October 27, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Today’s Gospel message is about the relationship between righteousness and contempt. Jesus tells the story about two men. One does everything that is correct. He’s the upstanding citizen, the kind of person who keeps the world running, the guy who follows all the rules and sets an example. And he is VERY happy with himself. The other man is none of these things. He has sold himself out, betraying his own people by taking a job that is anathema to his community. He is very UNHAPPY with himself, and he begs God for forgiveness.
This is a clear yet odd story, and it tells one of the important lessons the Christian faith has to teach: that unbridled righteousness leads to the sin of contempt.
Jesus tells this story because he knows it will need to be told and retold to generations upon generations for thousands of years to come, and it’s one we need to hear today. We want to do the right thing. We want to strive after righteousness. We want to do what is good and true and faithful in the sight of God. And yet, the more righteous you become, the greater is the temptation to one of the unintended consequences of righteousness, the great sin of the do-gooder, the abomination named in this story: contempt.
Why does the righteous man leave the temple unjustified while the tax collector goes home with God’s blessing? Because the righteous man has succumbed to contempt. He has convinced himself that he is good and that others are bad. He has confused following the rules with his own goodness. And then he has allowed himself to look down his nose at those who are in even greater need of God’s love and grace. He has made his pride his faith.
Righteousness breeds contempt for others. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, especially for those of us who just want to do the right thing. You know, I spend a lot of time in church and doing churchy things, and I’ve been living this way for most of my life. And let me say that from my experience, I have rarely met someone who comes to church who isn’t interested in doing the right thing. For the most part, we are a self-selecting group of people. We are drawn to God and God’s grace. We want a better world, and we want to be part of the solution to the world’s problems. We are willing to sacrifice our own immediate best interest in order to seek first Kingdom of God and its righteousness. These are all positive motivations, and we express them in so many ways. They drive us here on Sunday mornings even when it’s raining. They motivate us to serve in ministries, to tell others about the good news, and even to take on menial and thankless tasks that only God can see. Without these intentions, the Church would be nothing more than a vanity project or just another consumer experience.
But there’s a fine line between dedicating yourself to good and looking down on others who aren’t doing what you’re doing. That’s when righteousness becomes contempt. And it’s an easy and slippery slope from the one to the other.
Christianity is a funny thing. It’s a religion that proclaims God’s triumph over the sin and evil—but only by sacrificing himself on a cross. It’s a faith that believes the church is the very Body of Christ—yet it tells the story of how religious leaders were the ones who handed Jesus over to death. And then we hear this parable today—those of us who are dedicated to striving for righteousness are told that the fruit of this very righteousness can be our spiritual undoing.
Embedded within our faith is the paradoxical knowledge that the more this faith flourishes, the stronger the temptations for it to stray and the graver the consequences for when it does. Think about that for a second. The deeper you go into this mystical journey with Christ and the more you see of his grace and mercy, the more you will be tempted to betray him and your fellow human beings. No wonder so few of us choose this path! It’s not the kind of thing that gets easier as you practice it. Actually, it gets harder. The more righteous you become, the more likely you will feel contempt.
But there’s a simple solution to this problem. Jesus tells us exactly what to do when we start to feel contemptuous. He says, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” If you feel yourself becoming contemptuous, the best medicine is a little dash of humility. That was the righteous man’s problem. He kept puffing himself up. But no one is as perfect as he thought he was. He may have looked at the tax collector with contempt, but what about his own issues? That’s great he fasts twice a week—but what about people who don’t have enough money to feed themselves or their families? That’s fine he gives 10 percent of his income. But where does he think that other 90 percent comes from? As one member of our congregation reminds us every year, it’s good she’s not God because she wouldn’t let us get away with just 10 percent.
Without humility, we begin to think that every good thing we have in our lives comes from us and not from God. Without humility, we start to blame others for their own problems and lose our empathy for their struggles. Without humility, we are tempted to put ourselves in the place of God, and there is no greater sin than that.
Self-righteousness breeds contempt. And the cure for contempt is humility. That’s what Jesus says.
Unfortunately, this has been a lesson that the Church has often forgotten. Among all the crazy news items from the past week, you may have noticed a study that came out from the Pew Research Center. They’re the definitive record keeper about religion and demographics in the United States. According to their study, only 65 percent of Americans identify as Christian. Just ten years ago, that number was 77 percent. That means that in just one decade, 12 percent of the entire population of this country of over 300 million people has left Christianity.
And do you know what the largest growing religious group is in America? It’s the so-called “nones.” These are people who aren’t necessarily atheists or agnostics. They just have no religious identity at all. This group has grown from 12 percent to 17 percent of the population since 2009. It is growing across all demographics—college educated and non-college educated, urban and rural, black, white, and Hispanic, Republicans and Democrats. The energy and momentum in the faith life of this country in this time is with a category called “none.”
And to be honest, in many ways, I can’t blame these millions of people. Because I think I know why they’ve left this faith. They are people who have come to the temple in search of meaning and truth, in search of grace and hope. But instead they have heard the voice of the righteous man, the song of self-satisfaction and contempt. And why would anyone want to be part of a church like that? Especially a church that has this gospel story in its holiest scriptures?
It’s easy to point out self-righteousness in others. We can talk about the churches that have allowed abuse of children and then ignored the pleas of the victims. We can talk about the churches that package the Gospel up in a slick package of friendliness but then exclude some of God’s most vulnerable people. We can talk about pastors who make millions of dollars while conveniently skipping over the fact that our Lord lived a life of poverty. All these things have firmly put themselves in the imagination of the public, which now sees them as what American Christianity is all about.
But to point out all this hypocrisy without a look at ourselves would be to fall into the very trap of contempt that Jesus describes today. The only way to cure contempt is with humility. No church will ever be perfect, because every church is made up of imperfect people. The only way for an imperfect body of people to proclaim the salvation of God is with humility. Humility must be at the core of everything we do. We must welcome guests and strangers with a humble heart. We must worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness acknowledging that beauty comes from God alone. We must offer our gifts at the altar freely and without self-satisfaction. When we succeed, we must stand in awe at the great things God does in our midst. When we fail, we must thank God for the grace to give us another chance. And like the tax collector, we must continually ask for God’s mercy—for the sins we commit and the sins committed on our behalf.
This is what a Christian community looks like: not righteous and contemptuous, but humble and open. All that we have comes from God, and it is of God’s own that we offer ourselves back. The closer we get to God, the greater the temptation is to fall prey to pride. So arm yourselves with humility, the softener of hearts and fuel of true faith. Humble yourselves, and you will find exultation in God. Amen.