Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Oct. 27, 2019
When we were travelling across Canada on my sabbatical, some friends and family with whom we stayed were glued to the Raptor’s playoffs. It’ll be no surprise to you that I had never watched a basketball game in my life. But after watching with these friends and family, I became hooked! Has anyone else become a Raptor fan? I knew the names and even backgrounds of the some of the key players. I downloaded The Sports Network app on my phone. We actually drove into Banff, from a little cottage where we were staying, just to watch the final game and join the hordes that poured onto the streets of Banff to celebrate! True North!
A week later, the music director from St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Vancouver introduced us to The Good Place. Has anyone watched this? We actually binge-watched the first two seasons on Netflix. Cable TV, TSN, Netflix and bingeing—wow! I’m slowly catching up with the times.
The Good Place is outlandish, full of unexpected twists and turns, and has a pretty good understanding of moral philosophy. It’s quite accurate in its descriptions of various ethical approaches to life. It also seems to appeal to a wide variety of ages from youth and up. Most of the youth from our confirmation class have watched it.
Without giving anything away, the basis of The Good Place is that each person on earth racks up points for every good deed they do and loses points for every bad deed. The final sum of their points determines whether they end up in the good place or the bad place. The person who was as close to perfect as one could get was a man who lived off grid in an isolated log cabin with solar panels, eschewing fossil fuels. Where exactly did he live? The series placed him in Calgary, an irony that only Canadians would understand.
The Good Place is great for light-hearted entertainment, but really bad for theology. It’s about heaven and hell with its demons, but there is no God, only a judge, and no grace. Grace is the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector in our gospel lesson. Jesus’ portrayal of the Pharisee is a stereotypical description of an upright Protestant with a good work ethic—very much like you and me. The Pharisee was determined to be the best person he could be. He did everything right. He was faithful in marriage, he honoured the religious holidays, fasted more than expected, tithed 10% of his income and prayed not only at home, but also at the temple. He stacked up those brownie points. The Pharisee was a good person—except for one significant flaw. He measured his goodness against the shortcomings of others. As one of the desert fathers used to say, “There is no other sin than that of being scornful.”
The tax collector, on the other hand, was very aware of his shortcomings. As we heard from last week, tax collectors were considered thieves who had sold their souls to Rome because their wealth was extorted from the peasant taxpayers through the demand of unwieldly commissions. The tax collector in this story confessed his extortion and begged God for mercy.
Jesus concludes this parable by telling his audience that it was not the righteous Pharisee who found God’s favour, but the thieving tax collector. Why? Because the tax collector humbled himself before God and drew on God’s mercies while the Pharisee exalted himself before God, drawing on his own good deeds.
Jesus’ point is that, no matter how hard we try to be good, we will never be perfect. We will always stand in need of God’s grace. Martin Luther found tremendous relief when he finally realized this. He simply needed to admit his humanity with all its shortcomings and open his heart to God’s unconditional love. It’s such a relief to know that you are loved even when you screw up. It’s such a relief to know that it’s not entirely up to you. When the tax collector confessed his sins to God, he was overwhelmed with a sense of forgiveness and acceptance. Through God’s grace, he was made whole again.
This is why we have a Prayer of Confession every Sunday. Many United Churches have done away with a prayer of confession because they say that it’s a bit of a downer in the service and emphasizes our failings, rather than celebrating our successes. But I believe the Prayer of Confession to be essential—not because I want us to grovel before God every Sunday. I’m not going to ask you to beat your chests and publicly declare what a schmuckhead you are. I appreciate a prayer of confession because I’m sure that every single one of us has done at least one thing wrong in the week, and this prayer allows us to acknowledge it silently with our God, which is why our Prayer of Confession includes silent meditation. After we have acknowledged our failing, we are then assured of God’s forgiveness and grace. Now—God might accompany this assurance with some nudges that move us toward making amends. We still have a part to play. I have found confession, reparation and forgiveness to be powerful in setting us free to be the people God has intended us to be.
Once we have embraced our state of grace, our motivation for doing good deeds changes. We no longer give to others out of a sense of obligation or duty, nor do we give to boost our own image. We give because we genuinely care about others and want to offer the same kind of love that we have received from God. We want to be Christ’s hands and feet.
There is a similar sentiment within the Muslim community. They are taught that they are called by God to help others with modesty and humility, without fanfare. One Muslim man said that it was sinful to help others from a place of ego, obligation, selfishness, envy, superiority or pride.
I am inspired by people who give generously. But I am most inspired by people who give not out of pride or duty, but out of gratitude. Some time ago, we learned that the most generous Canadians were Newfoundlanders, the province that used to be the poorest. Guess who the most generous Canadians are now? A few months ago, I read that immigrants—our newest Canadians—are now the most generous. Craig and Marc Kielburger noted, “On average, according to Statistics Canada, immigrants donate more to charity than Canadian-born citizens of the same economic class. That holds true down to the lowest income brackets. New Canadian households making less than $40,000 still donate an average of $404 to non-profits annually, compared to $214 from non-immigrants earning the same.”
May they inspire us to “step-up” our givings not to earn brownie points, not out of a sense of obligation, not to feed our own ego, but out of a deep and humble gratitude for the grace of God that we have received.
 Paul Sutherland, “10 Guidelines for Giving,” Spirituality & Health (July/August 2019), p. 77.
 “Who are the most generous Canadians? The answer might surprise you.” Winnipeg Free Press, April 29, 2019.