One of the things I love about Fridays is catching up on some of my favorite television shows on the DVR. Abbi and I don’t often agree on shows. I am more of a documentary, drama, or slapstick comedy person, while she is more of the sci-fi, British TV, and Food Network variety. So, when I can get to the DVR it is time to play catch up, especially since one of my favorite shows is ending this season.
That is “The Good Place.” Have you ever seen that show? I find it hilarious. The show centers around a group of people who were put in the “bad place” that was disguised as the “good place.” The characters figure this out, but work together to “prove” that they actually either deserved to be in the “good place” or could do enough to earn a spot.
Getting into the “good place,” according to the show, was based on earning enough points on earth to merit the selection. Help a person cross the street … three points. Show up for work and not get distracted by the Internet … five points. Take care of someone in need … 20 points. You could also lose points for bad behavior. It was all random, but the basic idea was that you could accumulate enough points on earth to gain access to the “good place,” which was synonymous with heaven.
We snicker at the show’s premise, but I wonder how easy it is for us to live that way in our lives and faith journey. Are we trying to earn enough points to get into heaven? Read our Bible … three points. Give some money to the church … 10 points. Pay attention to the sermon and not get distracted by lunch … 50 points. Even though we boldly proclaim how Christ is the source of our salvation, how easy is it for us to think that if we do enough good, we can earn our spot in heaven? Perhaps even more, do we keep score in order to prove to others and ourselves that we are better than someone else?
Those are questions that get to the heart of our parable, this morning, from Luke 18:9-14. It is one that calls us to reflect upon our life and how we seek to live out our faith. Because faith is not about keeping score or looking down upon the lives and conditions of others. It is about seeing how God’s grace is sufficient for us and calls us to respond by sharing God’s love with all people.
The story is the classic parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. Jesus tells the story as a way to provide a polarization between two extreme opposites. The Pharisee was part of a community that focused on holiness in response to God’s action in their life. They maintained a strict interpretation of the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible – and often centered accountability to the Torah on their interpretive lens, which was often more than what Scripture desired. Jesus had a lot in common, theologically, with the Pharisees, but often disagreed with their interpretation and application of Scripture. On the other end, there was a tax collector who was despised in society and by the religious elites. A tax collector would, often, charge more for taxes in order to fatten their own wallets. They were also despised for aligning themselves with the Roman authorities.
Both of them went to the Temple to pray. King Herod began construction on the Second Temple as a way to win favor over the Jewish people, and it was still in the building phase during Jesus’ lifetime. Like the First Temple – Solomon’s Temple – it was the center of worship and social life for the community. People would go to the temple to pray, to worship, and to give of their offering to support the people. Orthodox Jews and Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land continue to go to the site of the Temple to pray, even though it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Worshipers will line what is known as the Wailing Wall to offer their prayers to God. This site is as close as one can get to the location of the Holy of Holies, where the presence of God was believed to be located.
Jesus focuses on the actions of the Pharisee first. He goes to the Temple and goes off by himself to pray. Even though he is off by himself, it is likely he wants others to hear what he says in his prayer. It is an interesting to prayer. There are four phrases that begin with the word “I.” Within these statements, he thanks God that he is not a sinner like that tax collector over there. He says he has done everything right. He hasn’t cheated. He doesn’t sin. He’s not committed adultery. He has fasted. He has tithed. He has earned his points. He is, he thought, a good and righteous person.
It was an interesting prayer, because nothing in the prayer was truly focused upon the work of God in his life. It was all focused on himself. He was the subject of his prayer. He draped the phrases of prayer to focus on his own self-worth and belief that he should be seen as righteous. Even more, he used his prayer to distance himself from other people and believed he was right in doing so. Why? Because he was a good person and had done everything right.
This particular Pharisee made faith all about himself. It was a means to be seen as a good person in society and to separate himself from the very people he wanted nothing to do with. Faith became about control to where he was the one in the judgment seat to determine what it meant to have true life and connection to God. What he did was holy, and what everyone else did was not. This way of thinking automatically reduced anyone that did not meet his definition of life as not good enough. Faith was never about a relationship for this Pharisee, because a deep and transformative relationship with God was never his sole purpose or desire. It was always about being seen as good and separating himself from anyone who was not like him.
It is easy to see the Pharisee’s part of the parable and believe we do not do this. The prayer is offered to us as a way to reflect upon our lives and to see how easy it is to fall into the Pharisee’s temptation. A temptation towards self-justification and believing faith was a way to separate ourselves from anyone different. There is a temptation that we see faith as the instrument that allows us to be seen as good and holy by others. Even more, there is a temptation to use our faith as a way to separate ourselves from those whom we would rather not have anything to do with.
How does this often look? We’ll make comments that look like they are connected to a deep faith, but if we peeled back the layers, we’ll see the focus is truly on ourselves. We’ll talk about how only those who read a specific translation of the Bible are faithful. We’ll talk how many passages of Scripture we’ve memorized. We’ll talk about how much we sacrifice to attend worship, give to the church, or volunteer. We’ll turn good things and make it not about faith, but about wanting praise and attention from others.
This also works in how we view one another. In terms of separation, though, we’ll say, “we’re blessed, because we don’t live like those other people” or “we’re blessed, because we don’t live in that part of town.” We’ll give side glances when someone “not like us” enters worship and think “there is nothing good about them.” We’ll even hear stories of conversions that shock us, perhaps like ones making the rounds in the media recently of Kanye West, and go, “there is no way that person is a believer.”
Anytime we turn faith and our connection to God to where the subject is ourselves and not God, we’ve missed the point. Anytime we turn faith and our connection to God to something that allows us to look down upon others or separate ourselves from them we’ve missed the point.
Faith is about a relationship with God, where God is the primary actor of grace and we partner with God by seeking to live transformed lives. We cannot earn God’s grace. We cannot earn points in heaven. The things we do on earth – reading Scripture, sharing in communion, giving to the church, giving of our time – are not done to secure our place or to prove our worth to others. They are done in response to our love of God.
The same is true for our relationships with one another. Faith enables us to see the good in all people, because God sees the possibility in one another. We do not look down upon others. We do not dismiss people. We do not look down upon others. We raise others up and see the grace of God that is available in their lives.
When faith is lived in this manner, we are able to see the tax collector’s prayer for what it is. The tax collector doesn’t make faith about himself. He is not the subject of his prayer. The subject of his prayer and his life is God. He admits his need of God and his desire for mercy. He expresses a deep faith, one the Pharisee does not claim, because he sees that without God he is nothing and that everything he desires is found within the God of holy love. This man who was ridiculed, looked down upon, and considered as “less than” by the “holy” society, expresses his heart for God. Jesus says it is he, not the Pharisee, who goes home with a deep connection to God, because his heart was focused on God and not himself.
The tax collector wasn’t focused on keeping score. He wasn’t trying to add up everything that he did or didn’t do. He didn’t look down upon the needs or actions of others. He simply expressed his heart for God and desire to grow in faith.
It is this faith that we are called to have. A faith that is deeply connected to God and is in relationship with all people. A faith that enables us to see God’s grace working in our lives and allow it to transform us and move us from being focused upon ourselves to being entirely focused on God and what God desires for us. A faith that enables us not to separate ourselves from other people, but one that calls us to see God’s grace working in their life.
Faith, then, is not about keeping score. It is about a relationship with God and all people.
I haven’t played golf in a long time. It has probably been a year or more since I last played. Moving and health issues with getting my asthma under control have kept me away from the links. When I play, often by myself, I’ll keep score as a way to measure my performance on each hole. After a few holes, I’ll remember that I’m not Tiger Woods and I have no chance of making the Champions Tour in 10 years. I need to just go out and enjoy the round. What do I do then? I put the score card away and just enjoy the round. I end up being more relaxed and play better as a result.
What would it look like if we did something similar? What would it look like if we put down our score cards and trying to measure our goodness by our own standards and, instead, focused our entire lives upon having a heart aligned completely with God? What would it look like if we put down our score cards in our church and stopped trying to measure our faithfulness by our own standards and, instead, focused our entire lives upon serving God? What would it look like if we put down our score cards in our relationships with one another, and saw God’s grace and love at work and available with the very people we struggle to connect with?
I have a feeling our faith would be deeper. Our lives would be better connected to one another. The kingdom of God would be lived out in new and powerful and transformative ways.