How to Be a Good Sinner

Luke 18:9-15     The Pharisee and the Tax Collector       

Let me say for the record, “I am a sinner.”  There, it’s out in the open now.  Let’s talk about this.  You may have a number of different reactions:

  • Pastor Todd, what you done now? -or-
  • That’s a relief! Maybe I belong here.   -or-
  • I don’t like that word. Could you just say you are imperfect?  Mistakes were made.  Can you leave it at that?


Sin-ugh!  It even sounds like an ugly word.  On some lips it sounds like a curse- “Sinner!  Repent!”  It sounds judgmental.  It is close to the word “singe”, as in “singed by fire.”  Sin has a fire crackling in the background.   Jonathan Edwards looks over us, with his sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” just off stage right.


We have reason to be wary.  Sin is a word hurled around by angry, narrow-minded people. It is tossed at people who do not conform to the norm, especially if you fall in love or sleep with the wrong person.  Sin gets associated with sexuality.  Christians argue about abortion, homosexuality, and divorce.  Perhaps this gets to the heart of our discomfort with the word sin.  It speaks of a spiritual path we don’t want to travel, a path of guilt and shame and repression.  This theological formula that says, “You are a miserable sinner, you are no good, your thoughts and desires are impure, so you must repress them and conform to the right way (our way!).  Otherwise, God will punish you till you get it right, or you will end up in Hell for eternity.


Many of us have been harmed by this path and spent years in therapy recovering from the burden of shame and guilt.  Jesus has more to say to us than “it is good to feel bad about yourself.”  William Sloan Coffin, the great Riverside Church preacher, said, “Sin is the most optimistic of church doctrines because it assumes that you don’t have to be perfect and change is possible.”


Let’s unpack this story about the Pharisee and the tax collector.  You probably don’t like the Pharisee.  He sounds like an arrogant jerk, thinking he is better than everyone else.  Its easy to dismiss him or put on modern-day label.   He’s the fundamentalist or Evangelical or academic elitist.  When Jesus argues with a Pharisee, I see an invitation to examine myself for the ways I block Jesus’s message of love with my own self-righteousness.  We can all have a little Pharisee in us who thinks our efforts at goodness are just a little better.


Pharisees are trying very hard to be good, by following all the law.  Imagine the only thing you knew about the Pharisee was verse 12, “I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of all my income.”  If that was it, I would like more Pharisees in the congregation – people who engage in spiritual practices and are generous.  That is not the problem.


The problem starts with the self-comparisons.  I am not like those thieves, rogues and adulterers – you know the type, bad hombres. (What a low bar!) And I’m certainly not like that person down there in that pew..  What do think they are doing here?   They are not a member here.  I didn’t see them putting anything in the plate.  They don’t work on any committees.  I’m so glad I’m not like them.  The pecking order is brutal.  The easiest way to temporarily feel better about yourself is to see someone lower than you.  At least I’m not the biggest dope in the room, or the poorest person in the room, or the worst parent in the room.


It is human nature when we feel anxiety or under threat to relieve it by thinking someone else is lower than us.  But, of course, it is a false security.  You are not really better off; you are not improving your situation. Looking down on someone just relieves tension.  It only solves things for the ego.  Which is why it is such an attractive solution, and the best tactic for a demagogue.


Next comes the tax collector.  Everyone in Jesus’s day knows this is supposed to be the bad guy.  He is the corrupt money grubber who collaborates with the Romans.  But he beats his chest, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  This would likely shock Jesus’s audience.  Would a tax collector really do that?  Do people like that really change?


If you don’t think so, you only have read into the next chapter of Luke where we will meet Zacchaeus the tax collector, who repents and comes clean with Jesus.  Jesus does not let us sort  between the righteous and the un-righteous, the good and the bad.  We keep switching places in different circumstances, so we can’t too comfortable with our stereotypes.


Could you pray this prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner?”  In Luke’s Gospel we meet many people who cry out for Jesus to have mercy.

  • A Canaanite woman asking for healing for her child.
  • Bartimaeus, the blind man, asking to have his sight restored.
  • The ten lepers Jesus meets on the border of Samaria.


It seems to be the “go-to” prayer for help in Luke’s Gospel.  In the Eastern Orthodox tradition; the dominant form of Christianity in Greece, Eastern Europe and Russia; this prayer is known as the Jesus Prayer.  It is a practice from 5th century monastics in the Egyptian desert to pray, “Lord, Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  They pray this phrase for long periods of time, as a way of focusing the heart and mind on the grace of God.  Our first response might be negative.   Isn’t it disempowering, calling yourself a sinner over and over?


Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Western Christianity, like Roman Catholicism or Reformation Protestants understand sin differently.  At the Reformation, Roman Catholics and Protestants agreed upon was that we are all terrible, worthless, miserable sinners in need of repentance.  Sin meant you did something wrong; you are a moral failure and you deserve punishment.  The way to get right again is to be really, really sorry and trust in the crucifixion of Jesus to save you.


Orthodox theology sees sin more like a medical than moral problem.  Your soul needs healing.  When you call out for mercy, it isn’t as much about moral failure as a desire for wholeness.  It’s a prayer to be made more loving, more aware of God’s presence in ourselves and in others.  We pray for mercy because we want to be well, not because we are so bad and need to be forgiven.  The Latin root for the English word “salvation” is “salve.”  Think salve that you put on a wound.  Salvation isn’t a result of being made morally right but being healed (which probably makes us more ethically capable.)


If you still have trouble praying “Have mercy on me, a sinner,” maybe it would be easier in a different language.  If we are to pray this prayer in Greek, it would be ‘Kyrie Eliason.”   That sounds more beautiful and loving, doesn’t it?


Here are two practical examples of how sin as a need for healing rather than simply moral terms.  At an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting people say, “Hi, I’m Jill, and I’m an Alcoholic.  And everyone responds, “Hi Jill.” Like that is no big deal.  No one laughs, no one judges them for saying, “I’m an alcoholic.”  It puts everyone on the same level.  We are all in this room to support and heal one another.  It can be a relief to finally say, “I’m an alcoholic.”


Imagine if we introduced ourselves that way in church.  Before anyone speaks, they say, “Hi, I’m Peter and I’m a sinner.”  Hi Peter.  I’m Jane and I’m a sinner.  Welcome Jane.”  How would this change our view of sin?


Perhaps this attitude could help us to better confront racism.  (I am speaking more to white people now.  The rest of you can pray for us for a minute.)  We can be good people, who do not believe in White Supremacy, and still harbor racism.  In our inward dialog, we may have thoughts that are racist.  Worse yet, we may not be conscious of our racism.  That’s what scares us.  We may inadvertently perpetuate racism.  We might get called out for racism, even if we didn’t mean to be.  This starts to create shame and avoidance.  Rather than face these inner attitudes and behaviors, we just don’t talk about racism and do the work.


How would this be different if we considered ourselves “recovering racists” in need of healing?  I’m Todd, and I’m a recovering racist.  I never flew a Confederate flag, or supported neo-Nazis or used the N-word.  But I have absorbed racism in our culture since childhood.  I don’t hate, but neither have I understood.  I’m not hostile or angry towards people of another race, but I sure have been too silent.  To say I am a recovering racist makes me less fragile.  It makes me more open to do the inward work, and less afraid to join the outward struggle against racism.  I want to be whole, healed and be restored to live in right relationships, to work towards the Beloved Community.


All of us are in some kind of recovery.  Whether we believe we have done something wrong or harmed by the sins of others, we hope for mercy.  We may be simply recovering from the human condition – feeling anxious, frail, or inadequate to what we believe we need to do.  Christ have mercy.  Not because I’m so bad, but because I believe God is good.  I pray for God’s mercy, because the living, loving God wants to make all of us whole.  God, have mercy on me a sinner.  Kyrie Eliason.


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