- Pentecost 23.16 “On (Properly) Despising Others” Luke 18:9-17
Jesus tells a story this morning to the righteous about properly despising others. And there is part of me (maybe a part of you?) that goes “Yeah! Now You’re talking, Jesus! Here’s some practical life application stuff that we’ve been craving (and to be frank, are quite often missing!) from You…” Because it’s a problem isn’t it? There’s a lot of despicable people out there and how to despise them properly, you know, in a loving, Christian, missional fashion is something we really need to know how to do. I mean, I feel like I need to know this!
Naturally, my thoughts turn first to Indiana Jones, third film, where Indy is rescuing his dad Sean Connery from the Nazi castle he has just infiltrated. And he’s peeking into their control center and sees the place swarming with Swastika wearing, brown shirted, goose stepping fascists, and sits down and sighs heavily, “Nazis. I hate these guys.” And we all do, right? And we’re supposed to, right? I mean if we don’t hate Nazis, who can we hate? If we didn’t hate Nazis and their modern equivalents, we could hardly believe ourselves righteous, now could we?
Next, my thoughts turn to the Presidential campaign, because this is what we talk about these days when we talk about despising the despicable, right? Americans seem increasingly divided politically and socially but I sense there might be a growing consensus that many of us do not like either one of the Presidential candidates—on a personal level, if not policy level as well. I heard a piece on NPR last week. A reporter had gone to some elementary school to cover the student body president election. She interviewed the two candidates, both fifth grade girls, Fernanda and I forget the other girl’s name. We’ll call her Stephanie…
Now, the sad thing was that the principal and the teachers had to tell the candidates and their friends that they must not emulate the real Presidential candidates in their campaigning, or they would probably be really suspended from real school. Apparently, last year during the primary season, the student body government candidates had taken to copying the adult Presidential candidates they saw on TV in the primary season, and had launched attack ads and were breaking all kinds of basic rules of civility and responsible behavior. Disciplinary action ensued, sadly. And that is pretty despicable, right? When the leading candidates for President set such a deplorable example for our kids? (Such a nasty man).
But that story had kind of a happy and hope-for-the-future sort of ending. Fernanda and Stephanie were good friends. And they were helping each other work on their campaign posters to make them as pretty and positive as they could. They both confessed that they would vote for the other candidate because they were best friends, and they didn’t really care that much who won. They were just having fun talking about how they could make the school better for everyone and would work together for that goal no matter how the election turned out. If only she were 35, I’d probably write in Fernanda on my ballot in a couple weeks—she won the school election narrowly and I think she’d do a lot of good for America. She had some great ideas.
Which kind of made me despise our real Presidential choices even more (such a nasty woman). Why do they have to be so mean, those two? Mean people s… uh, aren’t nice. I hate these guys! But that’s OK, right? Seriously, in a couple weeks, one of these two charmers will be President and then as good Americans we will respect them, honor them, and pray for their well-being. So I thought, “well, until then, we’d better get our despising in, as is our constitutional right (duty?) right?” I heard a Democrat pundit and Republican pundit sparing on some other radio talk show, and the two who usually despised each other actually agreed they couldn’t stand either candidate from their party and found something like real warmth and friendship breaking out between themselves. In a weird way, maybe this campaign is bringing America together and making us great again? Maybe a little despising of others can be good for us, good for America?
But then Jesus comes along and tells His little story about despising others. And I was very hopeful diving into it. It goes like this: two guys are praying in a swanky, lower Manhattan church. One was a Missouri Synod Pastor, a District President, actually. The other was a hedge fund manager, a .01 percenter. You know which one is the good guy, right away! The District President goes and prays as I would expect, using the prayer more as a teaching moment for any who might overhear (because he is mission-minded and modeling that for us): “Oh God! I thank You that I am not like other men—greedy, selfish, contributing to the income inequality that is ruining this great nation. I take a very modest salary, live in a modest home, drive a modest car. Not like this hedge fund manager with his Bentley and and his corrupt and indulgent ways! I tithe! I read the bible every day. Most importantly: I share the Gospel every day with one person who needs it—like this guy over here!” And the hedge fund manager (who’d just taken a real bloodbath in the markets that morning and lost his shirt) was kneeling in a back pew, beating his chest, crying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”.
And just when you’re expecting a mission-moment, waiting for Jesus to lift up the DP as a model of outreach and church growth, He turns the tables on us and says the godless hedge fund manager went home justified and not the good Lutheran District President! “Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” And I’m like: “Whaaaaaaat?… the District President was not a good guy?”
The only thing you can say for the hedge fund manager is that he wasn’t a hater. Well, he kind of despised himself (something we’re normally with him on). Luther says that despair of ourselves, giving up on thinking anything good comes from our efforts, not believing in our own righteousness is very close to saintliness. And he’s right. But Jesus would not have us despise even ourselves. Because it’s nigh impossible to hate the sin without hating the sinner too and Jesus would free us from all hate.
How?! Well this is where it gets tricky. Because beating up on ourselves, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” can, in a pinch, be an excellent way of regaining the moral high ground from which we can rain boulders down on the less penitent, the less staunchly Lutheran.
The real trick is that first line in the Gospel “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” If we look to something in ourselves to trust as righteous, we will deceive ourselves and end up as haters and hateful (such a nasty Pharisee!). Because it is not our penitence, not even our faith that makes us righteous. It’s Jesus who does this miracle, turning sinners to saints, haters to lovers, and mortals to immortals, and here’s how He does it: by filling our eyes with a vision of true goodness that floods every dark corner of our hearts with His light, His grace…
He does it in the strangest way! He exalts to heaven by first dragging us down to hell. Because we never do master this righteousness thing, this Jesus thing—He Master us. Holiness isn’t some brass ring you grab like a prize from the fair. It’s more like a boat anchor that drags you down into the tomb with Jesus Himself, where—hopeless, helpless, broken, thoroughly bested by the Angel—you find at Last Jesus, whose mercy and Peace surpasses understanding but guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.