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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Two Candidates, One Lord

2016-10-23 Luke 18:9-14

OK. Two people in the public square, both baring themselves before God and the world. One is the right choice, a model of truth and honor. The other is the wrong choice, the prime example of deception and lies. One will lead the righteous to a heavenly reward, the other will send the soul of a once-great nation down to perdition's flames.

Where have I heard this recently?

Voting, deciding, choosing between one person or another: As much as you might say you don't like politics, the political lines do get drawn, don't they? Whenever there's a choice between two people, there are politics involved. You want to choose the right one. Their supporting parties want you to choose their one.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus gives us a choice between two aspiring, public worshipers. One's right. The other's wrong. He even tells us which one is which. If only he would do that for all elections.

And there's your problem. We have to make our own choices. We have to make our own choices about the people and the paths we're going to follow. Are you picking the right one? Or the wrong one? How do you know? Because a certain view is in vogue? Because that's how your parents raised you? Because of what your friends say? How do you know if you're right, or if you're wrong? Are you right-minded, the right-kinda person? And then, if you are right, can you be right, without somebody else being wrong?

We hope – at least I hope – I hope we can have some kind of faith in our politics. But I think this parable tells us Jesus hopes we can get the politics out of our faith.


Elections can get ugly.

I have yet to hear Anderson Cooper mention the School Board election in the City of Maryville, Tennessee. I don't want to belittle it. It's an important position. But it's not like they give them the nuclear codes. Even so, there is ugliness.

We know one of the candidates because our kids are in band together. She asked if she could put a sign in our yard, and we said, sure, we like you, that's fine. One day we woke up and noticed the sign was gone. We told her, and she put up another one. A few days later, the replacement sign had been swiped, too. The good news is the opposition's Dirty Tricks Committee is very tidy. Apparently, they send ninjas into our yard under a cloak of darkness and neatly snip the plastic ties that hold the signs in place, leaving no damage to home and property. They could be spray-painting our house, slashing our tires. As vandalism goes, it's very polite. Our little village has manners. But still, it drives home the point that politics often brings out the worst in humanity. Winning, being right – as opposed to losing, being wrong, is a messy business.

Raise the stakes by bringing God into the mix – as people often do – and the ugliness goes high to heaven, or, the opposite direction. Politicians know that. And they exploit it. Vote for me because I'm on God's side. Because the other person's obviously not. Then fistfights break out at the barber shop. It's fairly predictable. When someone starts aligning themselves with The Almighty, the whole thing goes to the devil.

And that's exactly what Jesus warns us about.


Jesus tells a parable of politics. It is. Really. The Pharisee may not be running for office, but he's running his mouth. He's exploiting his political connections by (quote) trusting in his righteousness and regarding others with contempt. You can hear the pandering when the Pharisee stands on the Temple steps and posts in ALL CAPS over In-Your-Face-Book. It's the worst kind of prayer: a very loud one. At least it's short.

'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.'

That's a political speech. He's not praying to God. He's playing to the crowd.

Now. In the Pharisee's defense. If he had only lol said, "God, I thank you. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." If he had stopped there, he would have been alright. Kind of a show-off, but OK. Fasting and tithing are fine ways to say thank you to God. Consult your doctor if you want to start fasting. Consult the Finance Committee if you'd like to give a tenth of all your income. Please.

If he had stopped there, with what he does in faithful thanksgiving, he would have been fine. Noisy, but fine. But he had to go and make it political. He had to go and not just brag about what he's doing, but sling mud on the people who aren't.

'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.'

That's when he crosses the line. He's not just bragging, he's dragging someone else through the mud. He makes it political. He makes himself a party of one, standing opposed to the big basket of deplorables. God is not his savior; God is his running mate. He's tweeting in prime time: 'I have chosen the Lord; And I thank the Lord for choosing ME – instead of losers, like this tax collector.'

In order for him to win, somebody has to lose. That's how politics works.


"Or even like this tax collector."

Let's think about this for a moment. Tax collectors were not nice people. They were not role models. "When I grow up, I want to be an extortionist." No child says that. Tax collectors were like mobsters collecting protection money. If you look at what the tax collector does, he is not a nice person. It's what he doesn't do that makes him Jesus's prime example.

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'

Period. What if he had gone just a little further? What if he had said, "God, be merciful to me, because I'm not like that blowhard Pharisee over there?" Would Jesus have used him as an example? No. And why not? Because he would have made it political. Just like the Pharisee. He would have been making himself righteous by putting somebody else down.

Luke tells us this is what the parable's about. He says:

He [Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous AND regarded others with contempt.

It's bad enough to trust in your own righteousness. It's bad enough to regard other people with contempt. But put 'em together and what have you got? Bippity-bobitty ewwww.

You might be one righteous dude. It's not bragging if it's true, right? (Yes, it is.) And if there are people who are truly contemptible, it's not judgmental if we say that or treat them like that, right? (Yes, it is.)

The sin of pride and the sin of being judgmental are bad enough on their own. Put 'em together and Jesus tells a parable about you.

Politics is about picking winners over losers. Injecting politics into your faith poisons your soul. Jesus preached against it all the time. It's just one-upmanship wrapped in pretty god-talk. It's not faith. It's I win because you lose. It's definitely something, but it's not the gospel of Jesus Christ.


In his very first sermon, Jesus says:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free… (Luke 4:18)

The prophet Micah asks: what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).

When we care for "the least of these," when we provide for widows and orphans, when we exhibit charity, compassion, empathy, and love we proclaim in word and work the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Wouldn't it be something if we could bring more of this faith into our politics? How refreshing would that be?

There is a huge difference between bringing our faith into our politics and bringing politics into our faith. One is the public expression of personal belief. The other is lifting yourself up while putting somebody else down.

The tax collector may have been a nasty man, but he got one thing right. He confessed his sin without politicizing it, without pointing out the sins of others.


Praise the Lord none of us is running for President. Who would want to? It's like someone said about being Vice President: the only thing worse than being Vice President is running for Vice President. Politics is ugly business limited only by the depths of ugliness.

And that's true, whether it's national politics or neighborhood gossip. Trusting in our personal righteousness and regarding others with contempt doesn't require millions of dollars and super-PACs. All it takes is misplaced trust and a lack of regard.

Jesus calls us to turn that around. Jesus calls us to trust in faith, to trust in the faith that God's kingdom is greater than our pettiness. Jesus calls us to regard others at least as kindly as we regard ourselves. Jesus, the man who would NOT be made king, was put on a cross to show us. We can confess who we are. We can serve God. And we can help others do it too. Because whether they're winners or losers, they're God's children, too.