Two Kinds of People?
A sermon for Reformation Sunday by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On October 27th, 2013
Our scripture reading today is from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, beginning with the 9th verse. It relates a simple little parable, a story Jesus tells to make a point. Listen for the point that Jesus is trying to make and to whom he is trying to make it. Pay attention as you listen to where the two characters in the story stand. Where are they standing? Listen now for God’s word in Luke’s gospel.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, 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 word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God. Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, our Rock and our Redeemer, and may the gospel be more to us than mere words. May the Holy Spirit produce in us strong conviction.
There’s a whole series of sayings out there based on the idea that there are fundamentally only two types of people in the world. My college chaplain used to say, there are two types of people in the world: People who wake up and say, “Good morning, God!” And people who wake up and say, “Good God, it’s morning.” Abigail Van Buren of Dear Abby fame said, “There are two types of people in the world: Those walk into a room and say, ‘There you are’ and those who walk in and say ‘Here I am.’” [i]
Mark Twain, who was fond of speaking in such dualities, said there are two types of speakers: those who are nervous and those who are liars. There are two types of fools, one who says, “This is old, therefore it is good,” and the other who says, “This is new, therefore it is better.” And we should be thankful for the fools, because without them the rest of us could not succeed. Twain says there are two types of people: Those who accomplish things and those who claim to have accomplished things. And the first group is less crowded.
Two types of people: those who make your life harder, and those who make your life easier. Two types of people: those who give; those who take. Two types of people: those who simplify and those who complicate.
And then there’s Robert Benchley who said, “There are two types of people in the world, those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t.”[ii]
It is possible to shoehorn Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector into this sort of duality. There are two types of people in the world: There are people who are like the Pharisee, who trust in themselves that they are righteous, who are glad that they are not like “other people,” who see themselves as fundamentally better than others. Then there those who are like the tax collector, who are so aware of their own failures that they can’t even lift their eyes to heaven, who understand that they are in need of forgiveness, that they feel like worms, who know that they are sinners.
So which are you? Pharisee or tax collector? Or how about this: Are you the elder brother or the younger brother? The servant who says he’s going to help and doesn’t do it? Or the servant who says he won’t help and then does? Are you a Mary or are you a Martha? Are you Christian or not? Are you in or out? Are you part of us, or part of them? Because after all, there are only two types of people in the world.
That’s the trouble with framing life in duality, when you get down to it. It flattens reality into choices that don’t recognize complexity. Sometimes we are like one, sometimes I’m a Martha. Sometimes we’re more like the other, sometimes I’m a Mary. Sometimes I’m the Pharisee, sometimes I’m a tax collector.
Yesterday at the church workday, I put in some Martha time. I started by working inside, washing windows. I told Dan, who would appreciate the joke; I’m being Jacob here, because Jacob was an indoors man, a dweller in tents. Then I thought later, “I’d better be Esau” so I went out and shoveled mulch. Are you Jacob or an Esau, a Mary or a Martha, a Peter or a Paul? Sometimes we’re like one; sometimes we’re like the other
Framing life in duality fails to acknowledge that there are other options, that pick one of two choices doesn’t summarize it all. There are people this morning who think the obstruction call that led to the winning run for the Cardinals against the Red Sox last night was a good call. And there are those who thought it was a bad one. But there are also those who don’t care about baseball whatsoever.
More importantly, framing life in terms of duality fails to embrace the profound truth that there are things we all share in common— that ultimately, as human beings, we are more alike than we are different. What if the central truth of the Gospel is that unity, and not duality, is at the core of who we are?
And this, I think, is the deeper point of Jesus’ parable. On the face of it, he’s just telling it to scold those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous” Which is different, by the way, than trusting in God.
On the face of things, Jesus is addressing the mentality that if I can just pile up enough community service hours, then I can somehow get God’s approval. If I do enough church work, if I tithe a tenth of all I own, then I can be good enough to merit God’s love. Because it’s up to me to make myself right with God.
But if you look at what the Pharisee says and where he stands, you see that this parable is about something deeper because he’s standing by himself rather than seeing his connection with all other human beings. The Pharisee is standing by himself and thanking God that he’s not like other people even like that tax collector, over there.
One of the things I have heard from people whose teenaged and young adult children go on mission trips or who do community service is something like this, and I understand it, because I’ve said it myself, “I hope my son or daughter realizes from this experience how good they have it, that not everyone enjoys the kind of lifestyle we do. I hope going on this trip increases their sense of gratitude.” I understand that impulse, and I have to say I’ve felt it myself whenever I’ve been on a mission trip, or working in a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, and I think, I thank you God that I’m not in these circumstances. But to say, “I thank you God that I am not like them” is not the lesson of the parable, and it’s not what I hope we get from mission trips, or serving in Anacostia, or working at Chesterbrook, or living, period.
What helps me to know that a mission trip is truly successful is when young people go to Chambersburg, or Leech Lake, or Peru or Honduras, or to Anacostia, or to Gospel Rescue Mission and come back saying, not “Thank God I’m not like them,” but, “Now I see something. I see that, though our material circumstances may be different, we are really the same—we have the same basic needs; the same human impulses. Even in our differences, we are fundamentally alike. That’s Gospel.
The problem with the Pharisee is not that he prays, fasts twice a week, and tithes. Praying, tithing and being religiously observant is a good thing. Giving a proportion of your income back to God is commendable. Lord knows, churches everywhere need more of that. So please don’t hear this as a plea not to tithe. Lock, I’m sure you’ll help us not misunderstand. The problem with the Pharisee is that his religious observance, his practice of faith causes him to feel superior to other people rather than connected to them.
This brings us to the tax collector, who would have been despised in Jesus’ day as a collaborator with the Empire and a scoundrel who skimmed money from his fellow Jews. The Pharisee, standing by himself, and distant from that tax collector can’t see his fundamental connection to this hurting individual. All he sees is a scoundrel who is not like him. The way the Pharisee sees it, there two types of people in the world: Good people like him, and then everybody else, like the tax collector.
Over here is this tax collector, who can’t even bear to lift his eyes to heaven, so wrapped up is he in his own sense of unworthiness. He is standing far apart, way off, alone. He might think to himself, “There are two types of people in the world: There are people like me, worthless, and people like everybody else, whom God somehow loves. But I am unlovable. So I can’t even lift my eyes to heaven.”
I think there’s a problem with the tax collector’s approach as well. When you dig deeper, the tax collector is feeling cut off. The tax collector and the Pharisee share more in common than they realize.
Both the tax collector and the Pharisee fail to appreciate that there is not only a vertical dimension to spirituality (Between me and God), there is also a horizontal dimension to spirituality (Between me and the rest of the people in the world). The way some people have put it is that we all stand on level ground at the foot of the cross.
Today is Reformation Sunday as I said earlier, on Reformation Sunday we pay heed to the forebears of our faith tradition like John Calvin and Martin Luther. It’s good for us to focus on Calvin’s idea of total depravity, which is always a little shocking to people. Depraved is a strong word. We naturally want to say, “Depraved? I’m not depraved.” Well, yes—but what Calvin is trying to get across is not that we’re all irredeemably evil, but that all of us stand in need of God’s grace. Without God’s help, without God’s activity in our lives, we can’t do anything right.
Then there’s Luther, whose definition of sin I came across again in the following reflection by Nadia Bolz-Weber.[iii]
I should confess that, at the age of 26 — a decade after leaving my conservative Christian upbringing — when first I experienced the confession and absolution in a Lutheran liturgy, I thought it was hogwash. I hated the part where everyone in church stood up and said what bad people they are, and the pastor, from the distance of the chancel and the purity of their white robe said, “God forgives you”—Why should I care if someone says to me that some God I may or may not really believe in has erased the check marks against me for things I may or may not even think are so-called “sins?”
And my suspicion is that this was because when I heard “you are a sinner” what I really heard is, “you are a bad, immoral person” and hey, if I am someone who doesn’t cheat on their taxes or their spouse and doesn’t murder or steal then I don’t really want to spend my Sunday mornings having someone in a white robe imply that I do.
But, Bolz Weber goes on; Martin Luther had a way of talking about sin that makes a whole lot more sense to me now. He reminds us that sin is bigger than simple immorality. Sin, according to Luther, is being curved in on self without a thought for God or the neighbor. In that case, sin is missing the mark and it’s all the ways we put ourselves in the place of God. It can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be the hateful things we think but never say or it can be adultery or it can be that feeling of superiority when we are helping others. Sin is the fact, she writes, that my ideals and values are never enough to make me always do what I should, feel what I should, think what I should.
If we think about it that way friends, then maybe we are all sinners. We all get curved in on ourselves in unhealthy ways. Which is something worth thinking about on Reformation Sunday.
Maybe there really aren’t two kinds of people in the world. Maybe there’s just one kind. The kind who is on a spiritual journey, doesn’t get it right all the time, sometimes does well and good, sometimes makes a mess, but is always, always, always, loved—and always called to love others.
[i] Van Buren, Abigail. “Shy Teen is Determined to be More Popular in High School.” Dear Abby. 17 Sept. 2008.
[ii] Robert, Benchley. Of All Things. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921.
[iii] Bolz-Weber, Nadia. “Why the Gospel is More Wizard of Oz-y than the Law.” 29 Oct. 2012.