Friday, October 22, 2010

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

(Luke 18:9-14)

How intentional would we be about environmental stewardship if we considered the needs of others as much as we consider our own comparatively short-term self interest? This question came to me as I thought about yesterday’s reflection in Forward Day By Day.

The reflection was on the story of the Good Samaritan, but the author of the reflection (written in 1967 and republished as part of Forward’s 75th anniversary retrospective) brought in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector to make a point. This latter parable (Luke 18:9-14) is the Gospel lesson for this Sunday. The author’s point in the comparison was this: in both parables, Jesus says that someone who was scrupulously observant of the Law is not acting rightly because he is either ignoring or despising others. The Pharisee in Sunday’s parable actually stands in the temple giving thanks to God that he isn’t like other people, those less pure people like the tax collector standing near him.

The author of this 1967 reflection wrote: “[W]hat wonders would take place if we demanded of our elected representatives that human need, rather than self-interest, be the only criterion in politics, in social welfare, and in international relations!”  We can ask the same question of ourselves as we look at pollution and climate change and consider – all too slowly – how and whether to make changes that would give us a chance at long-term sustainability.  

Coal train in Nebraska
Does it matter whether we switch to a greener economy because we become convinced that it’s in our own short-term best interest, that’s there’s money to be made in wind or solar energy; or because we look ahead and realize our current economy isn’t sustainable and so it’s in our long-term best interest to make some changes; or because we love the Creator, and so love the creation and the connection to God we experience through it; or because we hear the cries of God’s children in other places who are already suffering the effects of climate change and pollution?  Does it matter whether we do it for our own self-interest or out of love? Secular environmentalists and some religious environmentalists think that the reason doesn’t matter; what matters is that we make the change before it’s too late. That’s tempting, but Jesus taught that what’s in our hearts matters.

Knowing the benefits to ourselves of being greener helps make the changes easier, but if self-interest is our only reason for action, it’s not what Christ asks of his followers. Moreover, at any point where the going gets tough, I might decide that my self-interest lies elsewhere and decide to go back to the old ways.

But maybe the distinction between selfishness and love collapses with the last sentence of this Sunday’s lesson: “[A]ll who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” From Christ’s perspective, choosing to put ourselves first is always a short-term choice. Healthy love for ourselves is intertwined with love for God and love our neighbor. Self-love that is divorced from love for others eventually shows itself to be something else, something other than love.

Take time to smell the mums!