This morning’s gospel lesson from Luke reminds me of two relatively new phrases I’ve learned in the last few years from Social Media: Humblebrag, and Virtue Signaling.
The first one, the humblebrag, is an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud. It is the opposite of humility, it is false humility.
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable went up to the temple to pray. And in his prayers, the Pharisee thanked God that he was not like the others, not like the sinners who are thieves, rogues, adulterers, or tax collectors. In his prayer, he shared that he tithed his earnings and fasted two days a week.
He was, in fact, separating himself from his neighbors on the self-professed belief that he was not a sinner. Even worse, it’s as if he was declaring himself righteous, when only God can do that.
The second phrase, virtue signaling, is similar: it is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue.
This, too is exactly what the Pharisee does at the temple: signals his self-professed virtue as being sin-free. His prayer indicates that he believes himself to be better than the others, more faithful than the others, more worthy than the others.
The great irony in all of this is that by humblebragging, by virtue signaling, the Pharisee is, in fact, sinning. By using false humility to show that he is not a sinner, the Pharisee has become a sinner!
The tax collector separates himself from the others too. Unable to look up toward heaven, beating his breast in punishment for his sins, the tax collector doesn’t think he’s worthy, knows himself to be a sinner in need of mercy.
Jesus proclaimed the tax collector who had acknowledged his sins, justified, or forgiven, at the end of the day, and proclaimed the Pharisee unjustified, or unforgiven, leaving us with the ominous phrase: “for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
Now, most of can be forgiven if we post something on Tik Tok, or Reels, or Facebook or Instagram showing off our latest project or recipe, something in which we have some pride…that’s not the problem. The problem is when we start to believe that we’re better than others.
We know, from studying scripture, that Jesus had a particular message for a particular group of people. Although he was instructing his disciples, the message was a pointed lesson for the Pharisees, the leaders of the faith community: don’t get caught up in thinking you’re better than others, or that others are sinners and you aren’t. And don’t think you get to decide whether you are justified in the eyes of God.
And though I can’t identify anyone in my sphere of influence who needs to hear this particular message, I suppose it’s not wasted if I use it as a reminder to myself that Jesus, and God, would prefer that I approach my faith as the tax-collector did: with humility and repentance.
The tax collector showed a level of faith maturity that the Pharisee did not: the ability to acknowledge one’s sins, and the need for God’s forgiveness are evident in the way the tax collector prays.
The self-righteous and judgmental person of power is actually sinning, while the repentant and humble sinner is forgiven of their sins.
A word of caution, for me as much as it is for anyone else: let us be careful that we not judge the Pharisees of the world, lest we find ourselves saying ‘thank God I’m not like those Pharisees, self-righteous humble-bragging virtue signalers!’
Even if we don’t know anyone like this in our immediate circle of friends and family, we can find them everywhere in celebrity circles, politics, anywhere the cult of personality rules.
And we may be tempted to thank God we aren’t like them, we may be tempted to brand them and condemn them and feel a bit of pride that we’ll never be like them.
But I say: let’s resist those impulses.
While humblebragging and virtue signaling are cringey behaviors in social media circles, they take on a more serious weight when they shift into self-righteousness and judgmentalism.
Of course, the growing portion of our modern society that thinks all Christians are humblebraggarts and virtue signalers can be forgiven their error: the most humble and faithful of God’s children are rarely in the spotlight, rarely giving sound-bytes on the local news, rarely posting their humility on social media.
A small fraction of the wider Christian community has highjacked the public image the world sees with their judgments and their pronouncements and their scorn for sinners.
While the majority of God’s faithful Christian children follow Jesus on a humble path, minding their own business, attending to their own sins and their own need for forgiveness, like the tax collector, the images most of the world sees are finger-pointing and name-calling.
I don’t think there is much we can do about that. I think the only thing we can do is to live our faith lives as humbly and as lovingly as we can. The more bold among us might take a stab at calling out the modern-day Pharisees, those that make a point to humblebrag or virtue signal their self-justifications, but for most of us, it’s good to worry less about the blow-hards, and worry more about our own personal relationships with God and our Lord and Savior.
There is a traditional Philippine story called the Story of Two Sons. It goes like this: A queen had two children. As she grew older, she wanted to pass on the monarchy to one of her two children, and make them her heir.
She assembled all the wise people of the land, and called her two children to present themselves. She gave them each 5 pieces of silver and told them: ‘By evening, I want you to have filled up this whole hall. What you fill it with is up to you. You can use the silver pieces if you have to’.
And the wise folk said: ‘This is a good task’.
The older child went off, and came to a field where the farm laborers were harvesting sugar beet, and putting it through a press. The remainder, after pressing, was discarded. So the older child made an arrangement with the head of the laborers to take all the discarded sugar beet and fill the hall with it. When the task was complete, they gave the head of the laborers the five pieces of silver, and told their mother that the task was done. There would be no need for their younger sibling to try. They had filled the hall. But their mother replied, ‘There is still time. We will wait.’
The younger child came back, and asked for the sugar beet remains to be moved out of the hall. They had nothing in their hands but a candle. When the hall was completely empty once more, they carried this candle into the middle of the hall, and lit it. Immediately, the whole hall was filled with light. Light streamed into every remote corner.
And the queen said to the younger child, ‘You shall be my heir. Your sibling has spent five pieces of silver to fill up the hall with useless rubbish. You haven’t used even a single piece of silver, yet you have filled the hall with light. You have filled it with the very thing that our people need above all else.’
When we have some quiet moments, and our thoughts turn to our faith lives, let’s see if we can’t be more like the younger sibling, bringing forth light from a humble candle.
There are plenty of people running around trying to fill the world with useless rubbish and then bragging about what they have accomplished.
It’s ironic that the impulse to humblebrag and virtue signal can often be traced to a person’s fears and anxieties. So their insistence on their superiority is actually based on their fear of being a failure.
It takes faith, trust, and confidence to act humbly and acknowledge our sins before God and our Savior. And it takes even more of the same to simply let the humblebraggers and the virtue signalers do their thing.
Let’s bring our humble candles into the great hall, and fill it with light. Let’s aim to live out our faith lives in humble appreciation for the forgiveness we are feely promised, when we repent of our sins. Amen.
For nearly 30 chapters, the prophet Jeremiah had written dire warnings to the people of Israel: keep behaving as you are, he said, and there will be serious consequences. Of course, nobody wanted to listen to him, and so, here, in the 32nd chapter, Jeremiah’s message comes to the people of Israel, and us, as the Babylonians are laying their ramps upon the walls of the city. The consequences of the people’s unfaithful behavior will be a 70 year occupation by one of the most brutal occupying forces in history.
Israel had hoped that Egypt, a sworn and mortal enemy of the Babylonians, would intervene, but alas, Egypt elected to stay out of the conflict.
So on the eve of destruction, so to speak, Jeremiah writes this story. A story about God telling him to buy a worthless piece of property from his cousin. Israel is about to be occupied by a ruthless military force for 3 generations, and God is telling Jeremiah to go out and buy some worthless land.
This story is both history and metaphor: we know that freedom and life were restored to the people of Israel, that they emerged from the occupation to conduct their lives, their business, their worship as faithful children of God. Jeremiah’s deeds, one sealed in a jar, and the other his story preserved in scripture, tell us that even as God’s punishment was at hand, God was making plans to restore Israel’s freedom, making plans to restore Israel’s relationship with God.
This scripture stands as a reminder that even as God changed the way God responds to unfaithful behavior, there are spiritual consequences to the way we live our lives.
We have Jeremiah’s prophetic voice, and some historical evidence that God indeed lifted the Babylonian occupation, and that commerce, community life, and faith life continued when the behavior of the children of God changed for the good.
There is still the possibility that we, that any of God’s children might fall into temptation and be trapped by the senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. Other scripture reminds us that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in the world’s eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. I can’t help but think of the large number of lottery winners, who, after years of playing and wishing and pursuing a big win, get one. And then promptly lose it all in squandered spending or ill-advised purchases. Too many lottery winners find themselves worse off than they were before they won.
Money in and of itself is not evil. Having money, even having a lot of it, isn’t inherently evil. It’s the love of money, the pursuit of riches to the exclusion of the faith life that is evil. And there are spiritual consequences for those who choose that path.
Once of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was the stress to and the collapse of the supply chains that helped manufacturers make their products. Is there anyone listening today that hasn’t been affected by that?
Now, I will disclose to all of you that I am in no way an economist, nor do I hold an advanced degree in business. Neither do I have hard statistics to back up what I am about to claim. But when I read that a large portion of our country struggles to make ends meet in the face of huge price increases, and at the same time read that many corporations are raking in record profits, I have to wonder if something is wrong.
I’m looking at industries that raised prices initially because of shutdowns. But when workers returned to their jobs, prices continued to rise. Inflation, as I understand it in my limited way, can be caused by too much demand, and too little supply. But when supply issues eased, prices continued to rise. I suspect that the pursuit of profit, which admittedly is the whole purpose of our capitalist system, has caused much of the economic pain we are experiencing now.
And the fear of losses, the fear of smaller profits is driving the wild fluctuations in our financial markets.
The richest corporations and individuals have multiplied their wealth during this historic pandemic, while the world has struggled to make ends meet. But in our economic system, that’s their job.
Oversimplification? Probably. But I believe there is a kernel of truth in our relationship to wealth as individuals and our spiritual health.
If Jeremiah was predicting a time of hope and prosperity on the eve of destruction, Luke was predicting the consequences of a life dedicated to the pursuit of riches. Riches will come and go, but God’s faithful love is here to stay. A life based on humility, honesty and faith is taking hold of a life that really is life.
Now, our gospel lesson gives us some advice on how we are to live our faithful lives. Luke records a story Jesus told about a rich man who lived his life ignoring the most vulnerable around him. We can surmise that the rich man had to go past, maybe even step over Lazarus, the sick beggar in order to come and go from his home.
Jesus tells a compelling story about the beggar going to heaven and the rich man going to Hades. The vivid imagery of the rich man writhing in the heat, thirsting for just a drop of water from the former beggar is striking: consequences and eternal rewards stem from the way we live our lives. But it gets better! The rich man wants to warn his brothers that they are in danger of a similar fate, and Jesus is pretty clear that the only warning we are going to get comes from the prophets like Jeremiah. If those warnings don’t convince us to pattern our lives in a faithful way, nothing will.
How do we share the gifts that God has given us? Who are the people outside our gate today? How do we treat them? Do we even see them?
Have we ever been Lazarus in this story? Have we ever been the rich man?
If we were to be recalled by our maker today, which place are we most likely to go?
If you’ve pledged to our church’s budget in the past, if you plan on pledging again, if you’ve volunteered to help the church raise money for our ministries, if you’ve prayed for the church to find its ministry within the community, if you’ve put loose change in the Pastor’s Discretionary jar, then you have already decided to live the life that really is life.
But can we, sitting here worshiping, giving to the causes that touch our hearts, really change a world that aches for the riches? A world that that craves excess? A world that judges a person’s worth based on a number in their bank account?
Everything I read in the Jeremiah passage and the gospel reading today tells me that yes, we can in fact make a significant change in the world’s wider approach to riches when we choose to live our lives faithfully.
God keeps God’s promises to those who live faithfully, those who attend to the people outside our gate. We won’t get warnings from beyond the grave from those who have gone before us, we already have the prophets and the faithful writers of the bible to tell us what we already know: living our lives faithfully, with God’s intent in our hearts wins over the blind pursuit of riches any day, and may have eternal consequences we cannot predict or imagine.
We need not worry about those who would mean us harm, or who live their lives outside of God’s covenant, it’s not for us to judge. Our only task is to pattern our lives and our living after those who guide us through scripture and faith.
Giving support to organizations that help our neighbors in need can change the world. Helping to feed the hungry, helping our neighbors rise above poverty, helping build tiny homes for good, sharing blessings in the form of food in a backpack.
Giving to support to our local faith community so that it can continue to serve the local and global community can change the world.
Seeing the people who are outside our gate is the first step. Helping the people outside our gate, understanding the people outside our gate, not judging the people outside our gate, loving the people outside our gate has major implications for the future of our church.
I don’t believe the richest corporations and the richest individuals in the world see the people outside their gate. Or if they do, they see them as potential targets to increase their profits or a nuisance when they block the gates.
What difference does living the life that is really life by sharing with our needy neighbors make? All the difference in the world. Amen.
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