Denominational: Presbyterian Church (USA)
Education: Bachelor Arts in Religious Studies and Communication; Master of Divinity
Vocation: I serve as a Campus Minister and Worship Leader
A Reading from the Gospel of Luke 18:9-14
There were some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and held contempt for others, so he told them this parable: To men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing on his own prayed like so: “God, I give thanks to you that I am not like other people: thieves, exploiters, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a Sabbath, and tithe a tenth of whatever I gain!” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but instead beat his breast, crying, “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner!” I say to you all, this is the one who went home from the temple justified, rather than the other. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
For years, Gary Birdsong is somewhat of a celebrity on college campuses throughout the state of North Carolina. While he prefers to call himself simply, “Brother Gary,” he’s better known by any number of titles, depending on which campus you find him on: at East Carolina, where I went to school, most of us knew Brother Gary as “the Joyner Steps Preacher.” At N.C. State, he’s known as “the Brickyard Preacher.” But Brother Gary is probably most widely known as “the Pit Preacher,” a named derived from his most frequent preaching location outside the Student Union at the UNC-Chapel Hill.
At first glance you might mistake Brother Gary for a character out of a Flannery O’Conner novel. He wears tight suspenders underneath his dark suite and tie; and sweat drips down his forehead and graying beard, as he waves his leather-bound Bible, and shouts at students about their sinful lifestyles as they pass him by. You can always pick out the Freshmen from the crowd that gathers to listen to Brother Gary speak, because the Freshmen tend to be the ones that haven’t yet figured out yet that there’s no use in arguing with Gary. Upperclassmen seem to be more inclined to simply enjoy Gary’s theatrics.
But that’s not to say Brother Gary isn’t offensive, for indeed, Brother Gary is an expert at getting your blood to boil. On top of some of his more grotesque stories from his days as a Hell’s Angel; On occasion, Brother Gary has been known to make racist, bigoted and hateful statements in the name of Christianity; he’s even been known to refer to young women passing by who’s clothing do not meet his standards as “prostitutes” and “hussies.” But the bulk of Brother Gary’s preaching always seem comes back to the same theme: anyone who isn’t like him, who does not think or believe the way he does, needs to get right with God, for is surely condemned to spend eternity burning in hell.
The first time I encountered Brother Gary, I was coming out of a history class; walking across campus heading back to my dorm room. A small crowd had gathered on our campus library’s steps to hear Gary and One girl in particular had emerged from the crowd and was now face-to-face with brother Gary in a shouting match. Gary had apparently told her she was going to hell for the shorts she was wearing, and she, a devout Christian herself had decided she was going fight back. “You are disgusting, and I can’t believe you call yourself a Christian!” she told him. When she’d finally had enough and decided to leave, she turned back for one last jab, “You’re a hypocrite, just like the Pharisees. You are nothing but a Pharisee!”
Then for a moment, a small miracle occurred: Gary Birdsong was left speechless. She had called Gary the P word. For brother Gary it was the greatest possible insult, evidenced by the fact that when Gary finally regained his speech, he turned beat red and shouted back “Me? A Pharisee? How dare you, you self-righteous hypocrite! You’re the Pharisee!” This of course was enough to draw the young woman back into another argument with Brother Gary, this time about which of them was more like the Pharisees.
Nobody, it seems, wants to be a Pharisee. Today the word Pharisee has come into semi-common usage to describe someone who is being hypocritical and arrogant, and this like seems like a fitting meaning, after all, Pharisees are the bad guys of the gospels, right? Pharisees are the ones that were always butting heads with Jesus; the ones always getting in the way of Jesus’ ministry. It was the Pharisees who were always getting offended by Jesus’ parables, it was the Pharisees telling Jesus he shouldn’t heal the sick on the sabbath, and it was the Pharisees who were always asking him tricky questions trying to trip him up and prove him wrong. Come to think of it, from the way it’s told in Bible school stories, you’d come think that the Pharisees were a bunch of sneaky, mischievous, unmerciful, cold-hearted villains.
Well today, I want to say a few words in the Pharisee’s defense. Over the past two thousand years, Pharisees seem to have gotten a bad rap. In their own day pharisees were not seen as villains, rather were actually devout religious leaders among Jews in those days: it was populist Judaism, the religion of the people. We forget that some of Jesus’ most significant followers were actually practicing Pharisees: disciples like Nicodemus, Joseph of Aramathea; and then of course, there was this other pharisee, named Paul, who went on to write half the New Testament. In the same way, while the Gospels tell us that Jesus butted heads with the Pharisees, they also tell us he also shared numerous meals with them, prayed and worshipped with them. While we might know Pharisees for their arrogant bullheadedness, in their own time and place, in first century Judea, the Pharisees were known and respected primarily for a deep faithfulness and a commitment to holiness.
Which brings us to today’s parable: yet another instance of Jesus picking on a faithful Pharisee. Jesus tells the story like this: two men go up to the temple to pray. The first is our friend, the Pharisee. Like most pharisees were, he’s a very religious and pious man. He gives offerings from whatever he earns, and he spends two days out of each week devoted in prayer and fasting. To put it another way, our friend the Pharisee is not unlike many of us: he takes his faith very seriously.
So when the Pharisee prays, he gives thanks to God for blessing him with such righteousness and devotion. He’s seen the kind of lives lived by those who aren’t so devout: thieves, adulterers, those who take advantage of others; he’s seen their misery, and can only thank God he is not among them. After all, the Pharisee can’t take credit for it, because it is not his own doing, but only by God’s blessing. In the same way, he doesn’t stand out in the open shouting his prayers for everyone to hear. Instead the text says that he goes off by himself so he can pray in private and in peace. Just the kind of faith and devotion we might expect from a Pharisee.
But then there’s the other man: a tax collector. Unlike Pharisees, tax collectors were not the kind of people you’d expect to find praying in the Temple. Tax collectors made a living by swindling and scamming others, and were despised by many for their exploitive ways. But just like so many of Jesus’ stories, in our story, there’s a twist: the tax collector does not quietly pray to himself, but rather calls out to the Lord beating his chest: “God have mercy on me, For I know that I am a sinner!” It’s this sinner who goes home justified, Jesus says, and not the faithful pharisee.
So what’s the real difference between the two? What exactly is it that Jesus uplifts in the tax collector that the pharisee is lacking. Well isn’t it obvious? The Pharisee is full of himself, right? I’m not so sure. Try for a moment, to forget the 2,000 years of pharisee vilification we read into text; try to forget our modern notions of pharisees as arrogant and hypocritical: because it seems to me that it’s little too easy for us to just jump in and suggest that the problem here is typical Pharisaical self-righteousness.
When I read this story, what I’m particularly struck by is the fact that our Pharisee friend doesn’t seem to be primarily concerned with his own righteous. Instead he seems far more concerned with the unrighteousness of others. In fact, he’s so concerned with how unrighteous other people are, that perhaps he no longer even understands what it means to actually be righteous. The Pharisee from today’s story is guilty of taking an unfortunate spiritual shortcut; a shortcut that many of us are also guilty of taking. The shortcut is this: it’s far easier to figure out who we are not than it is to dive and discover who we are.
Consider the work of Christian Smith; who is a sociologist who has written a number of books on the religious faith of young people in America. In 2005, Smith ran a lilly foundation project called “A National Study of Youth and Religion.” Smith and other colleagues interviewed over 3,000 American teenagers about their religious beliefs, and what Smith found was rather shocking:
Smith found that even though most of the interviewed youth would call themselves religious or faithful in some form or another and even though most came from Christian backgrounds, most of the young people interviewed could hardly articulate any of practical meaning of their religious faith. He found that there were really only three, very basic practical theological convictions the young people could readily explain: the first is that there is a God, a divine being some kind that orders the universe, the second, that God wants us to be good people, and the third that God is there for us in times of need. Smith argue these young Christians are so unaware of what Christianity is about that we might as well call this a new religion, and he coined a term, to describe it. He calls it *Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.*
But what Smith also noticed was that while the interviewed youth gave Smith a lot blank stares and few positive answers about their faith, he also got a surprisingly high number of negative answers. In other words, the interviewed young people were incredibly perpared to articulate what they didn’t believe. “I’m a Christian, but you know I don’t think that,” they would say. “I’m not the kind of Christian who does those things.” Smith would follow up these statements by asking what Christians did believe, what Christian did do, and would again only be met with blank stares. Ultimately, Christian Smith found that today’s young people are so good at explaining what their faith isn’t about, that many can hardly describe what it actually is about.
Since then, Smith has written another book, identifying many of these same patterns in young adults as well. And I’d suggest that it doesn’t stop there. I’d suggest that many of us, even those of us who might readily be able to articulate what our faith is about are guilty of focusing too much on what we are not, particularly us mainline protestants (originally said Presbyterians, but changed for the audience).
“We’re not like those Christians,” we say. “We’re not the kind of Christians that use words like “saved.” We’re not the kind of Christians who believe that you should read the Bible literally. We’re not the kind of Christians that believe a rapture is coming and end of the world is coming on May 21st or October 21st or whenever. We’re not the kind of Christians who think women can't be leaders; we’re like not those Christians that dance in the aisle and speak in tongues; we’re not the kind of Christians that support racism and sexism and bigotry. We aren’t the kind of Christians that like Brother Gary, think everyone other than our little group of like minded people are going to hell. Oh, God we give you thanks that we aren’t like those other people! Thank God we aren’t like those Pharisees.”
So what’s the real difference? What’s the real difference between the pharisee and the tax collector? What’s the real difference between the pharisee and us?
At the end of the parable Jesus reminds us that “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." If we are really interested in knowing who we are in Christ, rather than who we are not; if we are interested in understanding what our faith is about rather than what it is not about; then the place Jesus tells us to start is with humility.
“God have mercy on me, for I know that I am a sinner!”
Friends, Jesus is not concerned with our always being in the right. Rather Jesus is first concerned with how ready we are to admit we are often in the wrong. As the old testament passage says “tear up your hearts and not your clothes,” for this is what we stand for, this is where our faith begins: not with the glory of devotion and holiness but with the heartbrokenness of humility, for we are not believers in ourselves, but rather recipients in God’s grace. Hear this good news of Jesus Christ: we do not get to split humanity up in to pharisees and tax collectors. We don’t get to decide who is “us” and who is “them,” who is “in” and who is “out.” Human beings have a long history of deciding who are the righteous and who are the unrighteous. But Christ does not work that way, for we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God, and it is Christ who is the righteous one.
Friends my prayer for this morning, is that we might be humbled, so that we might be exalted. I pray that we might first know who we are in Christ Jesus, rather than who we are not. I pray that we might first concern ourselves not with the righteousness of others, but with our own need for mercy and forgiveness. I pray that we might remember that the Christian faith does not begin with having all the right answers, but rather starts with the humility to acknowledge we are often in the wrong. And the prayer I pray this morning not a prayer of thanksgiving that we are not like the Pharisee, but rather that a prayer of confession that we are just like the the Pharisee: that we are sinners saved by God’s grace.