Compassion or Contempt?

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.

Resources:

David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 18:9-14” in Preaching This Week, Oct. 24, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

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.


Luke 18:9-14

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.’


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Pride

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Pride” Luke 4:1-13, Luke 18:9-14

This is the first in a Lenten sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly Virtues.

Our Lenten season begins with Jesus in the wilderness.  As the Lord fasts and prays, the Devil confronts Jesus with a series of temptations.  “Use your holy power to turn stones into bread.  Bow down and worship me in exchange for world domination.  Put God to the test, reveal your glory, and be worshipped.”  Jesus turns away from the tempter’s wiles with scripture quotations.  He remains sinless.  Unfortunately, we do not.

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly virtues are grounded in scripture.  There are thirteen virtue lists in the New Testament, from 2 Corinthians to First Peter, and there are twenty-three vice lists, from Matthew all the way through Revelation.  In the first centuries of our faith with the rise of asceticism, church leaders began to think systematically about those lists of sins and virtues.  As Christian mystics and monks withdrew to the Egyptian desert to focus on God, they noticed that they had some big distractions.  In the fourth century, Evagrius of Ponta identified a list of eight thoughts that could interfere with spiritual practice—these would become the Seven Deadly Sins.  A century later, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens wrote a 1,000-line poem, “Psychomachia,” in which he identified seven heavenly virtues that corresponded to the deadly sins.  Clemens argued that Christ our Lord helps us with “the jewels of virtue,” which he places within us to battle sin and delight wisdom.  Augustine argued that the seven virtues characterize the new life in Christ and grow within us out of love—agape.

The Seven Deadly Sins and corresponding Seven Heavenly Virtues found renewed interest in the Middle Ages.  In his 13th century opus Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas wrote that the virtues are habitual dispositions, “patterns of mind and heart,” that bring about good actions and curb our sinful impulses.  In meditating on scripture, imitating Christ, and practicing the virtues, God’s grace deepens and matures in us.  So popular was this thinking on the deadly sins and heavenly virtues that they became a favorite theme of Medieval art.  Church walls were painted with murals depicting them.  Countless medieval illustrated manuscripts of Clemens’ poem “Psychomachia” still survive, depicting the sins and virtues—in female form—doing battle.

These days, the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Heavenly Virtues are a helpful framework in our spiritual formation.  We acknowledge that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, yet we realize that God’s grace deserves our response.  In meditating upon scripture, in following the way of Jesus, we can look within.  We can identify the sins with which we struggle.  We can cultivate the virtues, those spiritual weapons given to us by Jesus.  We can seek to curb sin and grow into virtue as we grow into the beloved people whom God created us to be.

We begin with the sin of pride.  In his 2006 book Pride, Michael Eric Dyson of Vanderbilt University notes that pride has a favorable value in our society.  We have school pride.  We feel pride in our achievements wrought through long, hard work.  We have cultural pride that ties us to our ancestors and celebrates what made them and us the people we are.  This reasonable, appropriate regard for others and for ourselves is not what I am talking about. 

We can chalk that up to the limits of the English language, in which we have a single word to describe the full spectrum of pride.  Latin, on the other hand, uses the word superbia to talk about the sin of overweening pride, arrogance, contempt for others, self-righteousness, and the belief that we are not subject to God.  C.S. Lewis taught that superbia pride “is the complete anti-God state of mind.  It is ‘The Great Sin’ that leads to all other sins, because pride is the exaltation of Self above all authority, even God’s authority.”

The prime scriptural example of superbia is found in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18).  Two men go up to the Temple to pray.  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.”  The Pharisee clearly thinks he is better than his neighbors—those “other people.”  He also imagines that he doesn’t really need God.  His exceptional piety and righteousness are enough to justify him. 

The tax collector presents a stark contrast.  He knows his sin and feels completely unworthy.  He stands far off, unable to lift his eyes to heaven.  He beats his breast in mourning and prays, “‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” The tax collector knows that he doesn’t have a leg to stand on before God.  In the punchline of the parable, Jesus cautions his listeners that it won’t be the Pharisee who is justified before God.  It will be that scoundrel, the tax collector.

We know this sort of superbia pride when we see it.  It prompted Hitler to annex the Sudetenland.  It has driven Putin to roll his tanks into Ukraine.  We see superbia in the racial pride of white supremacy that drives a speeding car into a crowd of peaceful protesters.  Superbia is in the arrogance and utter disdain with which we belittle and trash-talk our rivals and enemies.  Superbia pride seeks constant adulation and praise from an army of “yes-men.”  Superbia kills our marriages and friendships because we believe that we alone are right—and everyone else is wrong.  We see superbia in the context of our faith communities when we believe that we don’t need to practice confession, we don’t have to hear what the preacher says because we’ve heard it all before and we know it all, and we don’t really need church because we don’t need saving—we are just fine on our own.  Woe to us when pride drives the bus.

Jesus saw the remedy to superbia in the virtue of humility.  He followed that teaching about the Pharisee and tax collector with the words, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Humility is the recognition of who we are in relationship to God.  In other words, God is God, and we are not.  Humility submits to the authority of God and the guidance of scripture.  Humility acknowledges that our personal abilities and resources are gifts from God that are to be used and shared to the glory of God and for the building up of our neighbors.

To comprehend humility, it helps to think about the origin of the word.  The Latin form humilitas shares the same root as humus, the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant matter by microorganisms in the soil.  When we practice humility, we are down to earth, grounded, and aware of our limits and mortality.  Yet, Martin Luther warned that even humility can lead to sin.  As a monk, Luther sought humility.  He wore hairshirts to mortify his flesh.  He fasted, prayed, and slept on the floor.  “I finally achieved humility,” Luther quipped, “and I was proud of it!”

Humility finds its scriptural revelation in Christ’s death on the cross.  Although sinless, Jesus took on the burden of our collective sin and died a brutal, scandalous, shameful death to reveal God’s great love for us.  Thank you, Jesus.

So, what does humility look like for us?  Humility is knowing that we need God at the very center of our lives and our families.  Humility is good sportsmanship—acknowledging our losses and our opponent’s better abilities on any given day.  Humility is accepting responsibility for our mistakes and seeking to make things right.  We say, “I did it.  It’s my fault.  Let me make amends.  I am truly sorry.”  Even if we are convinced that we are right, humility demands that we stay in relationship, listen, find common ground, and work through differences.  Humility is identifying with the poor, the sick, and the despised people of our world.  It’s seeking to make a caring difference because we know that they are worthy, deserving of our love and tender care.  A world shaped by humility is blessed because it looks a lot like Jesus and anticipates the Kingdom.

So, my friends, as we begin our Lenten journey, let’s spend some time building that Kingdom by tempering our sins of pride with the virtue of humility.  We can begin by noticing the ways that pride has separated us from God and one another.  Then, we can find healing as we ground ourselves in humility, turning to the world with deep truth and abounding love.  May it be so. Amen.

Resources:

Neal Conan. “Interview with Michael Eric Dyson” in Talk of the Nation, Feb. 13, 2006.  Accessed online at npr.org.

Jerry D. Kistler. “The Deadly Sin of Pride” in The Montrose Press, March 8, 2019.  Accessed online at https://www.montrosepress.com/.

Ryan Griffith. “The Seven Heavenly Virtues: An Ancient Framework for Spiritual Formation” in desiring God, November 1, 2021. Accessed online at desiringgod.org.

Becky Little.  “How the 7 Deadly Sins Began as the ‘8 Evil Thoughts’” in History, March 29, 2021. Accessed online at history.com.


Luke 8:9-14

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.”


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