Dan Clendenin was in Oxford, England, researching a paper, when he decided one Sunday morning to go to St. Aldate’s Church. “As I walked into St. Aldate’s,” he writes, “the usher handed me a bulletin and enthusiastically greeted me, ‘We welcome all sinners!’” [journeywithjesus, 10/16/16] “It was just what I needed at the time,” Clendenin says, but how do you suppose such a greeting would go over here? “Welcome to Second Congregational Church! Here’s a bulletin for you. We welcome all sinners.”
“We welcome all sinners!” That’s what they said about Jesus, of course, and not in a good way. “He welcomes sinners!” And they pointed to the usual suspects–tax collectors, prostitutes, people with questionable histories and reputations. You know, those people. Jesus knew they said this about him, and in fact, they were right. He did welcome sinners, and he said that God does too.
So, he told them a story–like he often did–so that they could see themselves a little better.
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,[Jesus said] 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 original impact of this story is lost on us, because we’ve been denigrating the Pharisees for so long, we expect the Pharisee to be the “bad example.” But that is unfair. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were actually the ones who kept the faith together, in the midst of occupation, who dedicated their lives to trying to live God’s way. Tax collectors–the Publicans–, on the other hand, were much more morally suspect. They were agents of the enemy, the occupying Empire, who made their living not only by collecting the mandated taxes but adding their own cut, which was how they raised their own salaries.
To see the Publican [or tax collector] as honorable [writes Paul D. Duke] and the Pharisee as a creep makes the story false, curdles it to a dishonest (and easily anti-Semitic) morality tale and sends us straight into the trap of saying, ‘God, we thank you that we are not like this Pharisee!’ Better to see him as he is–a thoroughly decent, generous, committed man–and to see the Publican as a compromised, certified stinker… [The Christian Century, Oct. 1995]
Two prayers: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…the sinners, who do bad things, like that tax collector.” and “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The one man–the Pharisee–judges his worth, and other people’s worth, by what he does or doesn’t do, what they do or don’t do. The other man–the tax collector–knows what he does–collects taxes, colludes with the enemy–and defines himself that way–”a sinner.” Yet, he goes home “justified,” or “right with God,” Jesus says, because he throws himself on the mercy of God, who sees his worth beneath his deeds, this God who “welcomes sinners.”
The Pharisee, like so many of us, thinks that he has to justify himself by what he does. He has to earn his worth. His self-worth is built on how well he obeys the laws, what he does, where he spends his time, who he associates with. Don’t get me wrong–our deeds do matter. We must walk the walk and not just talk the talk. But our essential worth? God knows that that is deeper than our deeds. The Pharisee thinks he can “get right with God,” that he can earn God’s love and approval, by his deeds, and, conversely, that God does NOT love those who don’t follow the law. The tax collector knows that he’s not “right with God,” and so throws himself into the mysterious, counterintuitive mercy and love of God, and Jesus says he went home “justified.”
In a way, this story is a perfect description of the difference between “guilt” and “shame.” We may experience guilt when we have done something wrong, when a transgression has occurred. Guilt can actually be productive and constructive, if it prompts us to get back on track, to make amends, to change our ways. Those “transgressions” or breaches which so many of us could name and write down a couple Sundays ago were expressions of our guilt.
Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling of unworthiness or regret because of who we are. Shame goes to our essential value or worth. It’s not about what we’ve done but about who we are. How do you change that? How do you change the parents you were born to, or the place where you were born, or the color of your skin, or the sexual identity or orientation you were born with, the number of years you’ve lived or the way your body is put together? There really is no recourse for shame, if it’s about who you are. And that’s a terrifying, enraging, destructive place to put someone in, or to find yourself.
But we all do, says shame researcher Brene Brown. “We all have it,” she writes. “Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Here’s your choice: Fess up to experiencing shame or admit that you’re a sociopath. Quick note: This is the only time that shame seems like a good option.” [Daring Greatly, p. 68] Shame, Brown defines it, “is the fear of not being worthy of real connection,” not ever being worthy of belonging [Daring Greatly, p. 8] but of course, we human beings, as she puts it, are “psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging… It’s why we’re here… What gives life purpose and meaning.” [Ibid., p. 68] So, to fear that we can never be worthy of belonging, of connecting, that is the seed and source of all kinds of destructive behavior.
“God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” the tax collector cries. Who I am is a sinner. In his cry for mercy, the tax collector desperately hopes that there is something in him that God can find worthy of connecting to, and, Jesus says, yes, he is worthy of connection. He went home “justified,” right with God.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people,” the Pharisee prayed…those people not worthy of connection with me. Oddly enough, such a statement is also based in shame, for the Pharisee thinks we are made worthy of connection by what we do, not who we are; that we have to prove our worth, that we have to justify ourselves.
The 4th c. desert saint John the Dwarf said, “We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, self-justification.” [cited by Dan Clendenin, op cit.] The heavy burden is having to prove ourselves worthy of connection, instead of simply believing we are worthy. Those who do so believe – that they are worthy of connection – are what Brene Brown calls Wholehearted people, those who engage in life from a place of worthiness, resilient to shame, in other words. This means living a life of courage, compassion, and connection, which conversely, means being vulnerable. Living wholeheartedly, reaching out to connect with others, believing that we are worthy of love and connection, makes us vulnerable to rejection, hurt, failure, and criticism, but it also makes us resilient to shame, able to move from that temporary sense of unworthiness to a deeper, more resilient place of worthiness and connection.
When you start looking for it, it’s amazing how pervasive shame is in our culture. In the last 10 years, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell write in their study, Narcissism Epidemic, the number of diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder has more than doubled, and underlying every level of this diagnosis is shame [Brown, op cit. , p. 21] There is a fear of being ordinary, so grandiosity is perceived to give some kind of protection against ordinariness and shame. You may have noticed this syndrome at some of the highest levels of our society. It’s devastating–to the people with it and all the people in their orbits. All based in the fear that “I’m not enough. There’s not enough. I’ll never have enough.”
“Worrying about scarcity,” Brene Brown writes, “is our culture’s version of post-
traumatic stress disorder. It happens when we’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats.” [Daring Greatly, p. 27] That pretty much sums up the 2016 presidential campaign. The opposite of scarcity is enough, I am enough, there is enough, wholehearted living.
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people, like those people,” those Trump supporters, those Hillary supporters. “Our capacity for smugness is astonishing,” wrote Paul D. Duke, back in 1995.
In the nation and in the churches, what a rage is on to assure ourselves and define ourselves by who we are not like. Could there be a better indicator that we have no idea who we are? When our eyes move away from our own shadowy hearts, there is no place else to look but at someone else, and no comfort but in claiming: Well, I’m not like that! [in Clendenin, op cit.]
1995. 2016. A rage is on and we still don’t know who we really are.
“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,” God says through the prophet Joel, “and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.” Shame–that fear of not being worthy of connection– does not come from God. In fact, God put the lie of separation to rest by coming to live among us, as one of us. There is nothing you can do–deny, abandon, run away–that can forever separate you from God–unless you choose to. That’s how I understand hell–separation by our own choice, not God’s condemnation. “My people shall never again be put to shame.”
“I tell you,” Jesus said, “this man went down to this home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” All who humble themselves–not accuse themselves of being worthless or worms, but rather who can empty themselves enough to be filled with God–they will be exalted.
Humility is typically a hard thing for us to grasp, [Paul Duke writes]. It involves being able to see the truth about who we really are and accept others as they are. And more than that; it leaves room for us to see the grandeur that is God. It allows us to be who we were called to be in God’s order, rather than who we envision ourselves to be. It enables us to prepare to receive God into our lives–not the God we want or the God we think we need, but God–Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, who loves us more than we can even fathom, on the days when we are sinners and the days when we get it right and the days (which is mot of them) when we don’t even know which we are.”
We are loved by an unending Love. We are worthy of connection, of belonging, and so is everyone else. “Whoever you are, wherever you are life’s journey, you are welcome here.” “No judgments, just Jesus,” as the Wisconsin church featured on the back of our bulletin says. There is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God, which we know in Christ Jesus, as Paul wrote. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is really good news.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark