October 27, 2019 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 25C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Don’t you just hate a hypocrite? Is there anything more infuriating than a person who acts as if he or she is good and right and blessed while holding other people in contempt for not living up to the same set of moral standards that he or she fails to live up to? You can tell how the world feels about hypocrites because of the way the media savors stories about individuals who make a living by taking the moral high ground and then come crashing down when their secret sins are exposed. Pro-life politicians who encourage their mistresses to get an abortion. Clergy who decry the “fornications” of the world yet get caught in a sex-trafficking sting. No one likes a hypocrite.
Jesus, it seems, didn’t like them either. To illustrate that point, he told a beautifully stunning parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. The former, standing by himself, thanked God that he was not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or like the tax collector who was praying on the other side of the temple. Rehearsing for God how exceedingly religious he himself was, the Pharisee exuded enough self-righteous smugness to choke us. The tax collector, on the other hand, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, instead beating his breast, naming his sinfulness, and begging the Almighty for mercy. And which one of the two went home justified?
If you have to ask, you’re probably in trouble. We don’t need Jesus to tell us that hypocrites are bad. We don’t need him to tell us that self-righteousness is a problem. We don’t need him to remind us that you don’t win friends and influence people by talking about how great you are and holding others in contempt. Perhaps it was somewhat startling to Jesus’ audience that the tax collector in the story was identified as a humble man who showed an attitude of repentance, but no one was surprised that the humble character was the one whom Jesus singled out for praise. The a-ha moment in Jesus’ parable doesn’t come when we hear that the tax collector was the one who went home justified. The a-ha moment comes when we look in the mirror and recognize how hypocritical we are for holding the self-righteous Pharisee in contempt.
Jesus told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. That’s how Luke introduces this parable. You don’t need to be a Pharisee in order to be a hypocrite. All you need is a little dose of “at least I’m not as bad as those people.” And don’t we all have a bit of that inside of us?
I have never met a person who didn’t regard hypocrites with contempt. “Thank God I’m not like that hypocrite,” we never actually say aloud, for to name it like that would be to recognize the trap we were setting for ourselves. But we all feel that in one way or another. If it’s not the Baptists for drinking beer, it’s the Catholics for using birth control. If it’s not the Methodists for skipping Sunday school, it’s the Jews for eating barbeque pork. When, in fact, it’s actually us for thinking for even a split second that we have it figured out any better than they do.
We believe that God loves everyone. We believe that everyone is welcome in God’s house and at God’s table. We believe that our sister and brother human beings all reveal the image of the divine, which means that we hold in high regard even those people who differ from us…unless they’re hypocrites. We can’t abide Christians who think they’re better than other people. We don’t have any patience for people who read the same Bible we read and pull from its pages justification for misogyny. We will not tolerate people who, in the name of Jesus, mark people as sinful because of who they love or what their gender identity is. Thank God we’re better than that. Thank God we’re better than they are. Uh oh.
If ever there was a parable that we need to hear, it’s this one. We are so faithful, so enlightened, so accepting that we forget how much we still need Jesus. The truth is that we don’t need Jesus to tell us that hypocrisy is sinful. We need Jesus to remind us that God loves hypocrites, too.
The tax collector in the parable isn’t perfect. He’s humble, and humility is honesty. His willingness to stand vulnerable before God reminds us that God doesn’t love us because we’re better than anyone else. And his plea for mercy reminds us that we’re no better than anyone else because God loves us. We believe that our interpretation of the gospel as good news of God’s limitless love is right. We trust that in every moment of human history the work of the Holy Spirit is to surprise us with the boundlessness of God’s love. And we are right to call out bigotry, misogyny, and prejudice as being repugnant to the way of God and to hold accountable those who preach a message of hatred cloaked in Christianity. We may vehemently disagree with them and denounce their theology, but we cannot hold other people in contempt because, in truth, they are no different from us—sinners who depend on God’s mercy. And, when we forget that, we’re the ones who are in trouble.