Don’t vilify, empathize | Sermon from April 7, 2019

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” Important advice when you’ve been assigned a hit against a mob boss.

The Caleone family had experienced the attempted assassination of The Godfather and, having identified the rival mob family that had ordered the hit, they took revenge. This is the basis of the plot The Godfather and the seminal moment in which Michael Corleone definitively chooses to take the mob boss path of his father, rather than live a life on the straight and narrow path.

Leave the gun, take the cannoli. I can imagine Michael Corleone, at confession, with a priest in the booth just on the other side, confessing his sins and the priest saying, perhaps silently in his head, “thank you God that I am not like Michael, full of murderous intentions and so offensive to your ways. Thank you that I am not like that family.”

Could we blame the priest? The movie paints Michael with a sympathetic light, even though it doesn’t hide his dark side. Sin gradually overtakes his life and you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Doesn’t that raise within all of us a bit of thankfulness that we’re not like him, that we’re not caught in the web of sin that sucks us deeper and deeper inside of itself until we feel we can’t get out? Aren’t we grateful that God has saved us from such a life?

Certainly we are. I doubt we know any mob bosses personally, but we can think of people we know who are caught in various webs: addictions, corruption, fiscal malfeasance, and the like. Aren’t we thankful we’re not those people? As we say, “but for the grace of God, there go I,” for it’s the grace of God that has saved us from getting ensnared, trapped in webs of lies, deceit, debauchery, and evil.

“Thank you God that I am not like other people.” We’ve all said something similar to this, a quote from the pharisee in the parable for this morning. Let’s hear together our final parable in this series on the parables of Jesus, Luke 18:9-14.

Scripture

“Thank you God that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Heard in light of this parable, such a line strikes us not as a thankful prayer born of a grateful heart, but an egotistical prayer born of a snobbish heart. Especially considering that the pharisee prays this prayer out loud where the tax collector, who was praying at the same time, could have heard him.

This feels insensitive, uncaring, or perhaps worse: inhumane. There’s something wrong with praying a prayer like this.

Or, is it just wrong that the tax collector could hear it?

For let us consider this tax collector. The Greek here indicates this is no run of the mill tax collector. This is a mob boss; a first century Michael Corleone. He probably, at some point, left the dagger and took the cannoli. This is no IRS agent: this is a traitor to his people.

Tax collectors were Jews recruited by the Roman Empire to collect taxes from the people. These tax collectors would take a cut for themselves, a large cut, overcharging their own people to get rich off the hated Roman oppressors. They’d use their large cut to hire gangsters to collect taxes and enforce their will. There was absolutely nothing anyone could do about these rogues: they kept Rome happy and wealthy and they got rich themselves. Jewish authorities, like King Herod or the high priest, had no authority to undo their treachery.

So, the first century equivalent of Michael Corleone, the untouchable traitor to his people, is standing in the temple, beating his breast in repentance, near this pharisee. Is it any wonder the pharisee is grateful he’s not like this mob boss, not like the Corleones, not like this tax collector?

We’ve all prayed this prayer when we see someone else’s life and realize just how blessed we are. Perhaps this tax collector is truly repentant. Beating his breasts would signify as such. But he’s lived quite a life. There’s a good chance he’s guilty of every sin imaginable.

We see people who have ruined their lives and are grateful that we didn’t end up that way. That’s especially true if we almost succumbed to an addiction, or almost went down the path of corruption, or almost lived a life of fiscal malfeasance. We’re grateful we didn’t end up like those who did take those paths, for we recognize just how close we came to being just like them.

I am grateful that I did not end up like those who love with condition, like those who are driven by insecurities of many kinds and thus do harm to others trying to make themselves feel better. You know the type: super sensitive, always needing to be praised and recognized; otherwise, they lash out at people or hold contempt over them. I was once that way. And I am glad I am no longer that way.

So when I encounter people who are like that, what’s my reaction? Usually, strong aversion and a prayer a lot like this pharisee. Sigmund Freud said that what we hate the most about others is the same as what we hate the most about ourselves. That’s true for me, as exemplified when I run into people who remind me of the self I left behind.

And that’s human nature. But that doesn’t make it right. Jesus told this parable about me when he said, “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” That’s true of me more often than I’d like to admit.

I’d like to think that I’m always gracious, always empathic, but that’s not true. Sometimes, empathy is a choice; a hard one. Sometimes, I have to push aside the desire within me to reject someone else and not offer my empathy because I have such an aversion to them. Sometimes, I have to choose empathy.

Let us be clear about what we mean by empathy. It is often confused with sympathy, but they are not the same. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s pain. Empathy is experiencing their pain with them. Sympathy doesn’t require condescension. Empathy does. Sympathy doesn’t require the exalted to be humbled. Empathy does.

Empathy is powerful. To be truly empathic means to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. It means to use our imaginations and hearts to feel and experience life as the other person does. It means withholding judgment and contempt to try and understand what life must be like.

For the pharisee, it would have meant opening his heart and mind’s eye to consider what it must be like to be so guilty of so many sins and violent offenses against God that you come to temple and beat your breasts. Imagine someone, in response to a sermon, who comes down to this altar and weeps openly, shouting out to God, making a huge scene. Now imagine it’s the most corrupt person you know, or the most sinful person you know, or the worst kind of person you can imagine. That’s what this tax collector is doing this morning.

And the task is not to remain exalted, thanking God that we’re not like that person. The task is to be empathic, in humility recognizing that this person is in deep pain, that the Holy Spirit is moving powerfully in their life, and move with compassion to embrace them as a fellow human being.

Empathy is powerful. It says that we’re all connected as humans because we have all known the depth of pain and anguish, even if we haven’t done the same things. It recognizes that we’re all on journeys of life together. Some of us have easier journeys than others, but it doesn’t make us better. Blessings we have received, and the fact that we might live a more blessed life than others, should move us to compassion when we see someone suffering. We should choose empathy.

It’s easier to vilify than to empathize. And our news media, our social media, even sometimes our conversations, reinforce that villainy rather than creating empathy. That’s because it’s really easy to condemn a sin. It’s much harder to feel their pain.

Why? Because it’s much easier to stay high and lofty in our blessed, exalted, status than to humble ourselves and come down to the level of the hurting, suffering, villains of our lives to feel their pain, to understand their journeys, to walk a mile in their shoes.

But should we choose the path of humility, the path that seeks to walk a mile in the shoes of others no matter how offensive their sins and no matter how different they may be, we will feel a welling up of compassion. And that is what Jesus asks of us this morning.

In fact, that’s what Jesus has asked of us these past five weeks. We have heard sermons on different angles on self-righteousness. Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, condemns this sin more than any others. To be self-righteous is simply to think you’re better than others because you know God. That’s the opposite of God’s love. You can’t boast at the cross. And yet, through the sin of superiority, through believing ourselves to be blessed at the expense of others, in thinking that God has somehow chosen us over others and made us better, we have all been guilty of the self-righteousness. And the only proper response, after confession, is empathy.

It’s easy to say, “I’m blessed” when life is going well or when we see others whose lives demonstrate to us that our life is, indeed, going well. It’s good to be thankful for the blessings in our lives. But when those blessings cause us to be contemptuous, to look down our noses, to remain exalted rather than humbling ourselves, it’s time to choose empathy; it’s time to choose to walk a mile in the shoes of those “other people,” as the pharisee says.

Who are the villains in your life? Who is it easy for you to hate, or to hold in contempt? It might even be people you don’t know personally, but people you hear mentioned all the time on the news, on social media. It might be people you know personally. It might be family or friends or people who live in a certain neighborhood or people of a certain age group.

Whomever has come to mind for you, choose empathy. What is it like to walk a mile in their shoes?

For doing so will mean a growing compassion in your life. Doing so will mean forgiveness for your sin of contempt. Doing so will mean that you, the humble, will be exalted.

Choose empathy today.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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