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.

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