Message for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C (10/23/2022)
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”
Have you heard of the sociological phenomenon known as the “Big Sort”? Just after the turn of the millennium, a team of researchers began tracking patterns in migration and economic change across the United States since the 1970s. Over time, they discovered that American communities were becoming more and more homogenous, not only with regard to economics, but also culture and politics. As a result of greater physical and economic mobility, it seemed, people were choosing to live nearer to others who shared their views and values and ways of life, clustering in enclaves of like-mindedness. Even communities within communities, like churches, civic clubs, and volunteer organizations, were becoming more and more homogenous. Over the course of several decades, freedom of choice had increasingly allowed Americans to settle in the environments that were best-suited to their principles and tastes, and thus to avoid coming into contact with incompatible neighbors.
But, the so-called Big Sort has had significant consequences. Writing on behalf of the team that’s been studying it, journalist Bill Bishop observes:
As people seek out the social settings they prefer – as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable – the nation grows more politically segregated – and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogenous groups. We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences… and politics so polarized that… elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life.
I’d like to believe that terms like “righteousness” and “entitlement” and “intolerance” apply only to people who are not like me, but I suspect the evidence shows otherwise. How easy it is in an echo chamber to demean people whom I don’t care to understand, and to congratulate myself in the process.
I might as well stand in for the Pharisee in our Gospel from Luke today. The Evangelist explains that Jesus’ parable is a cautionary tale “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” “God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” the Pharisee prays aloud and within earshot of a tax collector, “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Ouch. To his credit, the tax collector doesn’t respond in kind, but prays with humility and sincerity, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” “I tell you,” Jesus sums up his teaching, “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The meaning is simple enough, isn’t it? The religious insider in this story trusts in his own righteousness – and separates himself from allegedly unrighteous others – rather than trusting entirely in God’s grace. Don’t be like him.
But, be careful. The danger in that reading lies in judging the Pharisee in the same manner that he judges others. By condemning the Pharisee too quickly, we risk repeating his mistake: God, I thank you that I am not like other people: sanctimonious people, judgmental people, condescending people. The more readily we write the Pharisee off, the more we become like him.
Superiority is a sneaky sin. As soon as we measure our own worthiness against the perceived unworthiness of others, we slide into self-righteousness. The desire to be right, to be righteous, to be one of the “good ones” is a powerful temptation. We all have criteria by which we measure virtue, and we all find ways to justify ourselves accordingly: God, I thank you that I am not like other people: people who behave that way, people who subscribe to that ideology, people who support that platform.
It’s largely involuntary. We make these kinds of judgments quickly and according to deeply ingrained assumptions. And, our opposing judgments have a way of hardening our hearts and engendering bitterness and mistrust. Of course, we also tend to neglect our own blind spots. Our baser impulses, our bad habits, our complicity in unjust systems – these are hard to face. So, we may be tempted to think, Sure, we’re all sinners, but my sins aren’t as bad as that guy’s, right?
The difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector is not that one is good and the other is evil. The difference is that one presumes to justify himself, while the other commends himself entirely to God. And, notice how these different attitudes impact the way each man approaches the other. The Pharisee is predisposed to tear the other down because his own sense of superiority is at stake. The tax collector, on the other hand, stakes his hope on God’s grace, which doesn’t depend on his deserving it. And, if his humanity affords him dignity enough in God’s sight, then he’s more likely to affirm the dignity of others, regardless of their differences.
That is not to say that everyone’s position is equally valid. We can’t settle for a false equivalency of ideas, as if there weren’t dangerous ideologies corrupting our public discourse, ideologies like Christian nationalism and white supremacy. Neither can we remain timidly neutral in matters that affect our neighbors, especially those who are disproportionately harmed by the ways of the world. As people of faith, we are called to prayerfully and courageously take a position consistent with our confession, even at the risk of causing tension. Creative tension is a catalyst for change, after all, and there’s plenty in our community, in our nation, in our world that still needs to change for the better. But, amid the controversy, and in light of God’s boundless grace, how shall we regard ourselves and others, and in particular those whom we do not understand and with whom we cannot agree?
The social dynamics that have led to the Big Sort are difficult to change. We’re likely to have fewer and fewer direct opportunities to communicate across cultural and religious and political lines. But, I’m not willing to allow distance and difference to become reasons to despair of our shared future. The gift of grace is not only the freedom to live within God’s merciful embrace, but also to see all others as God sees them, that is, as human, and so, in need of mercy. That perspective may set our disputes, as heated and high-stakes as they may be, in a more hopeful context, allowing for the possibility that God might transform us all by grace, and that the reign of God might yet come on Earth as in heaven.
 See J. Walker Smith, as cited by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart, 14.
 Bishop, 14.
 See David J. Lose, www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2967.
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