Beyond Righteousness

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

There’s a tragedy unfolding in this week’s gospel reading that’s easy to miss. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t occur only among the characters of the parable Jesus tells, however; it also plays out in our congregations, schools, corridors of government and business, and in our homes on an all too frequent basis.

Luke alludes to the tragedy in his one-verse setup of the story: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This introduction tempers our inclination to write the Pharisee off as a religious hypocrite. He is, actually, a model believer in terms of his life and conduct. By all the standards of the law — a law Jesus affirms, by the way — he is righteous. The difficulty, then, isn’t his righteousness, but his self-righteousness. “Lord,” he prays, “I thank you that I am not like other people…. I fast,…I give….” He may direct the prayer to God, but it is actually addressed to himself and is entirely about himself. His righteousness is no gift of grace, no miracle of mercy; rather, it is entirely his own accomplishment. God, in fact, plays no active role in his prayer except, perhaps, to validate his own judgment of himself.

Further — and this is where the tragedy takes on titanic proportions — his utter conviction of his own righteousness leads him to hold others in contempt. His righteousness becomes the standard by which he judges all others. The world, for this man, is utterly, irrevocably divided into two sides: between the righteous and unrighteous, the moral and the immoral, the just and the unjust, those who are in and those who are out. Such a moral geography leaves no room for either ambiguity or grace.

The tax collector’s vision, by contrast, is simultaneously both narrower and more expansive. Narrower because he is too overwhelmed by his own need, his own desperation, his own shortcoming to give any thought, let alone judgment, to the failings of others. Yet expansive because he cannot for even a single moment imagine standing over another in judgment but rather sides with all those who recognize their need for grace. God, in this man’s prayer, and God alone has the potential to act, to forgive, to restore.

The temptation, of course, is to allow this parable to devolve into a predictable and bland morality tale: “Be humble!” But to do so is to miss the bite of this compact and potent story. The Pharisee is righteous, make no mistake. But he has bought his righteousness at the cost of relationship — relationship with God who stands only as the divine validator of his own goodness — and relationship with any and perhaps all others whom he deems contemptible. As far as I can tell, the Pharisee leaves the Temple as righteous as when he arrived, but what he is not is justified; that is, accounted righteous by God and thereby restored to right relationship with God.

How familiar this all sounds. We are just days away from an election, one that — at least in my corner of the world — is more negative than any I can recall. Barraged remorselessly by attack ads, I have little idea of what any of the candidates stand for, I only know the failings of which they accuse their opponents. How, I wonder, after months of slashing each other, can those elected imagine working with each other for the common good? Whoever wins such a context, it seems, has already lost the larger and more important campaign for a better state, nation, and world. Nor is this a problem only in government, as I am often struck by the disdain many Christians currently hold for each other: liberals dividing the world into the just and the unjust, conservatives into the pure and the immoral. Nor am I exempt, as I also regularly divide the world into neat categories, demanding to be right rather than to reach out to those with whom I disagree in relationship.

All too often, it would seem, our moral geography is no less rigid than that of this Pharisee. Where, then, can we turn? But perhaps this is the point of the parable all along. If we take an honest look at the various venues of our everyday life, whether familial, religious, or civic, we realize that we have no where to turn, for even when we judge this Pharisee aright and chide him for his self-righteousness we have fallen prey to the same temptation: “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee….” So perhaps Jesus tells this parable precisely so that we recognize that, like this tax collector, our only hope is the God who seeks out the lost, who rejoices at the repentance of the sinner, who justifies the ungodly, who causes light to shine from darkness, and who raises the dead to life.

If this is true, if we recognize that any status we claim comes from God alone, then perhaps we can look at our neighbor — even and especially those who disagree with us — with more generous eyes and recognize a fellow forgiven sinner for whom Christ died. Contempt has no place in our public life, in our religious life, in our personal life. And the only antidote for contempt is a compassion and solidarity born of our shared sense of need.

This, perhaps, is the task at hand for us this week, Working Preacher: to call our hearers to move beyond righteousness to genuine relationship. To call all of us away from the seductive and addictive penchant to judging others in relation to how they agree with us to recognizing our shared need and vulnerability so that then, and only then, we may receive the life-giving water of God’s mercy and goodness. Oh, what a task! Daunting enough that I suspect we might do well to begin by falling to our knees, beating our breast, and praying, “God, be merciful to me, a Christian preacher!”

Yours in Christ,