Today’s Luke passage (18:9-14) has Jesus telling a story about two praying men. To emphasize the importance, consider that a comet is headed straight for us. As with the dinosaur catastrophe about 75 million years ago, we are now the species at risk for extinction. Now what? Do we bury our heads in the sand or do we put it all on the line and trust God? The situation in this Sunday’s message encourages us to choose the latter option. Aside from any literal comet hurling at earth, we face an immediate risk when we trust in too much religion (the outward, legalistic & showy parts of our faith).
Now back to Jesus’ story about the men praying at the Temple. The first person was a Jewish bureaucrat (a Pharisee), a figure who savored his status as an admired religious expert. This man asserted how he was not like “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11b). The Pharisee then told God how religious he was in fasting and in giving a percentage of his money. In effect, the Pharisee was saying, “God, look at me and how I’m denying myself just so I can earn my way to heaven and please you.” [God says “Nonsense!” to such babbling.]
The second man who came to pray was a despised tax collector, and he simply cried “ ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ ” (Luke 18:13b). There’s none of the Pharisee’s pride here. Whereas the Pharisee was putting other people down to elevate himself, the tax collector confronted his own sins. Jesus said that the tax collector was right in not using outward religion as a way to feel superior. The Pharisee was self-righteous and his words reveal this nasty secret.
There’s a huge issue in today’s story about the two men. There are implications about types and styles of religion. The Pharisee became self-righteous in trusting religious rules and traditions. The psychology behind this rears its ugly head whenever people use a ritual behavior as a way of justifying themselves. Along with this is the sense of moral superiority felt when someone denounces an outsider who can’t or won’t perform certain rituals or who was not born into a certain ethnic group or religion.
Which man from today’s story best represents you? Are you trusting in mere religion out of habit? Can you hope to keep all the rules & regulations? God is not impressed with religious-based diets, tests of theological purity, silly arcane rituals—all these are human folly and they cause more problems than they have even been worth. Instead, we follow the example of the tax collector who, though of bad reputation, ironically had the healthiest spirit with his pure and simple faith. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector didn’t try to construct a stairway to heaven built from centuries of accumulated garbage. The lesson in this part is clear: Recycle the debris from bad religion and plant new seeds of faith. God’s living Spirit will nurture the new you.
There’s an unhealthy tendency for people to become isolated in cloisters, monasteries, caves, ghettos and other places that reinforce racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes. Segregation and isolation arouses suspicion that feeds prejudice and discrimination—in both directions. If we want to love others and demonstrate compassion then we must allow God’s Spirit to guide us away from the unholy trinity of fear, ignorance and anger. Sadly, many religions persist in the worst manner. Healthy faith is joyful and dynamic, responsive to both our needs and the God who directs it all.
People who embrace toxic religion become the living dead, zombies who bite with a mindless zeal. Instead, we must reach out with a gentle and open spirit as we embrace the frail and fallen. This means that we will champion justice and equality. However, we must become disciplined lest we succumb to a restless and even suicidal frustration. The path to social justice isn’t a trek of angry, punching fists (Did our mothers not teach us that hands are for holding and not for hitting?).
Don’t become like that ancient Pharisee or like any of his modern step-children who seem to infest many religions. Such fatal thinking spreads a cancer into the spiritual DNA of humanity. We must resist incestuous, religious inbreeding and embrace a diversity of spiritual gifts. The roots of religious extremism are planted within the hearts and minds of people who feed from a filthy trough of fear, ignorance and anger. Rather than settle for their negative, black/white reality that is neither helpful nor true, God’s Spirit invites us to embrace life’s beautiful spectrum. Let’s get empowered and reveal God’s dazzling light. –Reverend Larry Hoxey.