Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Identified Sinners

Mt 21:23-32[1]

Families are challenging. Anybody who has a family knows that. In fact, most people who study families these days will tell you that all families are at least a little dysfunctional. One of the ways that families can be dysfunctional is by dumping all the hurtful and harmful patterns on one person. That person is called the “identified patient.” Often it will be a teenager with a drug problem or an eating disorder. Psychologists will tell you that the only way to treat the “identified patient” is to treat the whole family, because in a very real sense that person is simply embodying the problems inherent in the whole system. Sadly, some families reject this notion, because it means everybody has to take responsibility for the problem, and it’s much more convenient to just let the “identified patient” take the blame.

I think our Gospel lesson this week reflects something of this dynamic in the religious family of Judaism in his day. The religious leaders were supposed to be the examples of righteousness. They were the ones who were devoted to constantly studying and keeping the word of God. They controlled the Temple and the Synagogues, which means that they controlled who was considered “righteous” and who was branded a “sinner.” When Jesus referred to the “tax collectors and prostitutes” as shorthand for “sinners,” he was simply voicing the views of the Jewish leaders of the day.

But Jesus tells a parable that suggests there was something different going on in this whole setup. In the parable, a father asks a son to go work in the vineyard and he refuses, but then changes his mind and goes. The father asks his second son to go to work and he says yes, but then doesn’t go. The clear implication is that it’s not always those who make a lot of noise about being righteous who actually practice the peace and justice and freedom of God’s realm. In fact, Jesus told the religious authorities point blank that the tax collectors and prostitutes were way ahead of them when it came to actually doing God’s will!

In fact, however, the authorities had already betrayed their fraudulent religion in their interaction with Jesus. When they asked him about his own authority, they were clearly not being straightforward. Not only were they being deceptive with Jesus, they were also anxious to conceal their true opinion from the crowds. Their religion was such that they were more worried about maintaining their power and prestige and about how they looked to other people than about actually practicing the way of life that Jesus called “the way of righteousness” (Matt. 21:32).[2] It would seem that the “righteous” people weren’t so righteous after all.

On the other hand, it would seem that at least some of the people whom the religious authorities branded as sinners didn’t deserve to be so stigmatized. In fact, it would seem likely that the whole system of religion was to some extent an elaborate self-justification for the self-righteous [3] The authorities who were often deceitful and malicious got to designate themselves as “righteous” whereas people who may have been guilty of nothing more than being poor or destitute were designated as “sinners.”[4] It’s as if they were the “identified patients” in that dysfunctional family—or better, they were the “identified sinners.” But designating them as sinners only gave the “righteous” a convenient way to avoid facing their sins by diverting the attention to others. Making tax collectors and prostitutes the “identified sinners” only enabled them to keep up appearances with their sham religion.

This kind of behavior was not the exclusive prerogative of the self-righteous in Jesus’ day. Religious leaders throughout the ages have exercised a great deal of control over people by their power to determine who gets branded sinners and who gets to be righteous. And religious people of all levels have identified others as “sinners” as a way of justifying themselves. But whenever we use our religion to make ourselves look good at the expense of others, we’re really only deceiving ourselves. We’re deflecting the attention away from ourselves so we can keep up the appearance of righteousness. We’re using them as “identified sinners” so that we can avoid facing our own sins.

In “the Kingdom of Heaven” Jesus preached, that kind of hypocrisy will not do. In the way of living that puts into practice God’s justice and peace and freedom, there is no room for making yourself look good at the expense of others. But as I said before, this kingdom is one that operates completely differently from the way things work in our everyday lives. In this strange kingdom, those who are the “identified sinners” can be way ahead of the supposedly righteous when it comes to actually doing the will of God!

Our gospel lesson confronts us with hard truth that our religious devotion can often turn into something harmful. Unfortunately, there is something in religion that can turn it all too easily into a way of simply making ourselves look good. But that kind of hypocrisy doesn’t just hurt those we identify as “sinners.” It also hurts us. When our religion is about justifying ourselves, it easily turns into an obsession—and obsessions rarely do us any good![5] But when we leave behind the need to make ourselves look good and simply seek to put into practice “the way of righteousness,” then we experience the peace and freedom of the kingdom of heaven—right here.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/25/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Ulrich Luz and Helmut Koester, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary, 31

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 114: by accepting the “sinners,” Jesus was “breaking through the vicious circle of their discrimination in the system of values set up by the righteous.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 128-131; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 87-89, 186-87.

[4] Cf. Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 112-13, where he points out the social dimensions of the terms “righteous” and “sinner.”

[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus, 114, on the compulsive nature of self-righteousness.

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