Larry R. Benfield
Proper 25 – Year C
23 October 2016 Siloam Springs
On my walks through my neighborhood, I usually pass by a business that features Arkansas’s state motto “Regnat Populus” on a tapestry. The motto is in Latin and translates as “The People Rule,” (which by the way has been changed to “Regnat Deus” or “God Rules” on the Diocese of Arkansas seal-the church does try to be culturally aware of its surroundings). I mention this tapestry and the motto because this week’s gospel lesson reminded me of our unofficial state motto, which I have referenced in previous sermons across the state, “Thank God for Mississippi,” which just might back-translate into something like “Deo Gracias Mississippiensis” (which, by the way, makes Mississippi sound sort of exotic). The phrase’s implication, for us Arkansans at least, is that we have only to look east to see a state in worse shape. Some bragging rights come with the distinction of being better than the worst.
“Thank God for Mississippi” just might be Arkansas’s version of what the Pharisee prays in today’s gospel, as he thanks God that he is not a thief, a rogue, an adulterer, or even a tax collector. All those folk are in Mississippi, by the way. The Pharisee has only to look toward the far corner of the temple, back in the shadows, (just across the river, as it were) to find someone in whose presence he looks good. That distinction between tithing taxpayer and tax collector, comparatively upright citizen and tool of the occupying forces, gives him some bragging rights.
I have to admit that today’s gospel makes me uncomfortable, especially in that if anyone is to stand opposed to thievery, rogue behavior, and adultery, then bishops are the ones called to do so. It is part of the job description, I am frequently reminded when people do not like it that I am not speaking out on the issues they want highlighted. Another reason to feel uncomfortable with this parable is that it is the only Lukan parable in which someone says “I give thanks” or in the Greek original “Eucharist,” the very name of why we gather here each week and in a few minutes what we will tell God that we are doing. Thus, it is way too easy to discover in our liturgy that we Christians can—and often do—sound like the Pharisee.
Even Jesus would admit that the Pharisee in today’s parable is virtuous. He has everything going in his favor, everything that is, except his inability to see that we can never justify ourselves through comparison with others. To do so is to set ourselves up as the center around which the universe turns. And that is nothing less than the ultimate idolatry.
We human beings have this tendency to rank everything we see, and it often gets us into trouble. Ranking implies that one entity has an advantage over another. We rank communities in which to raise children or in which to retire. We rank educational and career achievements. We rank income, status, class, and race. When we do so, things suddenly start to look more or less desirable by where they are in the rankings. And with such a way of looking at the world come bragging rights. Smugness sets in. Or is opposite, if we rank ourselves worse: envy.
Look no further than the church. It has gotten itself into trouble time after time in being so quick to proclaim that it, or portions of it, has something that others do not have. We have to admit that a fair amount of blood has been shed in history over the competing claims of religious entities. In this age and culture in which we in the church can no longer raise armies, our smugness is beginning to sound a little hollow and pews across Europe and North America are emptying. We may have turned into a 21st century example of how the contemptuous will be humbled.
But self-exaltation is not the only thing of which we need to be wary. Envy is just as dangerous, if not more so, in this consumer-obsessed world. We are taught that enough is never enough. Nations want more military might; we objectify physical bodies; individuals choose money over relationships because we can quantify the former; parents schedule their children’s lives from birth so that one day they will not have to settle for their number two college choice. And as history and everyday life have shown us: envy is dangerous. It, too, has led to wars, and the envious have often been humbled.
The subtle beauty of this parable is that the Pharisee and the tax collector are NOT mirror images of one another. The Pharisee compares himself favorably to others, but the tax collector does not compare himself to anyone, positively or negatively. I think that Jesus is telling us that the one who finds the kingdom is the one who looks in his own heart and seeks conversion there, not through any outside comparison, superior or inferior.
That is the heart of our gospel message today. The Christian life is about our own conversion, not the comparison of us with others. It is the point that the Pharisee has not yet gotten. Conversion is not something that we have experienced that other people have not, and that thus puts us in a favored condition. Conversion is a lifelong process, an ongoing reorientation, a rediscovery every day that all is grace, not merit. It is why we tell ourselves that one of our commitments as Christians is to be at God’s table week after week, month after month, year after year. Gradually we are changed so that we no longer compare ourselves with others. We eventually see ourselves as unique individuals whom God loves and over whom God showers mercy. It is why Jesus says the tax collector goes home justified. He does not play the comparison game, weighing his good or bad points against those of others.
The good news is that the comparison game is over. God loves us equally. No one has an advantage. Always being worried about how we stack up against others is no way to live. It causes the break up of relationships, hurt feelings, and striving after impossible goals. On the other hand, being able to see beyond the divisions is the beginning of life. It is to stand in the presence of God and realize that all is a gift and from that gift comes wholeness.
Some folk remind me that the job of a bishop is to be prophetic in a secular world. And some folk tell me that the job of a bishop is to keep the church untainted by the world. In their own ways they are both right. Thus, I think I am on firm theological ground when I proclaim that when we stop saying “Thank God for Mississippi” we will have one less excuse for not changing the economic and social structures that often make us 49th among the fifty states. We as a state could do much better for our residents, regardless of what other states are doing, and the church can lead that effort. And I think I am also on firm ground when I say that the church will find itself untainted by the world when it stops worrying so much about what the world thinks about the church, and instead keeps focused on how the church is to keep being converted and grasping the truth that all is gift, all is grace. Self-virtue has never been an honorable evangelism tool.
Jesus today is talking about nothing less than resurrection, dying to old ways of seeing things and then seeing everything in a new light. And that, after all, is the heart of the Christian message: to see the same old world around us with brand new eyes. It is the sort of insight that must have made Jesus smile, and his audience cringe, when he gave star billing to the one who had no comparisons to make and no virtue—and no envy—about which to talk. Amen.