Righteous vs. Self-Righteous Christians
Well, I think some of you know that when Greg and I first moved to Michigan back in 2005, we opened a bed and breakfast in Saugatuck. And at that time, we became aware that there was another bed and breakfast in the area that was embroiled in a bit of controversy. At the time, a couple had reserved a room at that bed and breakfast. But when they arrived, the innkeeper said that they couldn't stay there, because she saw that they were two men, a gay couple. And she said that hers was a Christian B&B.
Now that innkeeper had every legal right to deny those men service. So there really wasn't anything that couple could do about it other than write a letter to the local newspaper. And when the local newspaper reached out to the bed and breakfast owner for a comment, she said, “I will be praying for them.” And I remember when I read that, I thought, “I wonder what that prayer was.”
Like, was she praying ‘God, please make these men straight? Please take away their gayness?’ Is that the purpose of prayer? Are we supposed to be praying for other people to be changed? Or is the purpose of prayer to change us?
Now, I share that with you today, because of course, the Gospel reading from the lectionary for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost is another one of Jesus's parables about prayer. It's known as the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
And my hunch is that that B&B owner’s prayer was much like that prayer of the Pharisee. ‘God, thank you so much for making me one of the righteous, and I pray for all those poor people who are walking down the wrong path.’ That prayer of self-righteousness, that arrogance. Another example might be a father who refuses to go to his daughter's wedding, because her daughter is marrying a Muslim. And he's a good Christian, and he raised her to be a good Christian. And so he prays to God, ‘God, please change my daughter's heart and mind.’ When instead he should be praying, ‘God chang my heart and mind.’
That Pharisee is saying, ‘God change them.’ The tax collector says, ‘God change me.’ Jesus wants us to pray with a humble heart, a heart of humility. Now, Pharisees in Jesus's day were the upstanding citizens. They were the holy people. They were the people who understood Scripture. They knew scripture backwards and forwards. They were people who followed the letter of the law. Tax collectors, on the other hand, were at the bottom of the barrel. They were considered sinners, they were unclean, immoral. So do you see the brilliance of Jesus's parable and how shocking it was to the people of his day? He was basically making the tax collector, the good guy of the story, and the Pharisee, the bad guy.
He flipped the script, as he often did.
You know, if you read the gospels, 95 percent of Jesus's criticisms were for the so-called righteous, Jesus criticized the righteous the most.
And so I find it interesting today that there are many Christians in America who wear their righteousness like a badge of honor. They're so proud to be righteous. And I think they misunderstand what righteous means. I think they think righteous means being right. Which means they're on the right path. So anyone else who's not following that path must be wrong.
So they really do believe that the world's half a billion Buddhists, the world's 1 billion Hindus, and the world's 1.6 billion Muslims – they're all wrong. They're going down the wrong path. They Righteous have the right answer, but everybody else is wrong, because they're not following my path. And so they pray for those people of other faiths, ‘God, please save their souls.’
That's the Pharisee prayer. It's the prayer of arrogance, self righteousness. How arrogant to think that you're following the right path, and anybody else who doesn't believe how you believe is wrong.
Jesus is encouraging us to pray with a humble heart.
Now, in Luke, Chapter 15, just three chapters before this one, Jesus tells the story of 99 people who are so sure of their righteousness. And Jesus says they're wrong. Because he says true wisdom does not come from certainty. But from humility. True wisdom doesn't come from certainty, but from humility.
You know, the contemporary Christian writer Anne Lamott. She said something similar, I shared it with you last year. She says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”
When you are so certain that you have the right answer. That's not humility. That's arrogance. So what does the Bible mean when it talks about righteousness? When it says we are to follow the path of righteousness? What does that mean?
Well, thousands of years before Jesus, our eastern siblings spoke of the path of righteousness. They called it dharma. That's what dharma means. It actually means “right use of thinking.” And it's what our Christian Scripture tells us in Romans 12, “Be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind.” That's what we're doing in prayer. We're asking for our minds to be transformed. We're not asking for other people's minds to be changed. We're asking for our minds to be changed. That's why Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled. But all who humble themselves will be exalted,” which means lifted up into the spiritual domain. And Jesus says that the effects of this will be peace.
The prophet Isaiah says, “The effect of righteousness will be peace.”
So do you think that that B&B owner was bringing about peace in her community? By refusing a gay couple to stay at her B&B? Was that bringing peace? Do you think the father who refuses to attend his daughter's wedding is bringing about peace in his family? The effect of righteousness will be peace.
Now, Madeline L'Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, I know so many of you love that book. She said, “We do not bring people to Christ by telling them how right we are, and how wrong they are. Rather let us show them a light that is so lovely that they want with all of their hearts to know the source of it.”
That's what I want to invite you to do. I want you to show the world a light so lovely. How do we get in touch with that light within us? Well through prayer, but the prayer of a humble heart. In prayer, we return again and again to our source, the source of all love and light. And that source is always calling us to love people unconditionally, and with a humble heart. And the more that we do that, the more we learn to see more clearly, to love more dearly, and to follow in the way of Jesus more nearly.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
Mary Ann Brussat
A story is told about a man who asked his rabbi why people could no longer reach high enough to see God’s face. The rabbi replied, "Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and you will be able to see God face-to-face." This story reminds us of another saying: “The door to the kingdom of God is exactly as high as you are when you walk on your knees.” If you are standing tall, full of pride, you can't get through. You see, the spiritual life is not about upward mobility, but about downward mobility. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing over who among them was the greatest, Jesus knelt before them and washed their feet. He was demonstrating to them what it means to be humble. With humility, we accept our place as equals among others. We recognize that we are no more important than anyone else. In our culture, the opposite behavior is often promoted. You can't get ahead, we're told, unless you climb the corporate ladder and make it to the top. And, there are still many of us who equate humility with low self-regard. But as a slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, "The challenge is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less often." Humility means not putting yourself either above or below others; it means not thinking about your position on a scale. Humility comes naturally to some people, but usually it needs to be learned. We become humble by being around humble people and by consciously acknowledging that we are not number one. Humility is an essential quality we all must have if we wish to grow spiritually.
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