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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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The Than Trap

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: righteousness, pharisee, comparison, compare, than, elon, collaborator

October 23, 2022    The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Christ Church, Clermont-Ferrand

Text: Luke 18:10: “Two men went up to the temple to pray...”

Saint luke’s gospel describes the story Jesus tells us this morning as a parable. But if you think about it, it doesn’t really sound much like a parable. The parables we know best are stories that clearly invent a setting and characters to make a point about how we should live. A father who has two sons, one dependable and one wild. A man who gets beaten up by robbers on a road, and the people who pass by him—or stop to care for him. A group of working people who all came at different hours of the day, but get paid the same thing at day’s end. 

But this story is different. It doesn’t sound a lot like those others. It almost sounds like Jesus has gathered us around a video that someone captured—actual people doing actual things that reveal something uncomfortably true about them.

One way to hear this story—probably the way we usually hear this story—is as a kind of sweet Bible story about self-righteous people. We like those stories because of course we are not self-righteous, and we know plenty of people who are, and to be honest we’re not at all unhappy about the idea of them coming under a little Jesus critique here.

The problem is, that’s not really the story Jesus is telling. The disciples close to him immediately caught the difference between a Pharisee and a tax collector. One was a person who stood as a person everyone looked up to, a person who really was above pretty much everyone else. The other was a person everyone really despised, because they were the worst sort of people—people from our own community working for the enemy.  

It’s hard to know how Jesus would tell us this story in the terms of our own day. All of our heroes have feet of clay. Who would be your Pharisee today? Who would be the person you’d put above any kind of reproach?

You know, for most people—maybe not for us, but for most people—it would be a celebrity. It would be a social media influencer, a famous singer, a billionaire. Elon Musk went up to the temple to pray, and he said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people.” We can believe that.

And who would be our tax collector? If you had lived here eighty years ago, this would have been an easy question to answer. It would have been your neighbor who was working for the regime in Vichy, or collaborating with the occupying power. Someone who was living dishonorably, who was harming the whole community by choices they made. 

If you lived in Ukraine today, this would be an easy question to answer. It would be your neighbor who is collaborating with the Russians. It would be someone you know who is undermining your country’s struggle for survival.

So maybe Jesus would tell us the story of Elon Musk and the collaborator going up to the church to pray. We can believe Mr. Musk would be thankful that he was made different from other people; I expect he believes that. As an old boss of mine used to say of such people, he is a self-made man who worships his creator.

And we have a kind of instant revulsion when we think about that collaborator. There is a reason why history has not been kind to collaborators, and neither have the people who lived with them after the occupation ended. 

Yet Jesus is teaching us that it’s the collaborator, that person beyond any redeeming quality, who goes home justified before God.

You might think the teaching message in the lesson is to look for righteousness in unlikely people. And that is certainly part of the message. But only a part, and not even the most important part.

No, it’s something revealed in the world view of that Pharisee that turns out not to be about Pharisees, but about humans. And in English, it is completely encompassed in a single word that lives close to the very center of our way of thinking. That word is the comparative “than.”

We have been hard-wired by evolution to think this way. We would like to think otherwise of ourselves—but we’d be wrong. Below the level of our conscious awareness, we are always comparing ourselves to others. I am taller than / older than / poorer than / healthier than / stronger than / that person. I work harder than them, I have more to do than them, I give more to the church than them... I am better than them.

That word “than” stands at the uncomfortable center of our lives, whether we know it or not. That Pharisee isn’t so different, so much better, than any of the rest of us. We all compare ourselves to others, all the time. 

The tax collector is the exception. And that is what makes the story possible. The tax collector is comparing himself to nobody. He is making a searching, unflinching examination of himself, of his own conscience, of his own character, before God. He compares himself to no one. He makes no excuses. He brings himself before God without any appeal to “than.” 

So this is not a parable. It is a story, a cautionary tale, about human nature. And it is a lesson about prayer—about how to pray, about how to bring ourselves before God without excuse or explanation. 

Whenever Jesus points to someone as an example of how we should live, he never describes them in comparative terms. It is never that they prayed more than, or gave more than, or worked harder than, or helped more than, someone else. 

Instead it is always about the essence of what they do. It’s not that the father loves his wayward son more than or less than his brother; it’s that he welcomes him back joyfully and completely. It’s not that the widow gives more than or less than some other person; it’s that she gives all she has to give. It’s not that the blessed ones of God visit more sick people than others, or clothe more poor people than others, or welcome more refugees than others; it’s that they do these things at all.

The standard of Christian life is not a comparative standard—and that is why the world cannot make any sense of us. It has no use for “than.” It is the law of love, full stop. It is the standard of compassion, something much more rigorous and more difficult than mere sentiment and more spiritually substantive than mere feeling. 

The prayers that bring us before the throne of grace bring only us, and no one else. We are not graded on a curve, compared to others. We are seen as our whole selves, in a light without shadows—and what is even more remarkable, it is just that person that God loves, and celebrates, and welcomes home. Amen.