Quick question, don’t think too hard, first thing that comes to mind:
Who are some people who are better than you? Just good people, better than you are?
OK, now, who are you better than?
Certain groups of people, or even specific names, probably came to mind for both questions. Because, left to our own devices we humans will immediately make ourselves unequal. Every interaction, we’ll rank and order, we’ll shift around the pieces on the gameboard of life, lowering some people and raising others, and we’ll do it automatically, unthinkingly. Every person we see, we’ll size them up and put them in their slot. Every dumb thing we say maneuvers our place on the board, every accomplishment shifts our standing. Each piece of information we take in contributes to the picture we’re constructing all the time of good and bad, better and worse, more and less worthy, and where we fit in the whole scheme of things.
We have no authority to do any of this. As Jesus says, we’re all students in the same classroom, children sharing the back seat of the same heavenly parent’s car. But we’ll do it anyway because that is what sin is and we are all sinners.
The Pharisees are a modern-day foil; they’re easy to see as the bad guys. But what we miss when we paint them that way is that they’re the ones who care most deeply about God and living right toward God and other people. They have given their lives to studying the law of God and teaching it to others. Jesus was deeply Jewish, and like them he taught that the law is a gift to help people live connected to God and each other. But he also lived it completely. Underneath and throughout the whole law, undergirding it all, is God’s justice and mercy, God’s upholding of humanity. Belonging to God and everyone else in this love permeated all that Jesus did. If he broke the law, he did so in love toward God and others.
The Law underneath the law is love.
Jesus starts out this whole speech saying, Listen to the Pharisees – they know what they’re talking about. But then he says, But don’t do what they do. And then, for the rest of the long chapter, with fiery, colorful language and no holds barred, Jesus tears into the Pharisees. He calls them out, up, down, and sideways, for their hypocrisy and arrogance, for their nitpicking details and ignoring justice and mercy, for refusing to live in love and leading others in their footsteps.
It’s much easier and less risky to try to be good and to educate other people about their faults, than it is to live the command of God – which is, as we talked about last week, to love God and love others, to pay attention to the fundamental fabric of the whole universe – which is God’s love and claim on us all. Turns out, instead of the vulnerability of loving and being loved, we’d rather just keep comparing ourselves to each other and striving to be worthy.
In another place, Jesus tells a story about a Pharisee, the respectable and good person, and a Tax Collector, aka. a cheat and traitor, both praying in the temple. The Pharisee prays loudly, “Thank God I’m not like other people, especially that tax collector over there! I follow the laws of God.”
And the tax collector prays quietly, “Have mercy on me, Lord, I am a sinner.” Jesus uses this story to teach people how to pray. In fact, the tax collector’s words become the core of the “Jesus prayer” a breath prayer that has been prayed by Christians for thousands of years. (breathe in: “Lord Jesus Christ, breathe out: Have mercy on me, a sinner,”).
But when I heard this story as a kid, I did not repeat the tax collector’s words. I repeated the Pharisee’s words. I thought to myself, Thank God I am not like that… Pharisee. And immediately I became so. Every time I look at someone who acts like they’re better than other people and condemn them in my heart, I become them!
Knowing what’s right does not make you better. Knowing what’s right should mean living what’s right. We live in a time where we’ve got pretty loud, clear-cut assertions of right and wrong, at least, we like to act like we know what’s right. It’s not ok to use those words, to support those causes, to think that way, believe that way. It’s not ok to spend money on those things or be associated with those people. We have so many opinions. And they are definitive and powerful. And if we don’t, we just look to the people who are sharing theirs so prolifically and take them for our own because they’ve obviously done more research so they must know better than us.
And many of these opinions begin in a good place. They have to do with a fundamental desire to uphold humanity, or a fundamental concern that someone’s humanity is not being upheld. Literally, almost every stance on almost any divisive thing boils down to this. Abortion, Israel and Palestine, affirmative action, the end of affirmative action, letting in migrants, keeping out migrants, critical race theory, storming the capitol – whatever it is that’s got people riled up and passionate, the root of it is the longing for humanity to be upheld, or the utter certainty that someone’s –your own or someone else’s humanity – is being trampled on.
For the cause of upholding humanity, we will tear each other apart. In our fervent longing for belonging, we will reject people’s membership in the human family and cancel people’s belonging. We will dehumanize other human beings by calling them monsters, or idiots, by worshipping them like superstar gods, or looking right past them on the street like they’re no different than the telephone pole they are leaning against. We will preach the importance of our shared humanity, but when the rubber hits the road, we won’t live it out. And we’ll hand over the reins to our brains, or our social media feeds, or our precious limited time and attention spans – to those who seem like better people than us because they always seem to know what’s right. Or we will be those people.
I heard someone this week say in relation to this text, wow, pride and arrogance are bad, and just like the Pharisees we lose our way, but the good news is that we get a chance all over again this week to try again. No. That is not the good news. That is exactly an example of the kind of misunderstanding and misuse of the law that Jesus is calling out here. If God’s description of what life looks like between God and human beings becomes something demanded of ourselves and lorded over others in a way that actually makes us despise ourselves for not measuring up and avoid others because we’re ashamed of our own weakness, or see ourselves as better than others, or them as better than us, making people into idols instead of fragile and beloved siblings who bear sorrow, and restlessness, and pain just like we do, then we are who Jesus is calling out.
The Good News is NOT that we have the chance to try again to do this better the next time. The good news starts first by telling the truth that we can’t. We can’t do this. We can’t achieve it, or attain it, or avoid failing at it. The establishing of our own permanent goodness to somehow finally be worthy of belonging isn’t possible. And ensuring the belonging and mutuality of all humanity is not something we can produce or sustain. We’ll just tear down some to lift up others and shift the pieces around some more. Trying harder this week won’t fix that. We can’t do it.
Then the good news is that God does this. Our belovedness as God’s children and our siblinghood with all others is the Holy Spirit’s business. God does it in us, and through us, and through others for us. God will keep doing it despite us, and God will never stop inviting us to join in and participate in the almighty loving of one another.
God created this whole universe as a giant symbiotic web of love and connection, and came into it alongside us, just like us—vulnerable and mortal, needing belonging and care from us—in order to take on, for us, all that divides and destroys, to break the power and authority of death, in all its appearances and disguises, so that nothing can keep us from this love, this love that we mostly ignore but might at any moment touch a thread of and make the whole thing, for a split second, sing. We get to receive this gift humbly, surrendering into that belonging, passing on that love and care for others freely, recognizing we couldn’t make it happen on our own. It’s not about us.
In last month’s book read, one big take-away for a lot of us was the question, who is centered in the story? In that context, amid the fear of the church dying, and the pressure to “save,” or fix, or change the church, we saw that we’ve made the church the center of its own story instead of God. This is the same question in Jesus’s rant against the Pharisees, and one that can immediately wake us up when we lose our way. It’s a bathroom mirror, kitchen fridge type question: Who is the center of your story?
Striving relentlessly to be right, and condemning others for being wrong, centers us instead of God and violates our shared humanity. Praying “Thank God I am not like them,” whoever the them may be, centers us instead of God, and so dehumanizes other people and ourselves. Pride and arrogance, shame and self-loathing all make us the center of the story instead of God, and so all of these stances isolate us from the belonging we share with all others.
Nobody is better than you. You are not better than anyone else. The Kingdom of God is the great leveling that brings the high low and the low high (because all that is made up by us anyway). The magnetic force of the Holy Spirit brings us back in line with each other and orients us to the Source of all life. Jesus lifts off the crushing burdens we lay on ourselves and each other and pulls us instead into his own life of freedom and complete belonging to God and all others in love.
The center of the story is God. The only authority is God. The power to declare worthiness, to save, to heal, and to resurrect us from the myriad deaths we suffer and inflict on one another, that power is God’s, and God’s alone.
And thank God for that.