Scripture: Luke 18:9-14
The story goes that there was a woman who taught Sunday school. While you do not know this specific woman, you probably have met her type. She was quick to look down on others. She had mastered the art of saying “bless your heart” or “I’ll pray for you” as a way to insult, put down, and belittle. She had a pompous, self-entitled, and overall self-righteous attitude. One particular Sunday morning she was trying to make the point that good Christians did not keep their faith a secret. They made sure that everyone knew exactly what they believed. With her head held high, nose up in the air, she strutted impressively back and forth across the room and asked, “Now class why do you think people call me a Christian?” The teacher thought the answer to this question was obvious, but she was met with uncomfortable silence. She started to “tsk, tsk, tsk” to show her disappointment at the class when one of the boys slowly raised his hand and said, “Probably because they do not know you.”
I do not know about you but jokes and stories like that one are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. In movies and TV shows when the person who has been smug, arrogant, and downright mean spirited finally gets their comeuppance it is the payoff I have been waiting for. I find it to be very satisfying when the smug get knocked down a peg or two, when the arrogant are humbled, and when the self-righteous are called out. There are a whole lot of reason why I like Jesus and this is one of them: In the gospels he calls out the self-righteous all the time. Time and time again across all four he calls out the Pharisees, the scribes, and the teachers of the law. Jesus steps on their toes as he exposes the ways that the puffed themselves up instead of glorifying God. This morning’s scripture seems to part of that greater collection. It even seems to immediately state up front who this scripture is directed to in verse 9: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.”
However, Jesus is not telling this parable to the Pharisees of the teachers of the law. Jesus is not addressing the religious leaders of the day that he so often sparred with. In the parable that begins in Luke 18:1, Jesus is clearly talking to his disciples. There is not a shift to the next scene in the narrative until verse 15, so this morning’s scripture is also addressed to the disciples. Jesus, it seems, is an equal opportunity toe-stepper. This morning’s scripture was a parable addressed to Jesus’ closest followers, and it was intended to step on their toes. The most honest way that we can approach this scripture is to put our toes out a little bit and see if they are the ones that get stepped on.
Unfortunately, within churches there are still plenty of people with self-righteous toes to get stepped on. There is a study from Barna Research group that tried to quantify how big that number is. It is an older study from 2013 but I imagine its findings still have a lot of relevance today. For this study they surveyed Christians and asked them to rate their agreement on a four point scale with twenty different statements. Ten of these statements were meant to reflect a Christ like attitude. These were statements like “I am personally spending time with non-believers to help them follow Jesus” and “I feel compassion for people who are not following God and doing immoral things.” The other ten statements were self-righteous statements that would be in line with the Pharisee of this morning’s parable. Statements such as “I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine” and “People who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.” Of the Christians surveyed it was found that 51% were in more agreement with the self-righteous statements than the Christ-like statements. All of this self-righteousness might be why a different Barna study found that only 21% of non-Christians have a positive perception of the local churches in their community.
Despite what the research shows, it can still be easy to justify that self-righteousness is not a problem. In some ways this scripture creates a caricature of self-righteousness. The Pharisee in the scripture is a little over the top in how he calls out just who he is not like and how he brags about all he does. The Pharisee in the parable is the absolute epitome of a “holier than thou” attitude. This serves the story by creating a contrast, but it unfortunately gives us an out. We can think to ourselves, well I am not like that guy so this story does not apply to me. When it comes to self-righteous behavior or attitudes we often think of it as viewing oneself as “holier than thou”, but the reality is that is not the case. A 2017 study from the University of Chicago found that when it comes to self-righteous attitudes a “holier than thou” outlook, is fairly uncommon. What is much more common is for people to believe they are “less evil” than other people. So often self-righteousness looks less like “I am better than you and you know it” and more like “At least I am not as bad as you are”. This makes sense because being critical of other’s behavior is just a way someone can make themselves feel better or more righteous about their own.
Unfortunately this kind of self-righteous behavior is all too common. We see it everywhere today. We see it in the polarization, which seeks to demonize people who disagree with a specific point of view. So often it seems that people take those who they disagree with and cast them as evil. It is not just that they disagree so often it seems people cast their opponent as hateful, deceitful, and morally wrong as if it were their nature. It seems today it is common for someone to point to someone they disagree with, and say “at least I am not like them.” We need to call this current epidemic to divide into us vs. them groups, and vilify the “them” as what it truly is. It is a way to be self-righteous, it is a way to look down on others.
Likely many, if not all of us, are guilty of seeing people act in a way we believe is not right and think to ourselves, “at least I am not like them.” Again, the research shows that self-righteousness exists in unhealthy quantities in church settings. Jesus told the parable in this morning’s scripture to his disciples, to his closest followers, and the message of this morning’s scripture is still intended for those who follow Jesus. It is intended for us. Fortunately, within the parable Jesus shows us how we can overcome our struggles with self-righteous attitudes. Ultimately, this morning’s scripture is a parable about prayer and it contains the life changing prayer that has been crucial to the Christian faith since the beginning.
In the parable the tax collector prays, “Lord have mercy.” Lord have mercy in Greek, is Kyrie Eleison, and that phrase is one of the oldest phrases of worship in Christianity. Almost back to the beginning of the church, Christians have prayed Kyrie Eleison as an act of worship. To this day Kyrie Eleison is still used in Greek Orthodox liturgy. A slightly more developed version of this prayer, which is often referred to as the “Jesus prayer”, dates back to the 5th century Egypt but it could easily be older. The prayer is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is a fundamental prayer and expression of the Christian faith. Because Lord have mercy is not about what we do for God, it is about what God is doing for us. Lord have mercy is an acknowledgement that there is nothing that we can do to reach God. It is a humble confession that on our own we are not good enough to stand in the presence of true holiness. The prayer of the Pharisee is touting all of the ways that he has reached up to God, the prayer of the tax collector is the realization that it is God who reaches down to us.
Perhaps because Jesus is talking to his disciples, he gives a little bit more clarity on what the take away should be in verse 14, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled and all those who humble themselves will be exalted.” We are humble when we refusing to think of ourselves as more important than we are. Friends, as those saved by grace and offered forgiveness through Jesus Christ being humble is something that should come easy to us. Because we know the depths of sin that Jesus has saved us from. We know the wrong that we have been forgiven of, and we know just how much we do not deserve it. We should not have any problems over estimating our own importance, because we should know it is Jesus and Jesus alone who has the power to save us. We should know how much we need grace. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all, every single one of us, are in a position where we can stand at a distance, not even look up, hit our chest, and pray “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Every single person alive today stands in need of mercy. The University of Chicago found that the main way we exhibit self-righteousness is by thinking “at least we are not like those people”, but that is such a flawed premise. The reality is that we are like those people and it does not matter who those people are. We all stand in need of grace. As the old saying goes: we all put on our pants one leg at a time just like everyone else. Self-righteousness emerges from us looking around and comparing ourselves to other people. The reality of grace and mercy should change how we treat and see people. We should not see ourselves as more important than other or see others as somehow worse than us, because our need for grace is the same. So we should treat all people the same, we should treat them with the same compassion, gentleness, and kindness that we want to be treated with. Instead of trying to vilify someone else we should seek to understand them and embrace that we need Jesus just as much as they do. We should claim the freeing truth that the ground at the foot of the cross is level. The rich the poor, the righteous and the unrighteous, the liberal and the conservative from every tribe, tongue, and nation bow at the feet of Jesus and pray “Kyrie Eleison”. Lord have mercy on me a sinner. Instead of finding people with differences that we can look down on or be thankful that we are not them, we should be beacons of grace that declare Jesus saves everyone, even a sinner like me. We should always be checking our heart to make sure we love people like Jesus instead of judge people with smug self-righteousness.
Make no mistake Jesus told this morning’s parable because he was trying to step on a few toes. If we are being truly honest with ourselves, then there is a good chance that ours are some of the ones stepped on. We live in a culture where we likely see a lot of actions and beliefs we do not agree with. We live in a culture that is actively trying to polarize us and see others as a “them” to shun and judge. Often times it becomes very easy for us to say, “at least I am not like that”. The reality is that it does not matter if we have followed Jesus for days or decades our payer should always be Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. The Jesus prayer as it is called, is always an appropriate prayer for us. So when we find ourselves getting a little judgmental may we pray, Lord have mercy. When we find ourselves getting a little smug and self-important may we pray, Lord have mercy. When we find ourselves looking down on anyone for any reason may we pray, Lord have mercy. Then may we live that prayer out as we show the same mercy and kindness we as for to everyone else. Lord, have mercy.