Don’t Be A Jerk!


Here are some thoughts from last Sunday’s Lectionary text, Acts 5:27-32,  about obeying God rather than human beings. When Peter was told by some religious leaders to stop talking about Jesus and doing good in Jesus’ name, Peter responded,

“We must obey God rather than human beings.”

 I want to suggest to you this morning that is easier said than done. The meaning of this verse is often trivialized to some bumper sticker slogan you shout or taking some stand in the culture war between Christians and secular humanists! It is often hard to discern what it means to obey God rather than human beings. Let me give you an example.

A high school valedictorian inserts a prayer into her speech at graduation, despite being warned by the school principal not to do so.[1]Many Christians will applaud her and say she was obeying God rather than human beings. However, other Christians would say that in a nation that is founded on religious freedom for everyone, to subject a captive audience of people with varying faiths and no faith at all at a public event to your prayer is not an act of courage, but of bad manners.

So, how do we know how to obey God rather than human beings? Let me suggest some guidelines to help us determine the difference between obeying God and just having bad manners.

First, when we obey God rather than human beings, we are “for” something and we act in love. I see a lot of Christians who think they are obeying God rather than human beings because they are against something and they often act in ways that are unloving. The apostles were not against anything. They were for people finding wholeness and new life in Jesus. They went about doing acts of love and kindness. They were persecuted for that.

They were not marching around telling people how sinful they were. They were not against anybody. They did not act in unkind or hateful ways. They were obeying God instead of human beings, so they were acting in love. That is one way to tell. Are we taking a stand “for” something and are we willing to work toward that goal in love? Even treating those who disagree with us with love.

A second way we can tell the difference between obeying God and bad manners is this. May I say this bluntly.

“Don’t be a jerk!”

I will never forget, I was a teenager and a young Christian, and I went out on visitation with someone one night. Visitation is when you get a card from church with someone’s name on it and you go to their house and “bring them to Jesus”, whether they want to come or not. The person I was with took the lead and was pressuring this person to become a Christian and he repeatedly said, “No.” Then this guy got angry and said, “Okay then, just go to hell, if that is what you want to do.” And he got up and left. At the time I did not know much about witnessing. I did not know much about how to talk to someone about Jesus, but I knew one thing. That guy was a jerk! He thought he was bold. But he wasn’t bold. He was just a jerk. I would rather hang out with my unchristian friends any day. Sometimes we are so convinced we are obeying God that we forget God loves us and the people we are talking to. I am sure there are times when I have been a jerk too. But, if you are being a jerk you are not obeying God. As a matter of fact, you are doing more damage than good  to the kingdom of God.

The rest of the story from our Scripture this morning is that after Peter said, “We must obey God rather than human beings!’ many on the council were enraged and wanted them all put to death. But a respected Pharisee named Gamaliel spoke up. (See, not even all of the leaders were against Jesus.) He said, Let these men go. Let this thing run its course. If it is not of God it will fail. If it is of God we do not want to be found fighting against God. So, they agreed not to kill them. They had them flogged and sent them away ordering them not to speak in the name of Jesus again.

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.      Acts 5:41

After being threatened and flogged, they left rejoicing. And this is the third thing I want to mention. When we obey God rather than human beings, there will be joy in what we do. The apostles suffered for what they did. They were arrested and beaten.

Suffering is often a part of obeying God. A real key is that if we are obeying God then we will most likely be the ones who suffer for it. Our obeying God will not inflict suffering on others. When we obey God and take a stand it may lead to suffering. But we are the ones who will do the suffering, not others. So, if our taking a stand leads to the suffering of others, instead of ourselves, chances are good we are not obeying God, we are just following our own prejudices, or anger or fear.

In the midst of their suffering, they rejoiced. It has been my experience that people who obey God rather than human beings often suffer, but they still find joy in what they are doing.

The world needs to see Christians who are “for” something, instead of “against “everything.” The world needs to see Christians who act in love and who are not jerks. The world needs to see Christians who are willing to suffer, but unwilling to cause suffering for anyone else. The world needs to see Christians who are not angry and afraid, but who are joyous because we are following the risen, Lord of Life. In other words, the world needs to see Christians who obey God rather than human beings.


In the name of the Father,

And the Son, and the Holy Spirit

Don’t be a jerk!


[1]J. Michael Krech, Feasting On The Word, “Homiletical Perspective,” p.381.


Is my Interpretation of the Bible Correct?


People love to argue about the Bible. It is often misused and misunderstood. A person with a little intelligence and knowledge of the Scripture can indeed find prooftexts for whatever they are selling. The real question is, “How do I know my interpretation is correct?” Hopefully, we don’t seek the truth just to brag about being right. We ask that question because we seriously want to be faithful followers of Jesus and we understand the Bible guides us in that endeavor.

The guiding hermeneutic for me is, “Does this understanding of the Scripture make me think, act and live more like Jesus?” Let’s apply this.

Take Romans 13:1-5 for example. It tells us to obey the government. No qualifiers. If the government says do it, then you obey it. Christians followed this verse in obeying Hitler when they were told to send children to gas chambers. Christians sited this verse while mistreating Native Americans. These verses have been used to defend slavery and keep Jim Crow on the books. Most recently, these verses have been evoked to justify putting children in cages. There are Christians who do these things and quote this verse and say they are following the Bible. But are they right?

Let’s apply the Jesus test. Can I picture Jesus obeying this Scripture and taking families away to gas chambers to be killed? Can I picture Jesus obeying this interpretation of this Scripture to steal from and mistreat Native Americans? Can I picture Jesus supporting slavery? (He actually said he came to set captives free. Luke 4) Can I picture Jesus taking children away from parents seeking asylum and putting them in cages? The answer is a big NO for me on each one. So, this interpretation is not valid because following it does not make me think, act or live more like Jesus.

There are, of course, many other reasons to dismiss this kind of interpretation based on its context. Not to mention there are unjust laws. Christians should not follow unjust laws. Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state. Don’t forget that. Correctly understood the Bible is a warning against religion and government getting too cozy. The Bible would certainly never promote adherence to a government law over faithfulness to follow Jesus. This was the first century battle. Who is Lord? Caesar or Jesus?

People who claim they are not interpreting the Bible but merely doing what it says are kidding themselves. Everyone ignores verses they don’t like. If they say they don’t, they are either ignorant of the whole of Scripture or they are lying.

Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 says that if a son is rebellious and does not listen to discipline then you are to stone him. I do not think Jesus would stone a young man for being rebellious. I believe in being respectful, but I will overlook following this verse because it does not make me think, act or live more like Jesus. The Bible says that a Moabite is not welcome in the assembly of God’s people (Deuteronomy 23:3). I believe Jesus wants worship open to all. He taught and demonstrated that over and over. In the church I serve we will open the doors to everyone, even Moabites! I will look over this verse of exclusion because it does not help me think, act or live like Jesus. Everyone has a guiding principle for which verses of Scripture they take more seriously than others. I think the guiding principle for many is their own tribal narrative. There is a word for when our own tribal narrative replaces Jesus as the guiding principle for understanding Scripture. The word is Idolatry.

The Bible points us to God, like a woman standing in the back yard pointing to the sky. When you see her, you can look up to the wonder she is pointing to, or you can get fixated on her hand and finger. Some people never look up and see the God of wonder to which the Bible points. They are fixated on the Bible itself.

I believe if we interpret the Scriptures correctly they will lead us to be loving, welcoming, forgiving, inclusive, putting others first, kind and gracious among other things. In other words, it will make us think, act and live more like Jesus. The key to correctly interpreting the Scripture is Jesus. It’s Jesus. If your interpretation is making you more like him, then you get it. If the way you interpret the Bible makes you think, act or live less like Jesus you are doing something wrong.



Christianity and the loss of Truth


As you are aware, we have a terrible problem in our country right now. We are so divided. We are so angry. It is stressing us all out! I think at the root of the problem is what sociologists call tribalism. Tribalism is when we over identify with a group of people, our tribe. We identify with them to the point that it becomes unhealthy. Let me give you an example from sports. Our favorite team is our tribe. Have you ever noticed that when an official throws a flag on the home team the stands erupt with boos and calling the ref all kinds of names? Most of the time the official is right. He made the right call. But he made it against our team, so we insult the ref. We aren’t interested in having a fair game, truthful officiating. We just want our team to win. Who cares about the truth or about right or wrong?

It’s one thing when sports fans fall into the trap of tribalism. But there are other, far more serious arenas. We can divide ourselves into different tribes over politics, race, religion, anything really. Take politics for example. Both sides have a narrative of what our tribe is like and a narrative about what the other tribe is like. Of course, our tribe is the good tribe doing what is true and just and good. The other tribe is just bent on evil and destruction.  Instead of seeking the truth, we look for anything that supports our narrative, whether it is true or not. So, we stop looking for truth. Truth doesn’t matter anymore. The only thing that matters is what fits into our narrative of our tribe or their tribe. If it fits the narrative, we don’t even ask if it’s true. We just tell it as if it were true. Is this sounding familiar?

The problem is when the other tribe speaks the truth or has a good idea, we can’t hear it, because we have convinced ourselves that they can’t say anything true or good. The even more dangerous side of this is that we are convinced that no matter what our tribe does, it is true and right. We no longer ask, “Is this true? Should our tribe do this?” We just assume that since our tribe is doing something it is true and right. Have you ever wondered how so many decent people in Germany gave Hitler the power to do the evil things he did? Tribalism. He was a part of their political and religious tribe and instead of questioning whether what he was doing was right, they just assumed it must be right because it was their tribe doing it. So, it must be right. Sociologists call it tribalism. Theologians call it idolatry.

I believe that as Christians we should be truthful on Facebook and Twitter and all other social media. I regularly see posts from well-meaning people on their Facebook page that are simply untrue. Especially when it comes to politics. The posts follow the tribal narrative, but they are not true.

It’s tribalism again. Both sides have a narrative of what the other side is like. And anything that fits that narrative, true or not, gets passed around as truth. It just further divides us. I’m afraid more people get their information from Facebook than they do actual news sources. So, can those of us who claim to be a part of God’s family at least make sure things are true before we pass them on?

Tribalism is taking over I am afraid. Truth no longer seems to matter, not even for people who claim to follow the One who said, “I am the truth.” What if we quit letting our tribe tell us what’s true and looked to God to find the truth? I think it would make a huge difference in our culture. I think our culture desperately needs us to do that. To seek the truth. To actually be salt and light instead of just going along with whatever our tribe does. The time has come to be salt and light to our own tribes. Christian brothers and sisters will you please put the pursuit of truth above your tribal narratives? Please put the truth above your political party, your culture, your religious beliefs. What if we all desired truth more than our tribal narratives? I think it would make a difference.

People outside the church have stopped looking to the church for guidance. It isn’t because of liberalism or the debate over sexuality. It is because they no longer believe us. We have parroted our religious and political tribalism for so long they no longer believe we will tell them the truth. God help us if we can’t find our way back to the truth.

Torches or Candles


I have been thinking about these images from Charlottesville. The first one is an image of angry young men carrying torches and chanting threatening choruses. Torches are often associated with mobs and with violence. “Torches and pitchforks” are the accessories of choice for the angry mob. In fiction torches are prevalent. They are found among those searching for the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein. The mob held torches as they pursued the Beast in the classic fairy tale. In reality the KKK carried torches as they went about frightening and lynching. People carrying torches often seem to be angry. They often seem to be afraid. They often seem to think getting rid of someone else will solve all of their problems.

In the Gospel of John we are told that when Jesus was praying in the garden a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees, led by Judas, came looking for him. John specifically says,

“They were carrying torches . . . “ (John 18:3b) The torches are an ironic addition to the story. It was Passover. Passover is a lunar holiday. It is always on a full moon. On a moonlit night they did not need torches and lanterns to see. I think John is pointing to their spiritual blindness. They needed torches and lanterns to see the “Light of the World.” That is how dark, the darkness of their hatred had become.

It seems to me that people who carry torches seem to struggle with a personal darkness of hatred. It is a deep darkness. It prevents them from seeing that every person is created in the image of God regardless of the color of their skin or nationality, or religion, or gender or anything else. The sad thing is that it is a learned darkness. They have turned the lights off on themselves.


In the second image people are peacefully gathered, holding candles. They are singing. There is music instead of angry chants. Candles are quite different from torches. Candles aren’t threatening. They are a more subtle light than a torch. They aren’t used by mobs. They are most often used in vigils. Torches are symbols of violence. Candles are symbols of suffering. Torches are symbols of division. Candles are symbols of unity.

During Advent we light candles. Every Sunday at the beginning of the worship service candles are lit to remind us of the presence of the Holy Spirit with us. Candles set the mood for quiet reflection. There is a real difference between those who choose torches and those who choose candles to make it through the darkness.

We have been stumbling around in the darkness of racism and white supremacy for a long time now. We will need light to find our way through this. I will choose to use a candle, not a torch. Join me?

Thy Kingdom Come Part 2


When speaking of the Kingdom of God, Jesus said that it is forcefully advancing. He said it has already come. It is here, now. It has been given to us. If we look back we are not fit for service in the Kingdom of God. It is a matter of action, not a matter of talk.

Whenever we do good for another person we are contributing to the Kingdom of God whether we realize it or not. In the Old Testament we are told of Cyrus, King of Persia. He was not a follower or even a believer in the God of Israel. Yet, God refers to him as “My Shepherd” for his role in releasing the people of Israel from captivity. He is the one who released them from Babylon and sent them to their homeland. He was participating in God’s plan even though that was not his intention.

In the New Testament, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. He was just a man who saw a fellow human being in need and did something about it. I don’t know if he was aware that God was using him to make a difference in someone else’s life. He just did what he thought was right.

When I was a kid my mother used to make me go with her to do things for some elderly neighbors that lived across the woods from us. Neither of them were able to bring in coal from the coal pile to keep the heater going all night when it was cold. So when it turned cold we would go over and I would bring in enough coal to keep them warm until we returned. I used to think it was just a good deed, being neighborly. Now I realize it was more than that. It was actually participating in the Kingdom of God right there at the coal pile.

Somehow through the years we lost our focus. The church itself became our primary focus instead of the Kingdom of God. Everything became about the church. How many people can we get to come to church? How many people can we get to come to programs at the church? It all became about the church. People became bored with that and stopped coming. So we started trying to figure out ways to win them back, to get them to come back to the church. We spawned an entire church growth industry learning how to market and brand and entertain people back to church. We forgot it is not about the church. It is about the Kingdom of God.

Making a positive difference in the lives of other people isn’t easy. Don’t give up when you face opposition. You remember the story of Joseph in the Old Testament? His brothers in a fit of jealousy and selfishness sold him into slavery. They had no desire to do the right thing or to help anyone other than themselves. Joseph suffered through slavery and then prison. But, God used Joseph where Joseph was. As it turned out Joseph rose to a position of great power in Egypt. God through Joseph maneuvered an entire continent though a great drought. Millions of lives were saved. When Joseph’s brothers were finally confronted with who Joseph was they were afraid he would get even with them for what they had done. Joseph’s response was,

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.”

Genesis 50:20

Of course, the supreme example is Jesus himself. He was teaching about the Kingdom of God. He was living out the Kingdom of God. He healed, he taught, he loved, he brought life. But, there were those who opposed what he was doing. They set out to stop him. He ended up nailed to a cross, dying on hard wood. It looked as if the Kingdom he was such a part of had come to an end.

But, you know the rest of the story. It was through the cross that the Kingdom of God really burst through. It was through the cross that the doors opened for God’s grace to redeem all of life. They worked against the Kingdom and God took their efforts and made the Kingdom stronger because of their opposition.

Make no mistake; there are forces that oppose the Kingdom of God. There always have been. There are those who will work against it out of self-interest. But, don’t worry about that. God will have the last word. God will even take opposition to His Kingdom and turn it around for good. That is how God works.

The Kingdom of God is here. We can choose to be a part of what God is doing. We can learn to work with people who are enhancing the lives of other people even if they don’t realize God is at work through them. We can stay confident when it gets hard to do Gods’ work. We can stay faithful when people oppose us, because God can use even opposition for his glory and his kingdom.

This is a big part of what it means when we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Kingdom of God: Part 1


Jesus spent a lot of time talking about the Kingdom of God. Here are some of the things he said; not everyone will choose to enter the Kingdom of God. Those who do must enter like a child. Entrance requires repentance. The Kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the persecuted. It is hard for the rich to get in. In the Kingdom of God being great and being the least are reversed from the way we think of them in our culture. He also said to seek it above everything else.

When he taught his disciples to pray he taught them to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Through the years we have spiritualized the whole idea of the Kingdom of God. Many, if not most people, when they talk about the Kingdom of God are talking about a future reality. It is something that will happen in another time, in another place. Yet, when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, he says it is here. It is now.

Ever since Eden God has been working to redeem us and to restore abundant life to us. The Kingdom of God encompasses spiritual need. But it also encompasses physical and emotional needs as well. This is what God has been about since creation and he invites us to join him. Every time we do something that improves the quality of life for another human being we are advancing the Kingdom of God. We are helping God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

God was and is already at work in the world into which we were born. We can decide whether or not we will join him in what he is doing. In the last several decades the church has expended so much time and energy trying to get people to come to our programs and support what we are doing that I think at times we have forgotten to look at what God is doing beyond our walls. God has never stopped working in communities and lives outside of the church. He is there. Really being involved in the Kingdom of God means finding Him there at your school, at your work and getting involved in what he is already doing.

It seems like ever since the Reformation the church has been focused on getting the message right. And I want to say that I believe that is important. It is important to get the message right. It is important to understand God properly. Poor theology leads to cultural Christianity and things like the prosperity gospel.

But, there seems to be a shift happening these days. More and more people seem concerned about getting the mission right as well. People are starting to understand that salvation is more than praying a prayer for forgiveness and discipleship is more than just exchanging information. Living the truth is about what we actually do in the world around us. It is about what kind of friend we are. It is about how we serve those around us.

There is a really interesting sub-plot in our culture these days when we understand the Kingdom of God in these terms. This current generation of young adults, the group we call Millennials, have a core value of service. More than any living generation, this one finds great meaning in service. They want to help others. It has given rise to a new business model, businesses like Toms shoes. You buy a pair for yourself and a child in a third world country gets a pair of shoes. We take shoes for granted, but in some countries children don’t have any. The result is disease and some are even kept from an education because they cannot walk the rugged terrain barefooted to get to a school. Warby Parker glasses. Buy a pair and a child in a poor country gets a free eye exam and a pair of glasses if needed. Also the employers of LensCrafters travel to third world countries to recycle eyewear.

I have read several stories of young couples or groups of young couples moving into poverty stricken neighborhoods. They build relationships with the people there. They tell them about Jesus. They love them. They plant community gardens in abandoned lots. They repair and repaint buildings and walls and bring some beauty back. Some even help residents start their own businesses there in the neighborhood. You don’t hear a lot about it on the news, but there are inner city communities all over the country from Philadelphia to Portland, being redeemed by people who want to be a part of what God is doing.

Through the years the church has argued over what is our business; to tell people about Jesus or to meet the physical and emotional needs of people. The answer is; Exactly. It’s both. The Kingdom of God encompasses all of those things.

If you want to be a part of the Kingdom of God you don’t have to wait. You don’t even have to go anywhere. Look around. Pray. It doesn’t have to be a project that changes the world. It could be a deed that enhances one life. Where is God at work in your neighborhood? How can you join him? Most importantly, will you join him? Will you help be the answer to the prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”


Spiritual Cartographers


I read this great parable the other day in Anthony De Mello’s book, “The Song of the Bird.”

The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forest; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids?

 He said, “Go and find out for yourselves.”

 To guide them he drew a map of the river. They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their town hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?”

When I finished reading it there was a lump in my throat. Like all good parables it speaks volumes of truth. It may be the best description of the problem in American Christianity today. In the 50s and 60s we hung the Ten Commandments (maps) in courtrooms and then denied men and women the right to vote. In church we study the Bible (map) and read it in worship, then over look our call to love, to justice, to grace and compassion.

Have we experienced the river, or just memorized the maps? Are we disciples, or just spiritual cartographers?



The other day I made a lighthearted post about how in Starbucks they always ask my name and then proceed to put someone else’s name on my cup. Most people had lighthearted comments to make. But, one friend asked what I was doing buying coffee from such an “Un-American” company. I deleted his comment. Afterwards I regretted that I deleted it. Instead, I wish I had answered him. So I will do so now.

The person who made this comment is a friend. He is a good guy. He loves his family. He loves his country. He considers himself a Christian. I respect him.

But, here is the thing. I know too many people, who are much like my friend, who have been encouraged to think that people who think differently than they, are “Un-American.” There is this concept that “real Americans” think a certain way. Anyone who dares think differently is either un-American, or “they don’t love this county as much as I do.“

There is no “One Right Way” to think in our great country. Our nation was built on debating and discussing the way to our future. There was never a consensus on what people were supposed to think. We are a diverse country. I think that is something to be celebrated. It is possible to have unity among diversity. But we will never have uniformity. Personally, I am glad of that.

So here is the point. America is a big country with room for lots of different ideas. You and I may not agree on how taxes should be administered. You and I may not agree on the role of government in corporate issues. You and I may not agree on Universal Healthcare. You and I may not agree on marriage rights. You and I may not agree on government funded social safety nets. You and I may not agree on Colin Kaepernick’s protest. When you disagree with me I believe you are wrong. But I will never believe you are un-American. Believing in a different pathway to the best future does not make one un-American. We have to learn to accept that fact that there are people who disagree with us who love this country as much as we do.

BUT, to remain willfully ignorant of the facts that don’t fit our point of view, to question the patriotism of everyone who disagrees with us, to fear diversity, now to me that seems un-American.

Acceptably Unacceptable

A couple of months ago I went to hear a new favorite author of mine speak. His name is Peter Rollins. He talked about how we often deceive ourselves and live in the realm of the “Acceptably Unacceptable.” It’s like this. Take the Civil Rights Movement for example. Our cultural values were that all people were created equal. Everyone deserved to be treated with equality and respect. Everyone deserved the same rights under the law. It was unacceptable to treat people any other way. It was unacceptable to use violence to oppress people. Those were some of our cultural values. But, even though that is what we said, a whole race of people were being treated in a way that was unacceptable, a way that was in direct contradiction to our stated values. We just turned our heads and pretended it wasn’t happening. We still treasured our values but in practice did what was unacceptable. That’s called the Acceptably Unacceptable. We do things we know are wrong, but everyone just pretends it isn’t happening. But, then someone like Martin Luther King Jr. and others come along and point out the truth about our game. It still goes on today in so many arenas. The church is not exempt.

The truth here is fairly simple. It doesn’t matter what we say the rules are. It doesn’t matter what values we get all emotional about. What matters is how we actually treat other people.

At the heart of the matter, it is about how we see ourselves. If we are grateful that God would love us and allow us to be a part of his family then that gratitude spills over into acts of love. If we think we are wonderful people who God is lucky to have on his team then we miss the gratitude and often lose the desire to serve others.

It isn’t about who is a better or worse sinner. It is about a proper understanding of grace. We live in a time where we feel good about ourselves and others celebrate us if we say we believe the right things, if we get all emotional about the right values. We pretend that is enough. But following Jesus is not about those things. It is about loving others. That is the bottom line. That is the final answer; love.

There is an ancient legend that speaks of the god’s failed attempts to guide humanity. Mortals were constantly getting lost and making bad choices. So the gods got together and took all of the wisdom of the world and put it in one library. Now the humans could go to this library and find the answer to any question and know exactly what to do in any situation. They would know how to live peacefully and joyfully. The problem was the library was so large no one would ever be able to use it. So they had all of the wisdom and guidance of the world condensed down to a single book. Unfortunately, the book was so big and so heavy that no one could open it. Finally, they condensed all of the wisdom and all of the guidance needed for humans in this world down to one word. They sent a messenger throughout the land to whisper the word. The word was “love.” (Peter Rollins)

How much do we love God? The answer is, how much do we love others?

Looking Around During The Prayer


Two men walked into the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. The other, a tax collector. In the end it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee. But, you knew that. That is the problem with these parables. We have heard them before. We know how they end. So, from the beginning we identify with the person who is going to come out looking good in the end. We are rarely surprised any more.

As soon as we heard the word, “Pharisee” we knew we wanted to identify with the other guy because the Pharisees don’t fare so well in the Gospels. Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees was . . . it was complicated.

Even so, for the parable to make sense to us we have to do some rearranging in our minds. For this to make sense the Pharisee has to be judgmental and self-righteous. You know, one of those religious types who goes around sticking his nose into everyone else’s business and tells everyone else how to live, but never does anything to help anyone.

And the tax collector becomes sort of a lovable scamp! He is good ole’ Joe the bartender. He doesn’t go to church. But, he is quick to help anybody who needs something. When someone gets injured in an accident he is the first one to give money to the fundraiser. He has a big heart. He is kind to everyone.

So then it makes sense to us that God would be pleased with good ole’ Joe’s prayer instead of the prayer of the self-righteous, religious person. If we clean this story up like that it makes sense to us.

The problem is that is not how Jesus told the story. The Pharisee is a guy who is quite serious about keeping Torah. He sincerely believes that by keeping the rules he is pleasing God. He is the guy who is always in church. He serves on several committees. He volunteers for workdays. He even gives more than ten percent of his income and gives to special offerings too. The Pharisee is the faithful, dependable, tithing, church member who pays the minister’s salary so he can preach on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector! (Craddock) The truth is we preachers love people like him. As a matter of fact I’ll bet you would have liked him too.

And the tax collector wasn’t likable ole’ Joe the bartender. Most tax collectors were crooks. The way they made their money was by overcharging you for the taxes they collected. Whatever they could collect above what the government required they got to keep. This tax collector worked for the enemy. He worked for the occupying government. “[He] works to squeeze money out of you and your neighbor so that the Romans can stay in control of your country. He gets rich while your friends and neighbors have to sell their farms to pay their tax bills. He is a leech, he’s a traitor, he ought to burn in hell for what he has done to the poor, and he’s got a lot of nerve coming to the temple to pray.” (Vinson) If everyone were like him the church would have to close its doors. If you had known him, I don’t think you would have liked him very much.

Yet, he is the one who went home justified, not the Pharisee. Now do you feel the sting of this story a little bit more? Do you feel the confusion of it?

The parable could have happened in reverse as well. The Pharisee could have been just as committed and yet remained humble. It happens. I know some people who have managed to pull it off. And the Tax Collector could have been full of himself, bragging about how he is not like those hypocrites down at the church.

This parable teaches us to see the truth about ourselves. Our default setting seems to be self-righteousness, whether we are religious or not. We have to constantly be on guard against looking down at others who are different from us and who live differently than us.

The parable teaches about others. It teaches us that no matter how rotten a person may be, he or she is only one prayer away from redemption. Think of that the next time you run into someone you don’t like. He or she is only one prayer away from God beginning the process of redemption in his or her life. Think of that next time you are angry with yourself. We are all only one prayer away from being redeemed.

The parable teaches about God. Self-righteous or sinner or, if you are like me, a combination of the two, God loves us all. Thank God for that!