The scandal of the gospel is on full display in the pithy yet powerful parable Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel. It may be the signature story of the truths we hold to be self-evident in the pulpit of Christ Church, and indeed the bedrock of historic Christianity. What are those truths? Well, we get a clue right off the bat with the context of the story – Jesus tells it to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” Let’s dive right into the story to see what that means for you and me.
Jesus says that 2 guys come to the temple to pray, just like you who’ve come to church to pray this morning. The first guy is a very devout man. He fasts twice a week, probably not like you, unless you are doing a juice cleanse for your health. He also tithes – gives 10% of money to the temple. I’m hoping in this regard you are a lot like him, as stewardship season is almost upon us!
Let’s listen again to his prayer. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” Sadly, here is where this guy is a lot like you are, and I am, and everybody else is. Notice all the I’s in his prayer. I thank you that I am not like other people. I fast, I give. I..I..I..I.
His so-called prayer is an exercise in self-justification. And I take it as a given that our lives are basically a cradle to grave exercise in self-justification. We spend our lives justifying ourselves in our speech, our politics, our street address, from the choice of our children’s schools to the choice of our own grave yards. Our friend Robert Capon says, “It’s true that we will never be free until we are dead to the entire business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life, that means not until we are dead.”
But let’s narrow down our self-justification to the realm of relationships. I know a husband who won’t even let his wife get through the door when she’s been gone on a Saturday before he says, “I cut the grass, I vacuumed the house, and I walked the dog.” Poor wife who has to live with such a husband! He doesn’t even give her time to recognize and thank him for what he’s done! And, of course, the subtext of his litany of good deeds is “I’ve done this for you, what are you going to do for me?” Glad my marriage isn’t anything like that.
The authors of Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me take up this subject. They are talking about marriage, but it applies to any close relationship. “The vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification. Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes and ways of doing things. From our standpoint, therefore, misunderstandings, conflicts, personality differences, and even angry quarrels are not the assassins of love; self-justification is.” What thing to say: self-justification is the ultimate home wrecker.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that you don’t really think you are a self -justifier. Well, I don’t believe you, but I’m prepared to say, congratulations and more power to you. However, do you really think you can disqualify yourself from the other way we are like Guy Number 1 in the story? Notice how he begins his prayer – “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – thieves, rogues, and adulterers. Or even like this guy.”
We don’t usually frame our judgment of other people in the form of a prayer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t compare and judge others until the cows come home. I’m thinking about the obvious national example. “God, I thank you that I am not a terrible, horrible, person like Donald Trump.” Or if you’d rather, “God, I thank you that I am not a manipulative, dishonest person like Hilary Clinton.”
I’m not talking politics here; I’m talking human nature. And I’m not talking about Trump’s and Clinton’s human nature; I’m talking about your human nature and my human nature. I think that we find it so easy to bash the candidates because they are projections of ourselves writ large. Admittedly, our worst selves, but still our selves.
There is a ping-pong table in the Youth Room that some of us frequent during the week. If you ever wander by the ping-pong room, let me apologize in advance. It’s better to stay away. It gets really loud and ugly in there: lots of screaming, explosive language, accusation, and even an outright tantrum or two. Competition is real and fierce.
More than once I have said, “I will only accept the outcome of this ping pong game if I’m the winner.” For this and other reasons, Sam Bush has dubbed me the “Donald Trump of Ping-Pong.” I accept that designation. But, at least I’m only the Donald Trump of Ping-Pong! And here’s the question: what are you the Donald Trump of? Later today, ask those closest to you to find out. The answer will be sure to start and argument and you will be sorry you ever came to church.
The reality, of course, is that I’m the Donald Trump of a lot more than ping-pong. And so are you. This is because every one of us is mired in what theologians call original sin – a kind of DNA infection that sabotages our attempts to love God and love others. I’m not talking about the myriad little “s” sins that we commit. I’m talking about the Big “S” Sin that is the toxic wellspring of self-justification, and every other home wrecking impulse that you can name in somebody else, but be blind to in yourself.
Dead on is Haze Motes evaluation of the human predicament in Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood. Haze is accosted by a crazy, blind man. He commands Haze to repent of his sins, demanding that he name them one by one, starting with fornication and blasphemy. Haze responds, “If I was in sin I was in it before I ever committed any.” To this very point is they funny text I got this week from a friend and fellow clergyman was at a talk at the Clergy Conference at Shrine Mont. During the talk he texted, “Hearing about how ideal and perfect and free from law children are, from, get this, a monk! (Expletive.) Wish I could have brought my ten year old and two year old with me to rid this guy of any pretensions of the romantic child.” Again, we are in sin before we ever commit any.
Number 1 guy in the story doesn’t get this. That’s why he thinks his money and his fasting will be enough, do the trick, justify his life before God and man. Number 2 guy knows well and good that such theatrics are a flimsy defense against the predatory power of sin – like two Advil for a brain tumor. His hope of justification lies nowhere remotely near the self, which is, in fact, the self-evident truth of true Christianity.
It is the truth articulated in the Prayer of Humble Access, now out of fashion in most of the Episcopal Church. “We do not presume to come to this, Thy Table, o merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness.” Guy number two, a legit crim, a tax collector lining his own pocket by fleecing his fellow kinsmen, knows he has know righteousness in himself, and no hope of justifying himself. Thus his powerfully honest prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
If, by the grace of God, you have recognized yourself in the self-justifying, judging character of guy number one, and have been sufficiently humbled to pray the sinner’s prayer of guy number two, then where do you go from here. You go to the only guy left in this morning’s gospel – the guy who is telling the story.
St. Paul writes about this guy. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… We have now been justified by his blood.”
So entrenched is the rapacious nature of the sin we are in, it takes nothing less than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God Himself, to justify us. Our sin is projected onto to Jesus, who takes our worst selves into His ideal and perfect and free self. God’s property is always to have mercy, but His mercy comes at an unimaginable cost to Himself. Today, like guy number two in the story, you will go down to your home justified. But you will be justified for one reason and one reason only – the blood shed by the Story Teller.