“God, I thank you that I am not like other people. Really, thank you, God.”
Wow, does this passage ever convict! And if we are not found guilty in hearing this parable, we are deluding ourselves. We pray this prayer all too often. With too much justification. With all kinds of explanation for such an expression of relief.
It starts out as a benign statement, doesn’t it? A brief observation of comparison. A glance that sizes up the other. An aspect of an individual singled out as especially distasteful. All manifestations of our human brokenness toward comparison and condemnation.
But then, something changes. It is no longer a passing appraisal, but that which leads to judgment. Judgment without understanding. Judgment without empathy. Judgment without any attempt to see as Jesus sees. Without any action that tries to come near to the marginalized whom Jesus regards.
This story calls out this sin of ours — the sin of dismissal. The sin of one-upmanship. The sin of appraisal and assessment before compassion. It calls attention to that time and space in between an all-too-quick evaluation and the final verdict of whether or not we deem another as one who meets the expectations we have set out.
This passage calls attention to those moments in our ministry — in our lives — when we too readily judge. When we abdicate to denominational principle, doctrinal commitments, theological convictions, or individual ecclesial ideologies instead of leading with love and generosity. When we size up the other with the assumption that our faith, our religiosity, our spirituality is somehow better.
But faith doesn’t work that way. As soon as we start to question whether or not someone deserves a place in the kingdom, we would do well to remember this passage. As soon as someone points out the inadequacy of others, we would do well to remember this passage. As soon as the justification of another is easily determined, it’s time to re-read this passage. What will our response be?
This past week, Sarah, my best friend from fourth grade, texted me that her father was not doing well. “Kari,” (Sarah’s the only person in my life who has ever called me that), “I just wanted to let you know my dad’s health is failing him and if you have a prayer for his safe passage out of this world, I’d appreciate it.” He was scared. Scared of not being able to breathe, which was how he would probably die. “How we die is about as bad as what it means — end of life,” she said.
Her family was not especially religious. This was wonderful for me growing up as a preacher’s kid. I learned that the meaning of life, that making sense of life, could happen without God in mind. How life could count without confessional claims that, if we are honest, sometimes hold us back.
Sarah helped me realize how God might matter, but also, how God might not. And that was OK, especially OK in California in the late 1970s and ’80s. Some of my best theological conversations were with Sarah. Why? Well, I felt like I could share my faith with her without judgment. I was able to test out in what I believed with someone other than my family and my church. I could tell her about my belief in Jesus without expectations. I knew that she would love me – and as a 15-year-old girl, I knew, I trusted that my friend would not judge me but listen to me.
Sarah asked me to pray. And in this request, I thought about how too many would respond. Our impulse reaction is too often to save, to proselytize, to secure souls for the afterlife as if that will secure our own. And why? Because questions and statements like those of Sarah’s speak to our deepest fears. And in the face of our own fears, our default reaction is entrenchment. Self-justification. Setting up foils to dissuade our own discomfort and doubt.
Our society excels in deciding on another’s fate. And that decision is usually based on that demonstrated by our Pharisaic friend in this passage. Our security in our own future all too often turns into certainty about the other. Our sense of justification gets caught up in our own self-righteousness rather than true trust in God’s love.
This story from Luke reveals how we too expediently worry about another’s justification. And language of justification intimates salvation, judgment, and the determination of another’s future after death.
So, where is the good news, then? Well, perhaps the good news rests in us. That is, the good news will be heard, will be experienced, when we look beyond the obvious, the assumed, the expected in the other to a space and place of deep regard. If we have learned anything from Luke this year, this should be central. If we have embraced anything about Luke’s Jesus, this should be it — deep regard. Sight beyond the external is what the Gospel perspective calls for.
Or maybe the good news is in the absolution felt after confessing the words of Jeremiah, “We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors, for we have sinned against you. Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake; do not dishonor your glorious throne; remember and do not break your covenant with us. Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.”
Or maybe the good news is in the reminder that solidarity is an act of discipleship.
I was late getting this column finished this week. It’s Sunday night, Dear Working Preachers. The week and the weekend presented challenges for finding time to write. But now I know why I could not finish this column until tonight. Sarah’s father died this morning. I prayed for his safe passage. I believe that it was. Because in the end, it is in God’s justification that we trust.