This week, as our Journey to Generosity continues, commitment cards went out. If you have not received yours, please contact the office. Commitment Sunday is November 10, the day we are all asked to generously respond to God’s grace in our lives.
On our journey, it is important to note that generosity requires gratitude. And nothing disrupts gratitude like comparison. We scroll through the social media feed of our peers, jaws clenched in jealousy; we chat with others at events and gatherings, we look across the street at neighbors, other churches, pinning for what someone else has, suddenly unable to count a single blessing of our own.
When we are insecure about our faith, we look horizontally rather than vertically. While the gospel repeatedly reminds us that we are all broken, it’s tempting for many Christians, us, to measure our righteousness against the lowest common denominator, typically outside the walls of the church. Many Christians define sin as “The bad stuff other people are doing.”
Whenever religion becomes a report card, it leads to hypocrisy rather than humility, which is the point of our parable for today. “Two men went up to the temple to pray,” Jesus tells us. Note that initial description, they are equal. Before God, their distinctions do not matter. Their accomplishments are inconsequential. They are simply two human beings, coming into the presence of God.
One of the fellows stands on his own, a Pharisee, offering the wrong kind of gratitude. He thanks God for how he is unlike the more public failures he sees all around him. The catch, of course, is that he is as broken as the rest of them, and yet God still seeks him, which ought to be the source of his thanksgiving.
In the opposite corner is a tax collector, a man who has betrayed his own people to make a profit. A man who, at some point, clearly believed that money would cure what ails him. But here in the temple, he confesses his brokenness in brutally honest fashion. He is unable to lift his head as he begs for God’s mercy. And yet still God seeks him. The humbled man, Jesus says, will be exalted.
Comparison seems to be encoded into our DNA. If we know we are better off than somebody else, at least we’re not in last place. Since Cain and Able, an inescapable aspect of the human condition has been grading ourselves by looking at someone else’s paper. We claw our way to the top of the pile, believing that besting our neighbor might bring us a sense of peace. It shouldn’t be surprising that this approach backfires on us, because more often than not, our comparisons with others only confirm our sense of inadequacy.
Preacher and professor Fred Craddock tells the story of growing up with a mother who took him to church and Sunday school every week, and a father who never went. His father would complain about Sunday dinner being late when they were late getting home from church. Sometimes the preacher would call, and father would say, “I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right? Isn’t that the game? Another name, another pledge.”
When the church had a revival, the preacher would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, “There’s one now, sic him, get him,” offered Craddock’s father. During such visits, mother would sit in the kitchen, nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always father said, “The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.” Craddock figures he heard it a thousand times growing up.
Yet, one time father didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, “It’s too late.” There was a tube out in, and X rays burned him to pieces. Craddock flew to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. In Craddock’s words, “I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside the bed. And even that tray where they put all the food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups form the church.
“He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”
Craddock asked, “What’s your story, Daddy?”
Father wrote, “I was wrong.”
Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable for the benefit of those “who trusted themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” At its heart, spiritual comparison is a form of fear, that we need a backup plan in case God’s grace doesn’t work out. Like the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story, the Pharisee has followed every rule—even tithing!—but he’s done it all with an eye toward surpassing the public piety of his neighbor, rather than setting his heart on God alone. His real downfall then is he is confused about the source of his life. His prayer is really about himself, and what he can accomplish. And because he misses the source of his blessing, he despises those people God loves.
When we pray the prayer, ‘God thank you for sparing me and my family from what so-and-so is going through, because I couldn’t handle that,” we have missed the mark.
Or when we secretly sign our teenage grandchild up for a mission trip so they would appreciate everything we’ve bought for them over the years.
Those are prayers of comparison that will fail every time. Gratitude that compares our fortune to others, gratitude that measures us against someone else, gratitude that is tied only to what we have and others don’t, isn’t the kind of gratitude that Christ is calling us to.
The biblical principles of giving are never rooted in earning God’s grace or displaying our faith for the world to see. If that were the case, churches would post lists of their top givers to let the rest of know who really loves Jesus!
No, the invitation to give is an invitation to trust, an opportunity to humble ourselves before God, step away from the rat race of comparing and competing, and rest in the merciful arms of our Redeemer.