The Sin of Smug

Sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
October 27, 2013
Luke 18:9-14

My first car in high school was a 1978 pink Cadillac. Coupe D’ville. It had white leather bench seats, enormous fins, solid steel bumpers, and a hood ornament that stood about a foot off the hood. The eight track player still worked, but I only had one eight track: the best hits of Blood, Sweat, & Tears. And did I mentioned that it was pink? Like, Mary Kay pink. I had a blast driving that car around high school.

Whenever I stopped at a red light, without fail, the car next to me would pull real slow. The driver, trying not to be too obvious, would glance over at this pink behemoth in the lane next to him. He would at the hood ornament, then look at me, he would look at the fins, he would look at me. Then the light would turn green and I’d floor it. And that 405 V8 would kick in and all you’d see was a streak of pink steel. I loved that car.

And part of the reason I loved it was for the attention. Clearly. I loved it when I got the sideways glance at the stop light. And don’t we all love that? We relish that sideways glance, that look of jealousy on somebody’s else face. And go ahead and admit it, you do that little sideways glance all the time. You’re at the gym, and you’re comparing you pace on the treadmill with the girl next to you. You’re at the soccer field, and you’re comparing your kid’s athletic acumen to the other kids. You’re driving down your street, and you’re comparing your lawn to the guy who lives across the street.

The sideways glance of comparison is part of human nature. This does not make you a bad person. The sideways glance of comparison is not necessarily sinful, but it can be.

Take this Pharisee for example. He is praying in the Temple and he gives a sideways glance over to this tax collector. He prays to God, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” The sideways glance is sinful here because the Pharisee is using his status to elevate himself. It’s sinful because he doesn’t want to be like “those other people.”

The tax collector is justified because he does not use the sideways glance in his prayer. He only looks down at himself, recognizing that no matter who he compares himself to, he is a sinner.

But look a little deeper. The Pharisee, actually, is a pretty good guy. He’s praying all the time. He gives ten percent of his income to God. And to become more pious, he fasts twice a week. If everybody in the Church was like this Pharisee, then we’d probably never have a another church fight again, and we sure wouldn’t have to run another pledge campaign. So this parable is not about how bad Pharisees are.

And the tax collector, well, he’s a scumbag. Like all tax collectors. Part of his job was to scam everybody in town by skimming some money off the top for himself. He was blatantly stealing from people. This parable is not about how nice tax collectors are.

This parable is about the sideways glance. Jesus says the Pharisee is not justified because he looks over to the tax collector and puffs up his chest. Jesus says the tax collector is justified because he hasn’t looked over and compared himself to anybody but God.

And that’s the point. The real sin here is smugness. The Pharisee is self-righteously smug about his piety and generosity. He looks down on everybody else, because he’s not like them. The tax collector knows that he has no hope other than God. In that decisive moment, the moment of the sideways glance, the Pharisee transforms from a pious worshiper of God to a pompously smug jerk.

And please don’t think this is a parable directed against the Pharisees in particular or the Jews in general. Don’t read anti-Semitism into this parable, and think about how silly those Jews were in the time of Jesus. Jesus is telling this parable because it’s about us.

News flash. We are the Pharisees. I know it from personal experience, that I am constantly comparing myself with other people. And when I feel I’m better than that other person, I puff up my chest with pride. Because I preached a better sermon than that other pastor, because my golf score was lower than that other guy. Whatever it is, I know that I have succumbed to that smug sideways glance. I am the Pharisee. I have looked at somebody else, everybody else, and said, “thank God I’m not like that guy.”

So how do we become like the tax collector? How do we stop saying, “thank God we’re not like that guy”? What we have to do, is starting giving the sideways glance to Jesus. When you look over at Jesus, when you make that sideways glance at Jesus, it’s not to compare yourself, it’s not about smugness. It’s about learning to be more like him.

Originally, the word “disciple” meant “apprentice.” A disciple was a novice learning a craft from a master tradesman. And the disciple, the learner, would always be looking over his shoulder at the master, trying to learn the craft.

Look over your shoulder at Jesus. Do not despair, do not compare yourself, but learn. When you are trying to learn generosity, look over your shoulder at Jesus, and remember the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with just a little bit of food. When you are trying to learn forgiveness, remember how Jesus forgives Peter even after Peter denied Jesus at the cross. When you are learning how to love, look at those outstretched arms of love of Jesus on the cross.

You are going to look over at your shoulder at someone. And you are either going to be smug about it, or you are going to be humble about it. You are going to pull up at a stop light next to a real nice car, and you are either going to be smug about it, or you are going to be happy for that other person. You will either exalt yourself, or humble yourself.

Look to Jesus, learn from Jesus as Jesus is a master tradesman, and you are only an apprentice. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. And it was Jesus, dying on the cross, who was not humbled, but was exalted. Look to Jesus, learn from Jesus. Be like Jesus.

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