The Sin of Self Righteousness

A Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

 Proper 25 – Year C – 27 October 2013

Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector

 Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14)

Who are we in this morning’s reading from Luke?  Are we the Pharisee or the tax collector?  It’s the same question that can be asked in many of Jesus’ parables.  For instance, are we Martha, who resentfully stays in the kitchen and works hard or are we her sister Mary who sits at Jesus’ feet and enjoys his company? 

Are we the son who demands and then squanders his inheritance or his dutiful brother who works hard on his father’s estate?  Are we the Samaritan who cares for the wounded man lying by the side of the road, or are we the priest who doesn’t’t want to get his hands defiled by the blood of the wounded man?

Sometimes it’s not always easy to identify who we are in Jesus’ parables because depending on the situation, we may be any or all of the characters.  During those rare times when we’re not in such a rush or so worried about getting our hands dirty, we could stop and be a Good Samaritan.  On the off chance that we have a lapse in feeling the weight of responsibility on our shoulders, we could be Mary or even the adventurous prodigal son. 

I think that the characters Jesus chose to use in his parables represent all of us – the best and the worst of us; what we currently are and what we are capable of becoming.   And I also think what Jesus cared about the most is the person we are capable of becoming. 

How many of us related to the Pharisee in this morning’s story – the one who was thanking God that he wasn’t like that awful tax collector; thanking God that he was, instead, an upstanding member of the community and a good influence on his family and friends?  I know I related to him, putting as much mental and physical distance as possible from that poor man begging so hard for forgiveness.

And I’m guessing that I’m not alone in relating to the Pharisee who thought of the tax collector as the worst kind of sinner – worse than any thief, rogue or adulterer.  What could we possibly have in common with that?  And if we truly believe that, then we have fallen for the trap that Jesus always sets for us in all of his parables. 

And we know we’ve been trapped when the point that Jesus is trying to make causes us to feel uncomfortable, even unnerved.  And I think the point in this morning’s story is that perhaps we should relate less to the Pharisee and more to the tax collector – not in terms of his profession, but in his realization that he was a sinner and in constant need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.   

And the reason we fall so easily for the trap that Jesus sets for us is our propensity to compare ourselves to others in a way that helps us feel good about ourselves – helps us feel less sinful than other people.  But is there really such a thing as degrees of sinfulness?   It seems to me that if we believe that – that we are less sinful than someone else, then we have fallen into the same sin of pride or self-righteousness as the Pharisee had done.

In Jesus’ day, tax collectors were usually Jews who worked for and reported to theRoman Empire.  They could and would tax for any reason and then get Roman soldiers to enforce their actions.  That, in itself, was a problem. 

What was also a problem is that many of them collected more in tax money than was actually owed toRomeand then kept the difference for themselves.  That’s probably the bigger problem and why tax collectors were thought of as the worst kind of sinner.

Pharisees were also Jews but they upheld the law instead of stretching or breaking it. They believed that they were the moral compass of the community which is why they could fall into that trap of feeling and acting self righteous.

I think we probably all know how annoying it is to be around self-righteous people – how easy it is to feel unworthy in their presence.  Yet do we also know how easy it is to see self-righteousness in others before we can see it in ourselves? 

Just a few weeks ago, I was heading home from a health foods store when I passed a McDonald’s. It was near enough to dinner time that the cars were lined up around the take-out window. 

My first thought was how grateful I was that I was not like those people waiting in line and making such unhealthy food choices for themselves and their families.  My next thought was how pleased I was that I had just bought such fresh food and how healthy the dinner was going to be that I was planning on making that night.  So, good for me! 

But then I got sad thinking about the time when my children were young and excited to be ordering from McDonalds.  It was usually such a special treat for me to take them there.  And sometimes I was there because I didn’t have time to put anything else on the table.     

There’s nothing wrong with that.  Those people who provided me the opportunity to feel so self-righteous may have simply been doing what I used to do before I had the luxury of time and resources to make a nice home-cooked meal.  Maybe they were even ordering some of the healthy choices McDonald’s is now offering.  Why did I feel the need to judge them so harshly and put such distance between what they were doing and what I was doing? 

Two weeks ago I was in Fairhope, Alabama for a clergy conference and had time to think about, among other things, how easy it is for me to be so judgmental.  The conference was held at a Diocesan retreat similar to Roslyn, except the facility was in the woods on a bay. 

There was some free time built into our daily schedule of work and worship.  So, one late afternoon when I was walking on one of the nature trails, I stopped to look at two trees growing right next to each other.  One was tall with needle-like leaves while the other was short with broad, shiny leaves. 

As I stared at them for a moment I started comparing them and immediately judging them both.  I thought of the tall tree as being majestic yet having leaves that were unattractive.  Then I judged the leaves of the shorter tree to be elegant but thought the overall shape of the tree was unattractive.

God had made both of those trees which should have made them equally as beautiful to me; yet I persisted in being critical of them.  When I realized just how ridiculous that was, It struck me that both trees were expressing quite simply and naturally their own unique nature without ever questioning why they looked the way that they did, and certainly without ever wishing they could look like or be something else. 

So, why can’t we do that?  Why can’t we be content to be who we truly are and let others feel free to be who they truly are?  Why can’t we stop judging ourselves and others and be the people Jesus knows we are capable of becoming? 

Probably because, for whatever reason, there are lots of things we don’t like about ourselves. But like those two trees, we are God’s creation; but better yet, we are created in God’s image.  What’s not to like about that? 

Sinfulness is part of our nature, especially the sinfulness of pride which turns us into the self-righteous Pharisee.  Yet it was the reviled tax collector to whom Jesus pointed as the character in his story who got it right.  He was the one feeling the weight of his sin and asking for mercy. 

So when we find ourselves sitting or standing next to someone and comparing ourselves in such a way that creates distance, or better yet, when we find ourselves in our cars wondering how the person who just cut in front of us was ever granted a driver’s license – we should think about that tax collector and realize just how much in need we are of God’s mercy.  And we should also think of those two trees in the woods and realize that all they know how to be is how God created them to be.  Isn’t that really all we need to know?