Thank God I’m Not Like the Rest!
Thank God I’m not like the rest of the parish!
In my work on a pastoral staff, I run into variations on this theme regularly. It underpins the ongoing lament that two-thirds of registered members are not coming to church on Sunday, that the youth can’t stand religious education classes and that no one is stepping forward to volunteer to run more parish programs.
Why are we in the state we’re in? Because people are greedy, dishonest and adulterous! They take advantage! They consume our sacraments and services without giving a thing back! They need to be educated about what it takes to run a place like this!
Thank God we are not like them.
Luke is experiencing something like this in his early Christian community. Time and again in Luke’s Gospel narrative, Jesus spars with the “Pharisees” who criticize him for eating with sinners and for extending the promised Reign of God to enemies like the Samaritans. These are not the actual Pharisees of the Jesus’ time who believed in an afterlife and counted the apostle Paul as a member. (1) These were the Pharisees of Luke’s world, the Christians who would limit universal forgiveness and demand that Gentiles be circumcised and follow Jewish dietary laws. They use their own personal practice to define who is welcome in the Reign of God and who gets to be in relationship with God, that is, who is justified and who is righteous.
The problem is, these old concepts of justification and righteousness have very little to do with how religious a person is and are not measured by the financial health or size of the institution. These are words best imagined in legal terms, as if God were holding court. Righteousness, in ancient Hebrew thought, denotes one who has been declared innocent, or whose claim has been vindicated. Hence the righteous one is innocent, sinless even, and is thus pleasing to God. And that’s pretty hard to establish on one’s own – even if you fast twice a week and pay a significant tithe. Justification, according to that old Pharisee Paul, requires the mercy of God and the salvific action of Christ.
Imagine that the Pharisee and the tax collector standing before a God who is evaluating their fitness to be included in the Reign. The Pharisee arrogantly begins by closing his case. He doesn’t need a relationship with a merciful God, and he doesn’t need a relationship with a despised social outcast to bring about his righteousness or his justification. He’s done it himself. And as a result he loses it all.
The tax collector, in contrast, is not self-righteous but self aware. Of course he’s a sinner. We all are. All he can do is throw himself on the mercy of the court. And he gets mercy in return. That’s the secret to being invited into the Reign of God. You don’t earn your way in. You love your way in. And that begins with acknowledging that failing to love “the rest of humanity” keeps you out.
This little parable in Luke’s Gospel chastises a Christian community threatened by judgmentalness, arrogance and resentment. We would do well to heed its lesson today. It would be too easy to say this Gospel is a simple warning against boasting. That wouldn’t sink very deeply in most churches, which are rife with false humility. This Gospel takes to task a different kind of pride – the one that seeks to blame and shame and scold the rest for their perceived lack of perfection, or at least their poor attendance.
Our self righteous pride may very well be the reason why two-thirds of Catholics stay away on a given Sunday. If they only knew that God is a much kinder and more merciful judge that we are.
If they only knew, in fact, that God’s not like the rest of us.
(1) See Robert J, Karris’s commentary on Luke in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary.