October 23, 2022
20th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
Thank God, I am not like them.
It’s really embarrassing how naturally that rolls off my tongue.
In the last year or so, I’ve become familiar with the term “virtue signaling.” Humans have probably done it all along, but social media has fine-tuned the practice. The definition reads: the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.
I saw a cartoon of two men walking past a guy holding out a cup for donations. The man says, “My Twitter post about feeding the homeless got 10,000 replies. It’s so very satisfying to make a difference.”
Making fun of this dynamic, I saw a yard sign that is designed like the one you’ve probably seen, each line a different color, the font getting smaller with each sentence. It says, “We believe we are not racists. Seriously, we like Hispanics. We are good people. We hold the correct views. And are smarter than you because we are pro water. If you disagree, you are not a good person like we are.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with stating one’s beliefs. But the virtue signaling movement is prone to believe that the passionate statement is enough, because the goal is really to feel good about yourself, or look good in front of others.
Today’s gospel parable is so relevant.
The Pharisee addresses God, but it’s just a pretext to compare himself to others, whom he labels as well: thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors. In some ways, he’s not wrong about his self-description. It is good and righteous to fast and tithe. These are biblical spiritual practices that are designed to help us empty ourselves and become generous with the world around us. He might even be right that the people he can see around him have broken the law, abused their spouses, and stolen from the poor.
The problem is that his ultimate frame of reference is a comparison between people. His relationship with others defines his universe.
Whereas the tax collector, who it says is far off, separate in a different kind of way than the Pharisee, brings himself to God, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” His reference point, his way of seeing himself, is in relationship to God.
We tend to hear this exchange through the lens of Christian history, where language of sin and sinner was used in the same way as, “Thank God, I’m not like them.” Let’s label the sinners, and you better know that you’re one of them. If we can, I would like to set that baggage aside and suggest that this tax collector is doing something quite different than groveling before God, thinking that his core identity is shameful, as if feeling bad is going to make God be merciful to him.
I’m choosing to see him as a man of courage, willing to be vulnerably honest. Remember that he’s a tax collector. Tax collectors could take as much as they wanted as long as they sent Rome the required amount. He was part of a huge economic and imperial system that often violently cheated those under the thumb of the Roman Empire. He’s really no different than any of us, trying to negotiate our way through complex systems that oppress some and privilege others, that wound the earth, that enrich one nation at the expense of another. Or thinking about it at personal level. We’re all trying to figure out how we don’t let our own past stir us to repeat the wounds that we received. We both want to be different and know how hard it is. Our old confession language rings true: We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
What’s different about the tax collect is that he seems to understand God’s primary job: to love, to be merciful, to forgive.
He names himself as sinner, not as his identity, but as his hope of transformation. Failure, sin, our most embarrassing mistakes, our twisted motivations, are where God brings the kind of mercy that leads us to grow.
Those in the 12-step recovery movement know this. Step 1 is to acknowledge that your life is out of control. Step 2 is to acknowledge that a higher power can restore our sanity. Step 3 is to turn your life over to that higher power. And then Step 4, which flows out of that, is to make a searching, fearless moral inventory. The courageous honesty comes as a result of the relationship to the higher power, who is present for new life.
Martha Stortz, Lutheran ethicist, told a group of pastors this week, that true hope is grounded in the real facts, not in our illusions. It’s only by embracing our reality—all of our reality—including our limits, our stumbles, our failures, our wounds, our obstinate resistance, that we find that God can do a new thing.
God, have mercy on me, a sinner, becomes the courageous starting point of this hopeful life.
Eastern Christianity calls this prayer The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Child of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They say it over and over again usually with prayer beads, not to beat themselves down, as Western Christians so often did, but to raise themselves into the heavenly presence of love and mercy, to become incarnations of Christ’s mercy.
In the end, maybe our best prayer isn’t, “Thank God I’m not like them,” but “Thank God that I can become more like Jesus.” Maybe it won’t ever become quite as natural to pray that prayer, and we may always wobble, but I suspect that it has power to signal resurrection. And the very Jesus who tells the parable and gives us the Spirit, will answer our prayer, even if it’s only for mercy, or grace, or love.