Heavenly Sweepstakes Cancelled Due to Lack of Interest
One of the things I love best about Jesus is how tricky he is.
Jesus is a sneaky, tricky person!
How do I know that?
Well, he’s laid a trap for us in this gospel parable, and ten bucks say every last one of us fell right into it.
Let me explain.
So we begin with the tax collector and the Pharisee.
This is not a subtle parable; we know whose side we’re supposed to be on.
In fact, Jesus tips his hand with the opening explanation from Luke: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Uh-oh. That doesn’t sound good. I hope I don’t end up in that group.
And the Pharisee prays, “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.”
“What a dirtbag!” we think. “Seriously, does anyone pray like that? Thank God I’m not that arrogant! Thank you, God, that I am not a self-righteous jerk like this Pharisee! Thank you that I know that I am an unrighteous sinner like the tax collector. Thank you for making me more humble than anyone else!”
Oh. Wait a minute.
I think I just accidentally prayed a prayer identical to the Pharisee’s.
Jesus, you got me!
I fell right into the trap!
It happens all the time.
We see someone doing something we look down on—like cutting someone off in traffic, being unethical at work, not pledging or volunteering at the church—and it’s almost a knee jerk reflex, putting ourselves in a position of superiority over that person.
Why do we do that?
Because we are so used to comparing ourselves to others.
In fact, it may be the only way we know how to evaluate ourselves as moral beings.
We do things we know are wrong, and then we say, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so!”
We do things we know are right and good, and we mentally lord them over other people, placing ourselves and everyone around us in a hierarchy of virtue.
Jesus seriously has no time for this.
He is not interested.
And there are several reasons why. The first is that it’s all self-referential.
It has nothing to do with God.
We keep a private score card of virtues and vices and it’s all about us—our thoughts, our actions, our qualities.
We only turn to God when that scorecard starts to tip toward the negative.
When things are going well and we somewhat have our act together, we give credit to ourselves. “Great job, self! You are an A-1 Christian this week! Jesus must be so proud of you!”
It’s only when things start to go wrong, when we get tired or cranky or stressed out and our conduct starts to slip, that we suddenly show up in prayer and start asking for forgiveness.
Now, asking for forgiveness for our sins is critically important, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it.
But the problem is that if we aren’t paying attention it can become part of this toxic system of works righteousness that isolates us both from God and other people.
We look down on everyone doing “worse” than we are, we resent everyone doing “better” than we are, and not once do we think about how God might be involved in this.
We come by this mixed-up relationship with sin and righteousness honestly as Episcopalians.
In the Anglican tradition we run the risk of creating a deadly mixture of Catholic guilt and Protestant Puritan work ethic that leaves us all tied up in knots about what we’re doing or not doing for God.
And the cherry on top is a hefty dose of American individualism.
This takes it to a whole new problematic level.
Because we’ve been unconsciously trained to think of our religious life as having one specific goal: for we ourselves as individuals to get to heaven.
We think that’s the whole point.
Richard Rohr calls it “our personal salvation project,” and most of us never question that that’s what Christianity is all about.
That’s why we hear language about “saving the lost.”
We walk around with this underlying subtle priority of somehow having all our ducks in a row when we die to ensure that we end up in heaven.
At what point in the Hebrew scriptures did you hear God saying, “I’m talking to each one of you as individuals. To heck with the whole people of Israel.”?
Of course not! Every word of the Hebrew scriptures is about the whole nation, the whole people, all the nations of the earth.
And what about Jesus?
Did you ever hear him say, “Now, this love of God bit only applies to some of you, because only some of you are worthy and righteous enough to earn my healing and receive my teaching.”?
No! Jesus works with groups.
He calls twelve disciples.
He sends out seventy evangelists.
He feeds five thousand people at a time.
What I’m getting at here is that God cares for and acts upon us as a whole, the whole Body of Christ, the whole of humanity, for that matter.
We are in this together.
We are not called to spend our lives on our personal salvation project.
We are called to spend our lives on saving and changing and loving the whole world.
Do you see how that’s a fundamental reorienting of priorities?
Now go back to that laundry list of vices and virtues we’ve all been so studiously compiling.
Do you see how small and useless it is now that we’re thinking about salvation in global terms?
It’s a total waste of time to stand before God and brag on our accomplishments and be totally obsessed by our sins.
Here is a direct quote from Jesus that I bet you’ve never heard on Sunday morning before. It’s from the Gospel of John, chapter 12 verse 47 to be precise: “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”
It’s not about spiritual athleticism and moral achievement contests!
Jesus says himself that he does not judge us for our mistakes, because he didn’t come to look over our report cards.
He came with a much bigger agenda—to heal and save the world.
So we need to get out of our self-centered obsession with our personal individual salvation, and get on board with God’s global project of universal salvation.
God wants all of us to come home to God, and our task is to participate in that and contribute to that in any way we can.
And to do that, we must escape the prison of the Pharisee in our gospel.
And it is a prison, isn’t it?
Wherever we fall, either super virtuous or super sinful—and let’s be honest, most of us are a mixture of both—it is a lonely and self-centered pursuit to be constantly trying to earn enough gold stars to please God or impress our parents or get to heaven.
What would it be like to be truly free of that?
What would it be like to never compare ourselves to another human being ever again?
What would it be like to abandon the endless ladder of success?
It would be like getting out of jail.
It would mean being truly able to love other people, because we would no longer be scoring them on our own private ranking of moral justification.
What does it take to get to that place?
What does it take to not just no longer look down on others, but to no longer need to look down on others?
It takes conversion to the gospel.
I’m going to share with you one of the pillars of my own personal theology: I believe I need to be converted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ every single day.
I believe I need to be convicted of my sin every day—which means not that I need to wallow in shame and guilt but I need to be reminded of my very human frailties every day.
And I believe I need to have the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed to me every day.
There is always a new way for God to teach me to love, to break through my pride and self-sufficiency and ambush me into the vulnerability necessary love and be loved.
This is what it takes to escape the spiritual athleticism of the Pharisee in our story today.
We as Americans are more prone than anyone else to treat the path of discipleship like the Olympic Games.
But there is no gold medal, folks! It’s not about that!
And if you spend your spiritual life training for the Christian Olympics, doing everything you can to beat others and beat yourself, you’re going to be as lonely and isolated and empty-feeling as many true elite athletes feel after their long season of training ends without a win.
This is a team event.
We are not here to maximize the success of our own personal salvation project.
We are here to contribute to the salvation of all people, and we need each other to do that.
The person sitting in the pew next to you is not here for you to use to bolster your own ego-based morality system.
You are here to love and care for and support and serve that person so that together we can all be brought home to God.
Jesus came not to teach us secret ways to beat out other people and win the exclusive, winner-takes-all heavenly sweepstakes ticket to the afterlife.
Jesus came to save the world, here and now, today.
And he invites us to be a part of that.
That’s a mission I can get behind.
That’s a mission I’m eager to be invited to.
That’s way more exciting than my old habitual virtues and vices report card that filled me only with anxiety about myself and smug judgment or resentment of other people.
Would you like to join up and help with the salvation of the world?
All we have to do is open ourselves to God, like the tax collector in our story, and be ready to be converted to the gospel—again, anew, every day.
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