Joel 2:23-32

Luke 18:9-14

I’ve been pondering the question of whom we look to for spiritual insight. What people do you assume have something valuable or profound to say? Is it the great Christian teachers – the saints, mystics, and theologians? People like Calvin, Augustine Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, Saints Teresa or Peter? Are they visible saints, members of this and other churches who clearly have something of the Christian life figured out? Or do you look to figures from other traditions, like the Dalai Lama, the Pope, or the Sufi mystics – all people who have a deep experience of God?

Maybe a tougher question: whom do you discount when it comes to religious or spiritual ideas? Did you bristle somewhere on that list? Was it at John Calvin or the Dalai Lama? Most of us draw the line at some kind of religious “other,” whether it’s a Muslim, a humanist, or the wrong flavor of Christian. I definitely have “wrong” Christians I avoid, and you might too. Maybe it’s Jerry Falwell, Joel Osteen, John Shelby Spong, Rick Warren, or Reinhold Niebuhr.

I tend to put a lot of stock in what you might call quality of life. My line is, “don’t buy from someone who doesn’t look like they have what they’re selling.” I look for deep happiness, generosity, and peace. My presumption seems to be that spiritual insight goes with joyful, simple living. Your lifestyle markers may differ – somewhere on the spectrum of consumerism, sexuality, or politics – but don’t we all have people we admire or discount? That’s part of why religious groups are so often homogeneous, because we gravitate to teachers and companions who feel like ourselves.

Jesus’ listeners had their ideas about whom to discount, and so did Luke’s readers; and they weren’t necessarily the same people. Luke (and the rest of the early church) knew that the Pharisees should be the villains in Jesus’ stories. The Pharisees were the chief rivals of the emerging Christian movement, and the gospels tend to paint the Pharisees as self-righteous, money-grubbing, and intolerant – a common way to argue against someone. And they were powerful, with lots of influence on the Jewish religious world, so Christianity had to articulate its basic differences with them.

But Jesus’ “hero” is not exactly a role model here. Tax collectors were universally despised as sell-outs to Roman power. They collected taxes for an occupying empire, with the full weight of the Roman military at their back, and they made great money for themselves and Caesar. That is to say, they were stealing from their own people, while in cahoots with the Dark Side, and they were arguably more powerful than the Pharisees. They were religiously and socially loathed. We know that Jesus had a soft spot for them, but we should also know that they’re louts.

So when I asked whom you discount, whose religious insights you presume are false. Maybe moralizing preachers came to mind. But what about IRS agents? Accountants? Politicians? Drug dealers? Gas station attendants? Some people claim too much religious authority (the Pharisees), but others do things that are too mundane or too compromising (the tax collectors). If one side is too certain of the truth, the other is too visibly aware that they can’t reach the truth, too mired in their failings.

There are no heroes in Jesus’ story, so we’re supposed to learn the truth from two corrupt people. Yes, the tax collector is set right with God, but he’s not necessarily a sympathetic character. I don’t think Jesus wanted sympathetic characters here. He’s not that interested in seeing us learn from people we respect – that’s too easy. Jesus came filled with a different and more challenging Spirit, the Spirit that Joel prophesied would be poured out “on everyone.” Your sons, daughters, old and young people would be filled with the truth. The Spirit wouldn’t just come on people of upstanding moral character, not just on people who follow strict religious practices. Morals, study, and practice are all valuable, but they can also become a reason to judge yourself as better than others.

The Spirit is not limited by our ability to discipline ourselves. It speaks the truth of every life, even the life of this corrupt tax collector. That’s the gift that set the tax collector right with God. He told a basic truth of life, and Jesus invites us to hear it from him. Jesus’ Spirit speaks the truth in our own lives, and in the lives around us, and Jesus invites us to hear it. To hear it from sources whose insight is clear and reliable – of course, listen to the preachers and the saints. But also listen to the tax collectors in your own life. Hear the truth even in those voices that we know to discount.

I recently talked to someone who had left a church because he came to feel it “didn’t teach the Bible.” He told me about his process of discovering the Bible for the first time, praying and reflecting on its message in his life. I wanted to change the subject – can’t I get a day off from disagreeing with people’s theology? – but God’s Spirit quieted my spirit to listen to him. He said that he’d started reevaluating the rest of his life too, not just his thoughts about hot-button issues. He was being transformed by a Spirit that speaks to him through scripture. I must admit that I still hope he’ll “come around” on the issues where I read the Bible differently, but I’m very happy for him regardless. My better spirit celebrates that God still changes us, a blessed truth that I’d have missed if I hadn’t kept listening.

I think that’s what Jesus meant by humility. It’s not just wailing about how awful we are. It’s not hating yourself. Humility is about looking past yourself, allowing the truth to exist in other people and other experiences. It doesn’t mean accepting everything someone says, but it means discerning the truth within it, letting God’s Spirit speak as it will. It means even hearing the truth of that Pharisee’s apparent boast: his religious life is a gift of God. His path of faith is a blessing. “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like other people,” because other people have so much to teach me. May we learn always in true humility and trust always in the mercy of God who has yet more to teach us.

Amen.

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