Spiritual authority is a slippery thing. Talking about it is like talking about an object nobody can quite define. When you think you have it, you don’t have it. And lots of people think they have it. It’s the people who are humble, grounded, and centered in God’s love who have the real spiritual authority, and because they are humble, grounded, and centered in God’s love, they don’t go around telling everybody about it all the time. See the contradiction? Spiritual authority may the one thing a person can have that they can’t correctly claim to have. Other people can see it in you, you can see it in other people, but the second you tell someone you have spiritual authority, you’ve probably lost it.
The irony of this moment is not lost on me. I’m standing up here preaching about spiritual authority today, and I’m finding it to be a very tricky dance. In our traditional way of thinking, the person who stands up here and shares some thoughts on the readings at this point in the service is someone who has some spiritual authority, some training, and some agreed-upon gifts. To do this on a regular basis, you have to be ordained or licensed by the bishop. It’s the church’s way of making sure the preaching meets up to a certain standard. But you and I both know that whatever model of authority allows me to stand here and talk right now can’t protect us from sloppy interpretation of scripture, from poorly thought out ideas, or from sermons delivered with less-than-angelic-intentions.
We have to hold our spiritual authorities loosely, because everyone is human, and the standard of spiritual perfection cannot be applied to humans. The idea of being a spiritual authority makes me nervous. It actually scares me. And yet I also love to stand here and talk about God. I went to school for a long time learning how to talk about God, because I love to talk about God and I believe that the way we talk about God matters a lot, and I think sometimes I’m pretty good at it. But I’m pretty uncomfortable with being seen as anything more enlightened than a guy who is trying his best. That feels dangerous. Not a special sort of danger in viewing me as a spiritual authority, but a more categorical danger in viewing anyone as a spiritual authority. If I give a good sermon, that’s good, and if I give a not-so-good one, which I’d never do on purpose but that’s not the point… it happens, and I implore you to be discerning and critical enough to decide which is which.
But then see what I just did? I shrugged the pressure of preaching off of my own shoulders and put it on yours. Now you’re the spiritual authority. I just passed it off to you. What are we going to do? What on earth am I doing up here?
This Gospel passage, you may have noticed, pins us in a paradox. Like last week, it tells us exactly what it’s doing: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” So you know the parable is going to knock these folks down a rung or two. We have a Pharisee, who is a member of a group that practices a pretty legalistic form of Judaism, concerned with the proper carrying out of ritual sacrifices and religious practices. And we have a tax collector, whose work is considered sleazy and unethical. Tax collectors notoriously collected more than they were supposed to, in order to pad their own wallets. These men are headed to the temple to pray.
You would expect, from the setup, for the Pharisee to be the more spiritually attuned one. Granted, Pharisees are kind of a straw man in the Gospel narratives, but still, this is a religious person trying to do what is good. We, perhaps, can relate. The Pharisee’s prayer is unsavory, though. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” It’s unsavory, but it’s not unfamiliar.
Without a show of hands, I think we can all admit to having some thoughts like this. Certainly we all have moments of thinking that our religious practices and observances make us better than other people. After all, behind the language of service and praise, we do these things because they help us. So why wouldn’t we assume that they actually make us better? What’s the point in all this religion business if it doesn’t make us better?
The counterpoint comes in the tax collector’s prayer. It’s much simpler. He beats his breast and says “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And Jesus tells us that the tax collector went home justified.
The spiritual movement of addressing oneself to God is not one of putting yourself on a pedestal a little closer to heaven. It is of humbling yourself, of planting your feet on the ground, in the dirt, the humus, that which makes us human and humble. The Pharisee had the theological education and knew the rubrics, but the tax collector is the spiritual authority of this pair.
This feels like a paradox because it runs counter to the instincts that have been drilled into muscle memory for us as members of society. In a time when the myth of the self-made man still captivates people and financial reward is literally earned by capitalizing on things others didn’t see and then widening the gap between you and them as soon as possible, the idea of lowering yourself is weakness. There’s the populist performative humbling, the “I just want to help the team” that the athlete says or the “I just want to serve this great nation” that the politician says, but let’s look at the business those folks are engaged in and just drop the facade. Competition makes our society tick. And yet, and yet, and yet…
It’s spiritually destructive. Because it moves in the wrong direction. God is not “up there,” but is in fact right here. God’s love is not given in greater measure to major donors or vocal prayers or Bible belters, but is given to each of us, right here in our lives as people, as humans, as dust drifting aloft on the breath of life. The desire for more exclusive access to God is a distortion of grace.
In a couple of minutes, we will confess our sins together. A slightly more verbose way of saying “God, be merciful to us, sinners.” We will do it because the act of confessing, of asking for mercy, orients us to God where God’s life actually meets ours. It orients us to Jesus. God meets us in our brokenness, in our shortcomings, in our fragile humanity. We will confess our sins to prepare ourselves for communion, where we come forward with empty hands outstretched, seekers yearning for completeness.
We do it together because we are together. Religion means that which binds us together, and it is this understanding of our humanity in relationship with God that binds us together. We perform these gestures and rituals against the grain of our world to remind ourselves of the deeper movement, the spiritual undercurrent of humanity that yearns for a love and a fulfillment that competition can never deliver. We perform the act of compassion, that is, of suffering-with one another, and this room filled with potential rivals and competitors for God’s favor is transformed into a gathering of beautiful and brilliant and faltering people, all doing our human best to do our human best. We perform the act of compassion and something happens. Not quite an elevation, but a deepening. The space becomes sacred, thick with the threads of connection and divinity, and perhaps something can be felt, and perhaps we will call that something God. Or perhaps we will leave it unnamed and invite it to speak to our hearts.
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This paradox is the entry into a sacred space built not around a person’s spiritual authority or around a sermon, but around the gift of honest, feet-in-the-dirt humanity pouring forth from each person here. The people who are trying to be spiritual authorities are missing the real show.