Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector
9 Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! 12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” -Luke 18:9-14
I hope this doesn’t end up going where everyone might expect. Just bear with me.
A lot has been going on lately. It seems like everyone is up in arms and offended about everything. We can’t turn on the TV, scroll through Facebook, listen to the radio or go to work without hearing about the latest scandal, controversy or religiously political debate. Gay marriage was legalized. Black teens may have been targeted by white police officers. The right to bear arms is under scrutiny. An individual who was born with a penis and became a national hero decided she would rather live as a woman (and yes, she even won awards for it). College students are marching for equality. Presidential debates have been won and lost over all types of issues regarding human rights and the ever-evolving definition of freedom. Something about red cups? Paris was attacked. Should we or should we not welcome Syrian refugees, and who’s going to pay for all that?
While the world has been raging around me, I’ve mostly been raging within myself. Before coming out, I was pretty self-absorbed, focusing on personal issues, as I should have been, seeking truth and finding myself in God. During and after coming out, there has obviously still been a lot to think about, consider and navigate. Honestly, as the center of my own world, there have been many times that I’ve gotten frustrated, asking myself, “Why don’t people care about this issue more?” Just because I make myself the center of my world doesn’t mean anyone else does. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. And to be fair, I’m not concerned about myself as much as I am about the many, many closeted LGBTQ students, volunteers and staff still involved in ministries that discriminate based on that criteria. I’ve seen first hand the real, actual danger caused by the message they send- that no matter how nice they can be about, or how much it disappoints them to “have to do it,” LGBTQ people are second class citizens and questionably Christians. The significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide these messages perpetuate in LGBTQ youth are really the big deal, not me, me, me. We all think our issues of choice are the most important and deserve the most attention.
It has been so interesting to see all the responses to the many local, national and global issues we’ve been dealing with. I must admit, taking note of who weighs in on what issues, and what they have to say, often becomes more interesting than the topics themselves. I tend to stay out of most conversations, usually because I don’t know enough about the topic to contribute effectively, or because I really just don’t care. To be clear, I do care about a lot of current issues, so it’s usually the first reason that keeps me on the quieter side.
It’s interesting to see that the responses from Christians vary just as widely as those from everyone else. This is not a bad thing, there will never be a time on this earth when we’ll see eye to eye on every issue. What’s most interesting is to see the element that the Christian factor adds to these conversation/debates. It reminds me a lot of the above parable, because it often comes down to the same sentiment: “I thank you, God, that I’m not __________.”
We can fill in the blank with whatever pushes that righteousness button in just the right way. As long as I’m not the kind of Christian that succumbs to popular culture. As long as I’m not the kind of Christian who’s stuck in the past, hindering the Gospel Message with irrelevant dogma. As long as I’m not the kind of Christian who forsakes the poor and denies the refugees. As long as I’m not the kind of Christian that forgets governmental and foreign policy is necessary to appropriately address the needs of the poor and the refugees. As long as I’m not the complacent Christian who’s afraid to say that a male identifying as a woman is wrong. As long as I’m the loving, accepting Christian who thinks it’s not. As long as I’m not the kind of Christian who does this or doesn’t do that. As long I’m not “like everyone else.” “I’m certainly not like that_______________!”
The content of everyone’s blanks is different, but the heart behind them is the same: that’s not the kind of follower God wants; that’s now how we best act like Jesus; that doesn’t promote personal relationship with God; and at the core of it all- that’s not what earns me confidence in my own righteousness.
Lately I’ve found myself saying, “I thank you, God, that I am not like those Pharisees.” Thank you, God, that I’m not like those other Christians, who teach one thing and do another. Thank you, God, that I don’t have to backpedal and lie to save face. Thank you, God, that I don’t have to be afraid to put what I believe in writing. Thank you, God, that money doesn’t prevent me from doing what I know is right. Thank you, God, that I’m not the one who puts you in a box and decides your limitations.
After the endless “thank you that I’m nots” and the “I don’t this or that’s,” I start with the positives. I do this, and I do that. I’m sure that’s what you want from me. I’m sure that puts me in a better position than them.
But there’s nothing that sounds more like a Pharisee than someone thanking God for what they’re not and for what they don’t do. Scratch that. There’s nothing that sounds more like a Pharisee than a Christian who calls other Christians Pharisees. And I’m certainly guilty of that. It’s hard not to when they make it so easy (whoops, did I say that?) I’m a Pharisee, there’s no way around that. I often become confident in my own self-righteousness, filling in the blanks as if it’s my job to help God keep score. As if God is keeping score.
No matter how hard we try, we are all Pharisees. Christianity is full of oxymoron. The last shall be first. God chooses the weak to shame the strong. To gain your life you must lose it. God knows our every move before we take it, yet we have free will to choose those moves. We are saved by grace, but faith without works is dead. All have sinned and fallen short, but some have fallen too short to be included in God’s ministry. God commands us to obey the law of the land, but there’s no way He means that law. We are no longer bound to the Levitical Law, except for the parts we choose. There’s nothing we can do to earn salvation, but the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross requires a response. And, as this parable states, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” How can one say they’re humble without being the opposite? Is that the point?
No wonder there are so many debates and so many sides. No wonder Christians are just as confused as everyone else about how to navigate life, how to love each other, how to serve the needy, how to define freedom, and how to honor God through it all. It’s hard. The more right we think we are, the less humble we become. Where is the balance between advocating for justice, which God loves, and grasping the theological concept that our whole faith centers around the most unjust act in all of history? We’re all way more messed up than we think, and God’s endless love, grace and mercy are way more necessary and available than we think.
Today is Thanksgiving, and it seems we’ve all taken a short break from the debates to focus on what we’re thankful for. When I started writing this blog, I was hoping the tone and content wouldn’t end up sounding like “I’m thankful that I’m not a Pharisee.” I hope I’ve accomplished that goal.
I’m thankful for who God is and for who I am. When I was first coming out, I would tell people “If I could choose to be straight, I would.” It would be a lot easier that way. I would never have the internal conflict and self loathing that only those who have been there would understand. I would never have to feel like I’m hiding something, even though I wasn’t sure what it was or why it should have to be hidden. I would feel and be seen as “normal” with no label that creates a spiritual disability where there really is none. In my darkest moments I would never have to wonder if living as a gay Christian would be better than not living at all. What I built my life around- the way God created me to love people- wouldn’t be the very aspect of my life that disqualified me continuing in those endeavors (in those specific ways). Being straight would be a lot easier, there’s no doubt about that. For those who think sexuality is a choice, I can assure you, it’s not. No one would choose any part of any of this experience, other than the freedom that accompanies aligning one’s self with the reality of the way God created them.
But today I’m thankful for who I am, instead of who I’m not. At least for today, I’ve run out of content for those blanks. Rather than saying, “I thank you, God, that I’m not…” I want to say, “I thank you, God, that I am created in your image. I thank you, God, that there has never been anything I could ever do to earn or to lose your love, grace and acceptance. I thank you, God, that you have always had a plan and a purpose for my life, and that you’ve enabled me to learn as I go. I thank you for who you are, because who you are shapes who I am.” I thank you, God.