Hancock Church Sermon – Rev. Dana Allen Walsh – October 27, 2013 – Luke 18:9-14


“What’s Wrong With Being Right?”

So this guy buys himself a parrot. The pet store owner warned him that this parrot was obnoxious, and sure enough, as soon as they got home, the parrot started talking and wouldn’t be quiet. And the words he used are ones I can’t use here in church. The parrot cursed and screached and yelled obscenities. The owner tried to teach him new words, to patiently encourage different behavior, but no, this parrot was stuck in its ways.

The owner became more and more upset, especially since his relatives were coming to visit for the holidays.

One day, after working a long time on training the parrot, the owner became so upset that he took the parrot, opened the refrigerator, and threw him in the freezer. This, of course, made the parrot furious, and out came a stream of foul words.

But then…nothing.  Silence. The owner became concerned that perhaps the parrot had frozen to death.

He opened the freezer door, and the parrot climbed out onto his arm, and began to speak.   “Dear sir, I now see how very selfish and rude I have been to you, and I now repent of my evil ways. Please accept my sincere apology, and know that I plan to turn over a new leaf.”   His owner was amazed and couldn’t say anything.

Finally, the parrot leaned over and asked, “By the way, what did that turkey in there do wrong?”

Unlike the parrot, the Pharisee in our Gospel story tried to do everything right. Even though the Pharisee was boastful and haughty, he worked hard at his faith. He fasted twice a week, even though the Torah law only mandated once a year. He gave away a tenth of his income.  And all of this makes him grateful that he’s not like “other people” who lie, cheat, and steal.  And he’s especially glad he’s not like that tax collector over there.

In the corner of the Temple, the tax collector was beating his breasts and praying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Tax collectors were hated by the local people, because they worked on behalf of the Roman Empire and were known to be corrupt and steal from the funds they collected.

The surprise of this story is not that the tax collector perceives himself to be a sinner. Anyway listening to Jesus’ story at the time, would have heartily agreed. No, instead the dramatic moment here is the revelation that a credentialed religious leader, the Pharisee, who had faithfully observed the Scriptures is NOT justified before God. So that means that living a faithful, perfect life of regular fasting, prayer, and charitable giving is not enough.   If the man who is so completely right can be wrong, then what? What is Jesus trying to teach us?

We are given two clues in our Scripture passage. The first is in the introduction to the story when Jesus says that this parable is intended for those who trust in their own righteous and regard others with contempt. And the second clue is in the Pharisee’s prayer when he thanks God that he is “not like other people.”

In the Pharisee’s drive to be right and to live perfectly by the law, he does not see that a truly faithful life CAN be lived only in community. Exalting oneself and setting oneself apart is not answering God’s call to love with the one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself! This lesson is so important that we see Luke made the same point a few chapters earlier when he tells of Jesus’ teaching to not take the place of honor at a banquet because “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

It is human nature to use our status and power to position ourselves in the best light. Self-promotion has always been a fundamental human tendency—even in church communities (How many new members do you have? How much money do you give away? Do you have an elevator?) But even for those of you who are not church nerds, I’m sure you see it in our media-saturated and celebrity-obsessed culture. In fact, I would say that one of the fears we now have is just being plain ordinary. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are training each of us to create a specific brand and identity. We hone it through pithy status updates and artsy selfies. And then we wait to see how many “likes” we receive.

So, in a culture where ordinariness is feared, and individualism is at an all time high, our prayers are probably more like the self-aggrandizing Pharisee than the confessional tax collector. We strive to do everything right and then be recognized for it.

Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000), a great Israeli poet, illustrates what right-ness would look like if it were a plot of land.  Hear these words from the poem, The Place Where We Are Right:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

For three weeks this month, our government experienced a partial shut-down. National parks were closed, Veterans did not receive benefits, and our economy lost over 24 billion in revenue. All of this was a result of a stalemate in the House of Congress over who was right. And no one was willing to budge.

In a culture that regards individual achievement so highly, we are taught to put our own personal needs and desires above those of the community. But as individuals, I believe we are incomplete. God created us with community in mind. Whatever strengths or weakness we might have, the community is there, to provide what we need and what we lack. We often think that all people can do all things. Well, that’s simply not true. On the other hand, I believe that a community can do anything. Maybe not all of us are given the gift of faith, or tough perseverance in the face of adversity, or the strength found when we set our eyes on hope. But surely, someone in this community has that gift. And that’s the person we need when we can’t believe on our own.

The Pharisee’s prayer created separation between himself and adulterers and robbers and thieves and the tax collector who was praying next to him. Separation is the root of sin. Separation makes us feel that we need to go at it alone. That we are judged by what we believe and how we act, rather than how we belong.

This kind of disengagement leaves us lonely, in a ruined house, clinging to what we believe is right. Faithfulness is not something one can achieve on one’s own through perfect practice or right belief. It’s not something we can mimic like a parrot. Faithfulness is living in love alongside other flawed, struggling human beings who seek to know something of the sacred. It is what we experience through compassion, connection, and courage.

So perhaps Jesus tells this parable so that we recognize that, like this tax collector, our only hope is the God who seeks out the lost, who rejoices at the repentance of the sinner, who justifies the ungodly, who causes light to shine from darkness, and who raises the dead to life.

Jesus reminds us that our job isn’t to earn God’s love, but to let ourselves be found, by the God who seeks us and by a community who embraces us.