I missed blogging much of last week because I was desperately trying to finish my thing on Spiritual Friendship. It meant that I did not have time to scroll around online either. All I saw flash across my feed was stuff about Liz Truss, and a sort of muttering tweet—tragically I can’t find it now—by a Twitter Academic wondering aloud why giving birth is a disqualifier for being a pastor and a snide comment about “Desiring God.” Apithy way to dismiss a large portion of the Christian world. Anyway, I have wildly scrolled for the last hour, trying to steady my nerves as I think about going to church and hearing the proclamation of the Gospel and all that sort of thing, so this post is both about the lections, and about Twitter.
Jesus. it says in the Gospel,
also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:
Contempt, just to interrupt our Lord for a moment, is the new social capital. It’s like the Tolerance of bygone eras, the banner under which “civil” society masqueraded. If you don’t have contempt for the right thing, how will anyone know you’re a good person? And, more importantly, how will you know? Jesus, a very present help in times of trouble, sets us up to find out. There’s going to be a way to judge the relative goodness or badness of religious people:
Two men went up into the temple to pray…
Which is our first problem. Where were the women? Why didn’t they go? Were they not invited? Did they have to stay home and cook? Is Jesus saying something about women, here? Shall we descend into madness and chaos even before the narrative is off the ground?
One a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
This must indicate that the point of the thing is immediately known. One is a Pharisee, and that is the good one. Everyone listening to Jesus—poor, foolish, not on Twitter Jesus—would know that the story is over. When two men go into the Temple to pray, and one of them is a Pharisee, you may know that he is good. The main way you know is by all of the various signals he gives. He is wearing the appropriate garments. He is standing in the correct posture, and most of all, he is saying the correct words:
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I think you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
I saw this morning, early, that someone who seems to be known by a lot of Presbyterians, has been caught out in some kind of grave and vile sin. I quite like the mingled grief and outrage of the conversation about him. Horror, on one hand, and warnings about sin, on the other. Because the list of things that the Pharisee names are bad. To be a murderer, to be unjust, to commit adultery—all of these are very bad things, and were a person to do them, and rejoice over doing them, we would safely be able to say that the person was a bad person.
And isn’t that what is so ugly, right now? Many people are rejoicing over evil and calling it good. Intermingled with the tweets about this fallen Christian are exaltation tweets about the person who stripped down on stage to play some music with a part of his body that ought not be exposed. What are we supposed to do when there is so much wickedness out there, and a lot of people are saying that the wickedness is good? At least the Pharisee and the Other Man in this story share some understanding of what is good and what is bad. That common agreement, for us, is eroding away, and so the temptation to draw sharp, contemptuous lines is perfectly understandable.
But around whom should they be drawn? Who should receive ire and rebuke from Christian Twitterati?
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying…
What should he say? Surely we would all approve his posture. He should have his head down. He should stand well back. But what should he repent of? I suppose it depends on what you think is really wicked. He could certainly repent of clicking on Desiring God and binging The Chosen. And he should repent of his Christian Nationalism (if that’s what he’s into). And he should repent of drawing the wrong conclusions about theology and politics. Or, on the other hand, I suppose we could say, depending on who the tax collector is, that he should repent of watching Veggie Tales.
Which is to say that the real sins of the heart are wonderfully guarded, protected even, by Twitter “discussions.” I don’t know the real sins of the person who contemptuously tweets, though I can see, by the tweet, the sorts of sins that are tolerable, a comforting bulwark against the badness of others. If you think that reading Desiring God is beyond the pale, well, to me, that feels like tithing mint and cumin. It shows what you think is really wicked. Or watch the raging “conversation” over Christian Nationalism, and you will be able to find someone to agree with you over what is really good and what is really evil. It’s not about discussing the issue, it’s about making sure people know where to place themselves, lest they accidentally discover themselves to be wicked.
Meanwhile, the tax collector has still not lifted up his head:
God, be merciful to me, a sinner!
What a thing to say. What is so astonishing about it is that the tax collector has not observed the Pharisee, as far as we can tell. His head is down. He is looking at the wreckage of his life and is begging for mercy. He knows he has done wrong. He knows he has no hope of putting the pieces back together, or lessening the grief of the fraud and injustice he has wrought. He isn’t watching anything—or anyone. All his contempt has melted away in grief over himself.
I just recently rewatched some old Gottman relationship clips. He worked out a way to predict whether a relationship is going to make it or not. You have communicate acceptance, for example, and accept each other’s bids bids for affection. The main tell, however, is contempt. If you communicate contempt to someone it becomes well-nigh impossible to stay married to them.
It’s a tricky thing, because usually you can only feel the contempt that others have for you, and not the contempt that comes through in your own tone of voice, your own posture, your own words. You are only being “reasonable.” You are “warning others against sin.” You are “telling the truth.” And who is to know if some of those things are true or not. It is a good thing to try to stop someone from committing murder before they do it. And, likewise, to warn someone against error and foolish ideas. But the sin of contempt for the sin of the other is so subtle.
The only way to avoid it is to wander into the courts of the Temple and discover that in all your sinning, in all your wrong beliefs, it was really God you hated more than anyone. It wasn’t just that you defrauded, or were arrogant in your marriage, or to the person in the pew next to you—it was God you really despised.
And what should you do then? Isn’t it obvious? Take your eyes off the sinner over there and fall to the floor and beat your breast and beg God for help. Fill up your mouth with the words of Jeremiah:
“Though our iniquities testify against us,
act, O Lord, for your name’s sake;
for our backslidings are many;
we have sinned against you.
O you hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?
Why should you be like a man confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot save?
Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not leave us.”
Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
“They have loved to wander thus;
they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the Lord does not accept them;
now he will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.”
Have you utterly rejected Judah?
Does your soul loathe Zion?
Why have you struck us down
so that there is no healing for us?
We looked for peace, but no good came;
for a time of healing, but behold, terror.
We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
and the iniquity of our fathers,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.
22 Are there any among the false gods of the nations that can bring rain?
Or can the heavens give showers?
Are you not he, O Lord our God?
We set our hope on you,
for you do all these things.
If you look away from yourself and to Jesus, no matter what you have done or who you have hated, you will go down to your house justified, forgiven. If you sit in your pew this morning and relax your clenched jaw and put into Jesus’ hands the people you think you can’t possibly be with or countenance, you will be able to be healed. If you shuffle forward for communion and beg God to help you love the people he has brought into your orbit, and take hold of his own Body and Blood as your help, your comfort, your food, your goodness, you will not be disappointed.
It is better to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to be the right kind of person on Twitter. It is better to be able to forgive someone you loathe in real or virtual life than to spend thousands of days being a “good person.”
Imagine, enduring the pain of your own wretchedness and giving it all away to Jesus, and going home with a light step, a clear conscience, though all the world still hates you. I think I know which is better.