In Luke 18, Jesus told a story about two men praying in the Temple. One prayed aloud for everyone to hear, thanking God that he was so blessed as to not be like other sinners gathered around him, especially that tax collector hiding in the corner. Meanwhile, that very same tax collector quietly weeped and confessed, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." Jesus praised the prayer and the attitude of the repentant tax collector over the prayer of the righteous show-off.
Most of the time, we think about this parable as a lesson about humility in faith. Today, though, the parable strikes me as a warning, a warning against superstars.
Centuries from now, when the history of Christianity is updated to tell the story of this millennium, I sincerely doubt the interview of a reality TV star in GQ will even make the footnotes. Nor, I imagine, will the starting status of Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin in New York sports, the 2012 sales figures for Chick Fil A, or the number of seasons "Touched By an Angel" was on television. However, these issues have again and again mobilized (American) Christians over the years to rise up in anger and protest. There was a time when the theological discussions that dominated culture as well as the church were questions about whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son or just the Father. Now, Christians rise to keep Phil Robertson on "Duck Dynasty."
I would hate to see the creed that movement spawns.
I understand it. Faith is so often equated with weakness, failure, and ignorance that, as Christians, we are ready to trumpet any and every success story where men and women of faith are still able to find worldly success. I even understand the desire to come along side a brother or sister who is being persecuted and stand with them, defend them from what we believe to be unjust persecution. I get that.
However, I believe that too often, in cases like this, the focus of so much of Christian passion and motivation becomes protecting status rather than encouraging faithfulness. In 2012, in the midst of the Chick Fil A controversy, what call went out to Christians? Go eat at Chick Fil A. Show all those people that Chick Fil A can still be successful and be faithful. But the emphasis was on their success.
Today, I have already seen the online petitions to boycott A&E until they allow Phil to return to "Duck Dynasty". I am just waiting for the call for all Christians to grow beards and wear camo as a show of their support. And when he returns, as I am sure he will, it will be trumpeted as a success of Christians uniting to make a difference. And what will be the difference we will have made? Phil Robertson will be back on TV.
We are so concerned about protecting our superstars, that we even mobilize for fights that nobody else showed up for. I remember years ago walking into the Fellowship Hall of the church where I was serving to see, pinned up on the bulletin board, a petition to save the television show "Touched by an Angel" from a atheist-initiated resolution before the FCC calling for the show's immediate cancellation. The petition already had a dozen or more signatures on it. Within 30 minutes, I had confirmed not only was there no such resolution, but that the supposed author of said resolution had died long before the show even came on the air.
Many Christians, were they in the Temple of Jesus' parable, would have been right there behind the self-righteous, flamboyant Pharisee saying, "Yes, indeed, this guy really does have it all. We need to make sure that he keeps it." This guy was the superstar, and many of us would be ready to make sure he stayed a superstar, thinking that our ability to keep him successful was a win for us all.
I know there are plenty of people who say that this is not about protecting superstars but about defending freedom of speech. This is about refusing to be silenced as Christians. This is about living out our faith without compromise. So here is my question: what will victory look like? Interesting enough, Jesus said that the heavenly hosts break into celebration not when the quarterback kneels in the end zone after scoring the touchdown but when one who had turned away from the love of God returns to His arms. Jesus said we are not blessed by being the #1 television show. As a matter of fact, what he said was, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12).
I wonder if everyone who is up in arms about the "persecution" of Phil Robertson ever considered being thankful for the blessing. (Sorry for the quotation marks, but somehow I have a hard time equating this kerfuffle to the plight of Christians who, in some places in the world today, would be put to death if their faith was known).
It is easy to buy our chicken nuggets, turn off our televisions, and say, "That'll show them." But what exactly what will we have shown them? I am not sure, but I feel pretty confident what we will not show them is the mercy of God that tax collector in the back of the Temple was pleading for. Tax collectors in Jesus' day were pretty successful guys. Along with the income they earned from the government, they usually charged a little extra to keep for themselves. The tax collector had it all, but he knew it was mercy, it was God, that he needed most in his life. It's there, in the back of the Temple, that the victory is found.
I am not against success. I do think it is great that there are people of wealth and power who live a Christ-like witness day in and day out. They, just as every believer who does unto the least of these, can look forward to that day when they will hear, "Well done, my good and faithful servant, now enter into the joy of your master." These people who are blessed with great spheres of influence are in as much need of support, encouragement, and love as any other member of the body of Christ. However, I think we should remember that their place in the body of Christ is more important than their salary and their popularity.
Some will read this and think I am calling Christians to go back into their little corners and sit quietly. As a matter of fact, I would love to see the exact opposite. We need to speak in a time such as this. We need to speak about a biblical view of sexuality. We need to speak about how Christians should live in a non-Christian culture. We need to speak about sin, grace, forgiveness, and holiness. We need to speak about the authority of Scripture and the witness of God's work in history. We need to speak about salvation and evangelism. We need to speak about humility. There is a lot we need be talking about right now, and there is a whole lot more listening we ought to be doing too (I believe the book of James has some good advice there). Probably should throw some confession and repentance in there as well. And prayer. Lots of prayer.
Maybe we start with this great prayer I heard in the back of the Temple.
"Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner."