Thursday, October 20, 2016
Necessarily Inclusive Behaviors
And so it comes full circle. I started this week's sermon prep on Luke 18:9-14 thinking about the Pharisee's misplaced righteousness and how it should be cast alongside the righteousness of the tax collector rather than summarily rejected by the hearer of the parable. This allows for genuine comparison. Without taking time to consider the difference we may miss the real point of this parable: the need for the presumed righteous to accept the surprising righteousness of the presumed sinner. I had some back and forth with Steve Pankey on that, and he helped me refine the way I'd express that.
Now, though, I want to go back to the concept of "mutually exclusive behaviors" that Steve wrote about on Tuesday, and I want to turn it on its head--though not in a way that Steve is likely to disagree with. In fact, I want to take his point one step further. Steve wrote that righteousness and holding others in contempt are incompatible: "One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous. It is impossible." I agree with that, and I want to expand his citation to the beginning of verse nine and say that trusting in oneself that one is righteous and regarding others with contempt are necessarily inclusive behaviors. That is, if you trust in yourself that you are righteous, you will always hold others in contempt. And that's a problem.
The bookends of this parable are designed by Luke to make sure the reader does not miss that point. As the parable is introduced, Luke tells us who the audience is--some people who were confident in their own right-standing before God and who looked at others with disdain. Then, at the end of the parable, Jesus offers an explanation of the story he has told: "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." This is a description of diametrically opposed movements. Self-inflation leads to degradation, and self-degradation leads to inflation. That's how God works. Throughout all of history, God's salvation has been to lift up the downtrodden and set the captive free and bring the dead to life. And, throughout all of history, we have seen that those who rest confidently, arrogantly, presumptuously on God's favor, regard others with contempt in a way that ends up bringing them right back down to earth.
God's salvation raises us up. But, if we think highly of ourselves, we naturally think less of others. And God's salvation isn't given to the high and mighty. It's showered upon the lowly. In God's eyes, there is no difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both are sinners in need of redemption. Both need God's love and mercy. But only one recognizes that fact. If the Pharisee in us cannot identify completely with the tax collector in our midst, we cannot know God's saving work. Does God still love us? Yes. Will God still save us? Yes. But can we know that saving love? As long as we have distanced ourselves from the limitless love of God, looking down on those who do not deserve it, the answer is no.