Self-Justification = loss of life
The Gospel today seems pretty clear. We hear it and it resonates with the stories thus far from Luke.
"For All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves
will be exalted.”
Jesus was the great equalizer. It is a theme. We hear it from the very beginning of Luke. Mary sings in the Magnificat:
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
John the Baptist goes into the the region around the Jordan, baptizing people for forgiveness of sins proclaiming:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
God’s path smoothes out the rough edges, and builds up a community of equity for God’s saving Grace.
In the Gospel today the pharisee is speaking to God of all of his virtues. His need to build himself up in this way is a lack of self awareness in the moment. He’s gotten caught in a self rewarding trap that doesn’t allow for God’s grace, God’s mercy. There is no space for forgiveness.
Additionally, he is casting aspersions at another:
Causing that separation, creating a wedge. He is forgetting that prayer is about being connected to God and interconnected to one another on one playing field, literally in one body.
There’s a saying: “God’s glory is the human being fully alive.” Cutting others down is a descent into dark spaces in our own psyche, and when justified heralds a domino effect of darkness, cutting ourselves off from others. It is not just a lack of awareness but a Lack of life.
The tax collector is standing afar beating his breast. Crying for mercy, he uses the language of psalm 51: Have mercy on me a sinner. This phrase is shorthand for everything that psalm holds. Hearers of the day accustomed to oral teachings and storytelling often knew scripture from heart. This would signal them to a whole picture, the whole theme of the psalm which is asking for God to remove their guilt.
According to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
This is not merely a confessional prayer, but the tax collector is humbly asking for the presence of God’s saving Spirit to sustain him. He is asking for God’s help. He is asking for justification which means to remove guilt.
The other seems to merely be justifying himself. But let’s not be too hard on him. In this moment, he is not fully awake. And of course we want to pray prayers of thanksgiving… but not at the cost of being unaware of our blind spots, our hidden contempts that may show up in self justification.
Righteous judgment separates us from one another. It makes others feel unaccepted, and it falsely makes us feel protected. It fuels our tendency to let ourselves get fired up about something, and generally justify what we want to do, or did do, or how we feel. It fuels anger; not just in other people but in ourselves. It stokes the fire of personal discontent as well as the fire of war, whether that’s quarreling family members, or world nations.
By dividing into you and me we feel we can set standards and measure everyone up against ourselves… but using our self as the measure is quite the illusion…
My mother had this great quote on her fridge for years:
“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”
We often take everyone else’s missteps as a definition of who they are rather than simply as a lack of awareness, a difficult day in a life, or a hard lesson for them to reflect on. To have a Christlike consciousness, is to identify with the predicament of another.
Right now The Russians feel justified in war. The Ukrainians feel justified, Nato and the U.S. feel justified. And where does that leave us: death and destruction. That lack of life. Our political leaders are modeling self righteousness. Our media is modeling it. I really don’t recall any point in my lifetime when the people we looked up to used such damaging judgmental and reckless language. Resisting these voices takes all of our effort. It requires staying awake.
Preparing the way of the lord… means trying to stay awake and finding our way back onto God’s path: the “way.” We all have our moments: It is easy to recoil or turn on someone when their version of the truth feels threatening. But in our best of moments we can return again to the path, empty ourselves and pray for a clean heart, for God to fill us with knowledge, wisdom and compassion.
For us to be humbled in very simple terms, is that unhappy moment when we find ourselves eating our own words. On a grander scale it is the humility that comes with illness or hardship, or war: The times when we desperately need connection. It is the humility when we realize our lives are not ultimately in our hands.
And our lives are not different from one another’s when it comes to that truth. When we turn to God in these moments, forgiveness also begins to flow more freely. We begin to wake up a little bit to our shared circumstance as flawed and fragile children.
Ultimately it is God drawing all of us into the same forgiveness that makes us know we are equally beloved. That all life is precious.
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Luke (the patron saint of physicians). Physicians take a hippocratic oath to do no harm. Following the sermon we have a special litany written by one of our parishioners to honor those healers in our lives.
Today I pray that we would individually follow their lead. I pray our political leaders would follow such an oath, be filled with wisdom, and may we all come to know God, that saving Spirit who sustains us, and who ultimately we name the great physician!
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The Rev. Heather K. Sisk