite some outward similarities—they are both men, they are both Jews, they are both worshiping in the same place, and in their own way, each of them has power.

And yet because the tax collector is the one who is penitent, because he is the one who stands there, head bowed, and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is the one Jesus says goes to his house justified.

Because he is the one who knows who—and what—he is. He knows he is a sinner.

The sin of the Pharisee is that he doesn’t know he’s a sinner. Their sins may not be equal, but they are both in sin, just like all of us. But the great joy and mercy and surprise of God is that both of them are redeemable. Both these men are children of God. They are equally loved by God.

And so are you.

We are supposed to emulate the tax collector’s humility and penitence, but not his sin. And we are not supposed to emulate the Pharisee’s arrogance and self-exaltation—but what the Pharisee is doing is good! It is good to tithe and to fast and to pray! We should do those things—but we are called to do them in service of praising God, and not praising ourselves.

Jesus does not say today: the sins of the tax collector do not matter. Throughout scripture, Jesus hangs out with all sorts of sinners—tax collectors, women, centurions, Samaritans… but for those whose identity in scripture is based upon a sin—the tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery, etc. there is always an open welcome—but the invitation is not to stay as they are, but to be changed. To follow Jesus, they need to give up their prior sins—you cannot follow Jesus and STILL be exploiting people. The tax collector goes home justified—but if he goes home and is not changed, if he goes back to bribery and extortion…. He will no longer be justified. Jesus still will welcome him back, again, repentant—it can take a lot of tries to let go of sins that are profitable by worldly standards—but to follow Jesus we have to turn away from our sins, not just repeat them endlessly.

And having contempt is a sin. I can love you as a child of God, and not despise you, and still recognize and respond to your sin. That is the faithful response to sin. If you espouse hate—I will not stand by idly and say that is alright—I will confront you again and again, and do everything in my power to prevent your sin from harming others… but I will not imagine that I understand why you hate. And I will not demonize you for your sin. Because you still have value and are still a child of God.

And because you know what, I’ve got plenty of sins of my own. Take the plank out of my own eye before I try to take the splinter out of yours. Today’s gospel is an invitation to honest self-reflection. It is the words of the tax collector that haunt us, words that turn into the Jesus prayer over the centuries: “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” That prayer, and variations on it, tell us to whom we are praying (Jesus), what we need (mercy) and who we are (a sinner). It’s simple and memorable. Use it as a mantra to follow Jesus’ invitation into self-reflection this week. And because I know that we remember things better when it goes with a song, we are going to sing a version of this written by Isaac Everett, who used to do the music at our evening services, to get it into our heads so that later this week, this melody will come back to you and you’ll remember: I’m a sinner. Have mercy.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Don't lose heart

So are we really having a parable today about an important man who “who neither feared God nor had respect for people” pitted in conflict against an older woman who is persistently “bothering” him? Thanks, God….

When the deacon finished reading today’s gospel, I bet most of you felt like it was a good story, right? Jesus tells a curious parable about an unjust judge and a widow, and there is resolution in the end. The widow walks away with justice, we feel satisfied that the vulnerable have been protected, and if we are a little disturbed by the way Luke equates the unjust judge with God—if, perhaps, in our own prayer, which Luke tells us this parable is about, we have experienced God to be a similarly taciturn and unresponsive figure—we sort of skip over this with the idea that if the widow can have her claim satisfied, then perhaps our own prayers will find favor with God as well, so long as we keep at him.

Parables weren’t told to make the people who hear them feel good about themselves. Parables are meant to get at uncomfortable truths that are otherwise inaccessible—truths that when they are told directly create resistance and might get you killed, but when they are told as a story can create illumination and self-reflection. So if we feel self-satisfied or unchallenged by a parable, we probably aren’t hearing it right.

I spent some time this week reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus, which is her exegesis of many of Jesus’ parables—his short stories. I left the chapter about today’s parable more confused than when I started—which is probably healthy and what a parable is supposed to do.

To start: if you think about how the Bible came to be, we know that Jesus said all sorts of things, and people repeated those stories, and eventually wrote them down, and eventually someone—or some community—who became known as Luke took a couple different sources of the things that Jesus said and did and formed them into the Gospel of Luke. We know the author of Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark, because Luke includes pretty much all of that Gospel, and that the author of Luke had access to a set of sayings by Jesus that is known as “Q,” which the author of the Gospel of Matthew also had, because both Gospels include very similar sets of sayings of Jesus. How they located those stories and how they interpreted them differed—as an editor, Matthew, Mark and Luke (and John—though his Gospel is totally different) had a lot of leeway in encouraging their readers to understand what Jesus meant by a certain story or parable, often by how they fit within the narrative, and what specifically they depict Jesus as saying. The most obvious example might be the Beatitudes, which in Luke begin, “Blessed are the poor…” and have a real focus on earthly poverty and worries, but in Matthew begin “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” which is something very different. Editors, and the choices they make, matter.

Today’s parable is only found in Luke. And if you look at how the parable fits in the narrative, you can see Luke’s hand at work. He introduces the parable: “Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” Now, if you had not read that, I bet that when you read the next section, the actual parable, you would not think that the parable was about prayer. The parable itself is just the next quote from Jesus, beginning with “In a certain city…” and ending with, “…wear me out by continually coming.” What follows after that is also Luke’s interpretation, cloaked as Jesus’ interpretation.

So we are left with just the widow and the judge. Now, when you heard this parable, who did you think was the good character? The widow, right? … We know about widows from scripture—widows are vulnerable and poor and protected by the law. There are lots of widow characters in scripture, so we have a stereotype of “biblical widow” in our heads—and it’s a good stereotype. We also know she’s the good character because she is seeking justice. God is always on the side of justice.

Now what if I told you the word “justice” wasn’t in the parable in Greek?

The word for what the widow is demanding—per Amy-Jill Levine—isn’t justice. It’s vengeance. The widow is asking the judge to avenge her. We don’t know if her cause is just. And we don’t even know if she is a poor widow—she seems to have plenty of time on her hands to harass the judge persistently—perhaps she’s a wealthy widow—they did exist. How would it change how we hear the parable, if it were about a wealthy avenging widow?

When the judge responds, he uses a boxing term for why he is relenting… when he says he is afraid the widow will “wear him out” what he’s saying is that he’s afraid she’s going to hit him in the face. He says he will give the widow vengeance out of fear of her… it’s one thing when the judge relents and gives out justice, which he should have given anyway. But what does it mean when the judge gives out vengeance? And as Levine points out, while not fearing God is never a good criteria in 1st Century Judaism, to “not have respect for persons” could mean—positively—that the judge does not render his judgments based upon bribes and responding to the status of his complainants.

I’ve destroyed another Bible story for you, haven’t I?

It’s quite possible that neither character in this parable is savory or someone we should be emulating. A few weeks ago we heard the similarly unsatisfying parable of the unjust manager… the parable ends and you ask yourself, “What am I supposed to learn from this??”

The sayings like this parable that are in scripture that are so confusing and at odds with so many of our expectations about Jesus’ theology are probably the ones that Jesus actually said… because even Luke has to try to frame this parable with an interpretation that is a real stretch. Luke is so uncomfortable with it, that he tries to make it about prayer… “Keep praying. Don’t lose heart.”

Following Jesus is not easy. And maybe one gift of this parable for us today is that as Jesus challenges the stereotypes of his own day—the good widow, the evil judge—so we are called to challenge the stereotypes of our own day. Following Jesus does not provide us with clear answers about everything. Following Jesus does not give us perfect people to celebrate or perfectly evil people to despise. God can be present in changing minds and hearts. And God can be present in faithful persistence. The people we perceive as good can still desire vengeance; the people we perceive as bad can still do the right thing—even if it’s for the wrong reason.

And the people who mold our traditions can sometimes add to them very wisely. “Pray always, and do not lose heart,”is not the message that may go best with this parable… but it’s a good message, one that I needed to hear in this season. We prayed this morning for our upcoming election. And we are going to keep doing so every Sunday until November 8. We are going to be persistent. We are going to pray always, and not lose heart.