Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Compassion or Contempt?” Luke 18:9-14
If you are like me, you probably cannot wait for November eighth to roll around so that the mid-term elections will be over. There are thirty-five U.S. Senate seats up for election in 2022—fourteen seats held by Democrats and twenty-one held by Republicans. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs. Here in New York, voters will be choosing a Governor. My eagerness for the eighth has little to do with my passion for the candidates. It’s more that I am feeling worn out and wearied by all the negative campaigning.
I’ve noticed that if you are a Democratic candidate, the best way to take your opponent down a peg is to call him or her a “Donald Trump January 6th Republican.” And if you really want to undo your Democratic opponent, just link their name to Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden. Have you seen some of the mudslinging going on in the increasingly close New York Governor’s race? The advertisements have been downright meanspirited. According to Kathy Hochul, “Lee Zeldin is extreme and dangerous,” an anti-woman Trump sycophant who voted in congress to overturn the 2020 election. For his part, Lee Zeldin portrays Kathy Hochul as an incompetent, corrupt, pro-criminal, pro-inflation, tax-and-spend candidate. All that negative campaigning, it’s enough to make you give up watching the evening news.
Jesus once told a story of a Pharisee, who does some negative campaigning as he prays in the Temple. With hands uplifted and eyes looking to God, he begins with a prayer of thanksgiving. We expect that he will say, “Thank you, God, for all you have done for me, for all your grace and goodness, for all your bounty and blessing.” Instead, the Pharisee gives thanks that he is not like others. We get the impression that he is looking around the temple court and taking exception to his neighbors, whom he labels thieves, rogues, adulterers, and even tax collectors. It’s as if by calling God’s attention to the sins of others, the Pharisee hopes to shine a bit more brightly in God’s esteem.
Once the Pharisee has gotten his genuine but self-serving thanksgiving out of the way, we hear how his love for God is revealed in his zealous observance of God’s law. His piety is impressive and exceptional. The Pharisee tithes on all his income, not just on his harvest. He fasts twice a week, not just on required holy days, like the Day of Atonement. The Pharisee is pretty impressive. If we could work our way into God’s good graces, this man would get elected in a heartbeat. It sounds like he is entitled to a prime seat at the heavenly banquet.
And his opponent the tax collector? Not so good. He is a scoundrel. He has made a successful career of worshipping money. He earns a comfortable living by fleecing his people on behalf of their Roman overlords. Sure, he collects his neighbor’s taxes, but he also collects a generous surcharge for the trouble. Jesus says that as the tax collector prays, he stands far off, and he won’t even look up. He knows that he doesn’t have a leg to stand on, before God or neighbor. As the tax collector prays, he is overcome by his sin and shame. He beats his breast in grief and self-condemnation, crying, “Lord, have mercy! I am a sinner!” And he is a sinner. There’s no doubt about that. Everyone knows it. God knows it.
When it comes to negative campaigning, Jesus knew it was nothing new, and a short lesson from our national history reveals that even our founding fathers were masters of it. In fact, according to the historic record, what we see today is pretty tame stuff in comparison to the early days of our democracy. The first political race to get really down and dirty was the presidential election of 1800, which pitted Vice President Thomas Jefferson against the incumbent President John Adams. Although the two had been compatriots in their revolutionary fervor, there was no love lost between the men when it came to shaping the future of the nation.
Jefferson got it started. His camp accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’s supporters responded, calling Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” If you ask me, that sounds like the very first “Yo’ Mama” joke. It escalated from there. Adams was called “a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant.” Jefferson was labeled “a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward.” Jefferson went so far as to hire a publicist to smear Adams. They circulated spurious reports that Adams planned to go to war with France after the election. Frightened voters rejected Adams and elected Jefferson as their new President. Jefferson’s publicist went to jail for the slander, former President Adams went home to Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson moved into the White House.
When Jesus first told his story of negative campaigning, it would have scandalized his listeners. Folks would have been shocked as they heard Jesus teach that the Pharisee, despite his very real piety and his genuine love for God and the Torah, is the one who got it all wrong. No one would have liked to hear that a dirty, rotten, low-life like the tax collector could find mercy and the chance to begin again in right relationship with God and his neighbors. It’s like saying that when Mother Teresa and Vladimir Putin arrive at the Pearly Gates, the doors swing open, and only Putin dances in. That’s pretty offensive. Isn’t it? That’s how uncomfortable this story would have made Jesus’ listeners feel.
When Jesus first told this story, he must have known that it was not only uncomfortable but also a little dangerous. Listeners could quickly trade their loathing of tax collectors for contempt of Pharisees. Then, in their rush to judgment, they would be like the Pharisee, feeling self-righteous and justified by despising the sins of someone else. I’m sure there was a long uncomfortable silence as Jesus proclaimed, “I tell you — this tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the other.”
When election time draws near in this marvelous and messy American experiment in democracy, we face head-on our human penchant for elevating ourselves by taking shots at others. Instead of standing on our own merit for who we are, what we believe, and what we have done, we vilify our opponent. We point out their flaws and foibles as a way of distancing and defining ourselves. He is this, but I am not. She did this, but I did not. They don’t deserve your vote, but I do. Polls say that Americans don’t like negative campaigning, but we don’t seem to be able to get away from it. Do we?
Jesus’s story confronts us with the universality of our brokenness. We can be short on compassion and long on contempt. We exclude and judge. We elevate ourselves by putting down others. Jesus cautions that we can love God all we want, but if we don’t love our neighbor, we’ve only gotten it half right. Being in right relationship with God requires that we seek to love our neighbors, even the dirty, rotten scoundrels. In the end, no one earns a place at that heavenly banquet table, not the Pharisee, not even Mother Teresa. In the end, God’s love is freely given, whether we are broken or whole, sinner or saint, Republicans or Democrats, Libertarians or Independents. Indeed, God loved us enough to die for us, long before we had the wherewithal or the courage to pray, “Lord, have mercy! I am a sinner!”
Well, my friends, as Nov. eighth draws near, we can anticipate that the negative campaigning will only get worse. We’ll hear all about the other candidate’s sins. Before the debates are over and the last ballot is cast, we may really hear a few “Yo’ Mama” jokes. It’s part of our national character, but even more so, it’s part of our human frailty. As the days grow short and our patience wears thin, let us remember Jesus’ shocking and dangerous story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. May we trade contempt for compassion. May we love God and neighbor, even the less than loveable ones.
Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Luke 18:9-14” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 27, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Kathryn Schifferdecker. “Dear Working Preacher” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 16, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
For further information regarding the negative campaigning of Presidents Adams and Jefferson, see Kerwood Swint, “Founding Fathers’ Dirty Campaign,” August 22, 2008, CNN. com.
9 Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13 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!” 14 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.’