Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” – Luke 18: 10
The Pharisee prays, “God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income.” Meanwhile, the tax-collector says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” The tax collector, said Jesus, went home justified.
The Pharisee is almost a cartoon of the self-righteous person. It’s easy to poke fun at him. Harder to identify with him.
My work puts me in many different congregations, both UCC and others of the mainline Protestant tradition. Almost without exception in these congregations these days, I hear something that goes like this. “We thank God that our church is welcoming, inclusive, broad-minded and accepting, and not like those other churches or Christians who are close-minded, judgmental, ignorant and intolerant.”
Doesn’t that sound a bit like the Pharisee?
While I am grateful for our generally broad-minded and open-hearted approach, I doubt that any church is or can be “fully inclusive.” It’s a worthy aspiration and we ought not abandon it, but we remain sinners who will never fully achieve it.
Even more important — is there not a danger that we find our righteousness in our own actions, our enlightened views or inclusivity, and not in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Many today are anxious about the future of the church and their own congregations. We posit various explanations for our problems and propose, and try various solutions. My own view is that our great risk is that we become as the Pharisee, who was in many ways a good, even an exemplary person.
But like him, we make our Christian faith about our activities, our views, our values and, just maybe, how we are superior to some other Christians or people.
When this happens Christian faith has been fatally misunderstood. It’s not about us. It’s not about our views or virtues, our work or achievements. It’s not even about our welcome or inclusivity. It’s about God. God who alone knows the human heart. God who justifies the ungodly.
“God, be merciful to me a sinner. Amen.”
Tony Robinson, a United Church of Christ minister, is a speaker, teacher, and writer. His newest book is Called to Lead: Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day. You can read Tony’s “Weekly Meditation” and “What’s Tony Thinking?” at his website, www.anthonybrobinson.com.