Whenever I read this passage, I think about the questions the Bishop is required to ask all those who are to be ordained as United Methodist Elders during an Annual Conference. I answered those questions in 1990 having completed two years as a Deacon in Probationary status. Some of the questions are fairly easy to answer like: Have you faith in Christ? Well, of course! And, have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church? And, do you know the General Rules of our Church? Those rules and doctrine we had to learn in order to complete Seminary and graduate. So, yes, I could answer these questions with a measure of honesty.
But some are a bit more challenging like this one: Are you going on to perfection? Perfection? Can any of us reach perfection in this life…Wesley thought so. Or this one, Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? There’s that word again. Those two are pretty tough especially given the clear message in today’s parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Can someone go on to perfection and be made perfect in love in this life without falling prey to a righteous, Pharisaic attitude of superiority? That’s kind of the problem here, isn’t it? First of all, it isn’t all that easy to be perfect. I don’t know of anyone who is perfect among my circle of friends and acquaintances. And, secondly, it’s especially difficult to strive for perfection without risking a swelled head and a shrinking heart toward others. I know; I’ve tried. Christ is pretty hard on the Pharisee and that might be viewed as an odd attitude. The Pharisees were the ones who made it their business to be religious. They showed off their religiosity by praying in public, throwing ashes over their heads in mourning and generally, strutting their religious stuff in front of the commoner…well, like the lowly tax collector. Tax collectors were already viewed as fallen sinners. They did the bidding of the ruling class and exhorted unjust amounts of money from the poor. Pretty bad stuff. But Christ isn’t pointing a finger at this obvious sinner. Nope! He is making a case against the pious, “overstuffed with his own importance” Pharisee. And, unfortunately, at us.
You see, we probably have more strutting Pharisee in us than humble tax collector. We think because we come to church every Sunday and give out of our abundance, we hold a special place in God’s heart. But, then, I think about my walks through town; the thoughts that go through my head as I go down the wrong side of Elm Street; will I run into one of the local drug pushers? They are there, you know. I think about the people I see sitting on benches in Talcott Park who have no place to go, no job to meet their needs and no caring family around them to give them love and support. I’m better off than them aren’t I? I walk past Superior Court and see the defendants…I give them that designation. I don’t know what, if anything they might have done. I think well, I don’t drink and drive. I don’t speed and act recklessly in a car. There’s no domestic violence going on in my house. I’m not carrying an unregistered weapon or using and selling illegal drugs. I didn’t steal something that didn’t belong to me or act violently toward another person. I’m better than them, aren’t I? Of course, I don’t know what they did. I don’t know what their stories are. I just know I can hold my head up high. I’m a good person. I have to be, don’t I? I’m a minister. I attend church. I give to charities. But I don’t want to get too close to these folks who need more than I’m willing to give. Yeah, I guess I am wearing my holy robes and keeping my eyes skyward when maybe, I need to look more deeply into my own heart. Maybe I need to look at my motives and my sins…both of omission and commission. When I pretend or imagine there are distinctions between me and those nameless others, I am acting no better than the righteous Pharisee in Jesus’ parable.
Ellsworth Kalas suggests that
“You and I are so accustomed to seeing the Pharisee as the ‘heavy’ in this little drama that it’s almost impossible to put ourselves in his shoes. Worse yet, we don’t recognize ourselves in him. It’s probably true that the most congregations in our Western world are made up of people who are close kin to the Pharisee. We are people who congratulate ourselves now and again on our moral achievement. We don’t often do so in the temple, as the Pharisee did; perhaps we don’t even belong to a congregation. We do so while reading the newspaper or while watching the evening news. Why can’t all the world be like me, we say. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many troubles. ‘I thank thee, Lord, that I pay my taxes, I curb my dog. I obey speed limits. I don’t burden society with drug use. I’m a contributor to society, not a problem. Why can’t other people be like me?[i]
Okay…I’ll say it. Ouch! Yeah, it hurts to see ourselves through the gracious eyes of a giving God. There’s room for improvement. Oh, by the way, though candidates for ministry seeking Elder status in the United Methodist church are asked by the presiding Bishop those questions about belief in “going on to perfection”, we aren’t the only ones expected to strive for this. So are all of you…at least, those of you who follow Christ and seek redemption. And, now that I think of it…Wesley was right…redemption is a God action that follows forgiveness. We could all use a bit of that, don’t you think. Amen.
[i] J. Ellsworth Kalas Parables from the Back Side, 63.