So, every week, when I'm preparing for a sermon, I ask these two questions (among others): What is the basic human trouble in this text? How am I in trouble? I thought I'd just type in what I'm thinking about for these two questions this week:
We value righteousness more than repentance. We value getting it right, doing it right, and looking right, incredibly higher than admitting that we've gotten it wrong.
This leads us to value "righteous" people over "sinners." This leads us to create lots of rules to decide who is righteous and who is not. This leads us to spend our time with the righteous folk. If we really want to be right, we easily slip into the self-defeating trap of pursuing right rules and rule keeping instead of pursuing people. God asks us to pursue people. This is righteousness.
Maybe the trouble is that we've misunderstood righteousness. Maybe the thing we are pursuing, the thing we think is righteousness, maybe this is not righteousness at all. Maybe repentance is the heart of righteousness. Maybe true holiness is no more than to be a repentant sinner who inspires repentance in others.
Maybe we've missed the boat with this emphasis on holiness and righteousness. I think holiness should drive us closer to sinners, not farther from them. Maybe holiness should make us more like the world on the outside and more like God on the inside. Maybe we've got it all wrong - like God on the outside, but like the world on the inside.
Maybe the basic problem is that we've separated righteousness and Jesus. To be righteous is to follow Jesus. Righteousness is not a list of rules. Jesus might have broken the rules anyway. Maybe what we really need to get back to is simply following Jesus, following Jesus to the poor, to the broken, to the lost, to the hungry, to the Pharisees, to the Father.
But for this text, there is no talk of following Jesus - just righteous and sinners, Pharisees and judgment, repentance and joy. What is the problem here? The basic problem seems to be a misunderstanding of true righteousness as separateness. The Pharisees thought true righteousness meant withdrawing from any sinful act and any sinful person, to be holy and without fault. True righteousness is (or may be) moving toward all people, recognizing our attachment and commonness with sinners, and from this place of togetherness, inviting a return to God. The problem is viewing righteousness as separateness rather than togetherness.
I'm in trouble here because I'm pretty isolated from the unchurched. I don't have a single close friend who doesn't go to church. If righteousness is "togetherness" with all people, then I'm not very righteous. I need to get together with more sinners.
Another part of the trouble is that the religious stuff and other activities of life still scream for attention and demand our time, so that it is really hard to actually get out there and form relationships with people who aren't in our Christian circles. I really struggle with this as a pastor, but I don't think this job offers me an exemption to following Jesus in every way, including following Jesus to the lost and to the broken. I'm in trouble.