There once was a boy who went to church. Every Sunday. He went to church because his family said, “this is what we do.” They put money in the collection plate because his parents said, “this is what we do,” and the boy put in his pennies too. They volunteered at the church bake sales and rummage sales and clean-up Saturdays because his parents said “this is what we do.”
And sometimes, spoken or unspoken, he knew his parents meant “This is what our family does because we are not like those other families, the ones down the street that sleep in on Sundays and spend all their money on themselves and stay home and watch TV instead of helping others.” And the boy grew up thanking God that he was not like those other people.
But the boy did grow up, and came to see that there were other ways to live in the world. When he was in high school and college, he learned about the root causes of poverty, and he went on mission trips to places in the world where people did not even have TV’s, and he helped build houses in neighborhoods where his parents had never ever dared to drive. He learned about climate change and colonialism and feminism and different sexual orientations.
And with his youth group or his college group he’d pray for people who were victims to racism and poverty, and he’d give thanks that he had the advantages he had in life. But most of all he’d give thanks that he was no longer like those people with whom he’d grown up, who were parochial and judgmental and believed that God was on their side. They were “nice” in a bourgeois sort of way, but it was clear to him now that they used God to reinforce their racism and their sexism and their suspicion of outsiders. He’d thank God that his eyes had been opened to social justice and that he now had a more genuine grasp of what Jesus was about. He’d thank God he was not like those other Christians.
As time went on, the young man became not so young. He still cared deeply about justice and remembered with fondness the fervor he’d had in his younger years. But now he had a mortgage to pay and children to send to college. He put his vote where his faith was and tried to remember to give regularly to causes he cared about. He recycled and signed petitions and sometimes even wept about the headlines.
The not-so-young man didn’t go to church as often because there was so much else to do, but when he did go he made sure to go to the right kind of church, one that supported his values and which taught his own children good things like inclusion and recycling. He wasn’t so sure about a lot of the other beliefs his church taught. How could you be sure of anything in such a diverse world? He wasn’t even really sure how to pray anymore, but he knew it was important to be grateful. Grateful that he wasn’t filled with hate like the neighbors who went to that fundamentalist church. Grateful that he wasn’t one of those religious fanatics. Grateful that even though he wasn’t much of a churchgoer he still had values of respect and responsibility. Thank God, he thought, that I’m not like those other people.
"But the tax collector would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified.”