A recent edition of Insight on SBS contained an interview with the son of the World War 2 Nazi governor of Poland, the son of a man who had played a major role in the death of millions. When asked what he thought now of his father, he replied “I despise him.” “Why?” “Because he knew what was going on and it would have been easy for him to quit on grounds of ill-health, but he did not.”
The interview ran through my mind as I was preparing a sermon recently on the story of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector, the beautiful vignette of two people praying in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14). Tax collectors were an essential component in the transfer of wealth in the Roman Empire from the conquered territory to Rome. Like the Nazi official, they were agents of enormous suffering. Today we might compare them with someone like the Ice supplier, peddling drugs to teenagers on behalf of a cartel. In the gospel story, however, the Tax-Collector is the one who comes out looking good. He is the one with whom most Christians would like to identify! The Pharisee, on the other hand, actually would seem like a much nicer bloke. Pharisees were respected members of society who tried to make religion accessible to all. This one tithed, which is a bit like contributing to social welfare, and fasted, that is, not obsessed by possessions and materialism.
What is it that makes the difference in the story? The Pharisees prays “I thank you, God that I am not like those others …” and then lists a group of unsavoury stereotypes, including tax collectors and rogues. The Pharisee’s source of esteem is that he is different, better than, others. He has divided the world into good and bad, he has drawn clear lines, and built walls that reject others and put them outside of care. Imagine the difference if he had prayed “I thank you, God, that you have given me enough wealth and opportunity to be able to help others.”
In October, Scots once again took hold of an opportunity to help others. Marriage Equality, legalising the marriage of same sex couples, has been in the news for a while. There is no consensus among Christians about it. Some oppose it, saying it is a sin. Some question the extent to which Christians can demand secular society follow certain values. Others hesitate at the word “marriage.” Still others support marriage equality. Unfortunately, the self-styled “Christian” lobby that opposes marriage equality is the one that gets consistent media attention as representative of “The Church” and all “Christians.” This creates a very skewed view of Christianity for many people. In the public eye, Christians end up looking like the Pharisee in the story, self-righteous and condemnatory.
At the same time, many people in the gay community are feeling hurt by the way the debate is being carried on. They feel a sense of rejection, as if they are worse than the Tax-Collector. Gay Christians are in a particularly awkward situation. Being gay and being Christian are two important components of their identity, yet some Christians reject them for being gay, and some gays cannot understand their faith.
How can we maintain the integrity of our call to love our neighbour, respect difference and offer support in this complex situation? The Church Council at Scots decided to display a simple banner on the Pulteney Street notice board, with the words “Not all Christians oppose marriage equality.” It was felt that this was perhaps the most moderate, most respectful, and least confrontational way of rejecting the secular caricature of the Christian position and indicating the diversity of views among Christians. It reminds passers-by of a simple fact, without pretending that our congregation (or the Uniting Church) has a single view on the issue. More importantly, it offers a word of pastoral support to those hurt by the issue – you are not alone, you are accepted. It is proposed to alternate this banner with the “Love thy neighbour” one.
What are your thoughts on this action and the wording on the banner? I invite you to share them with me or a Council member.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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