“The Prius and the Publican”
October 28, 2007
Lake Harriet Christian Church
I admit it: I am a gearhead. I love cars. I guess that shouldn't be so shocking considering I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan a city that is know for making cars and the fact that both my parents worked for General Motors. I remember the excitement I would have going to a car dealer and seeing all the shiny new cars. I still love going car shopping, though I could do without some of the pushy car salesman.
I'm also an environmentalist. I try to recycle as much as I can, use flourescent lights and I currently drive a very fuel effiecent VW Jetta. I'm concerned about global warming and I want to do what I can to stem the damage.
The time is coming that I might want to look at another car. I've been thinking about various cars and thinking about their fuel mileage. I love the Dodge Charger, the reincarnation of the 70s muscle car, but as much as I like the stylish looks and powerful engine, it's not the most “green car” out there. I've thought about getting another diesel powered Jetta which will get even better milelage than my current diesel VW. Lately, I've been thinking also about the Toyota Prius because it's a hybrid and also because I'm looking for something in the hatchback/station wagon design.
Now, I have to say I am a bit hesitant about getting a Prius even though it satisfies my green thumb. What has me hesitating is that I don't want to appear to showy or ostentatious.
Let me explain. As global warming becomes a greater issue, people are choosing hybrids. Not a bad thing, in fact that's a good thing. What is interesting is that some hybrid vehicles are more equal than others.
In a July 4 article in the New York Times, shows that the main reason people by Toyota's green machine is to make a statement. In a survey done this year, 57 percent of Prius owners said they bought the car because “it makes a statement about me.” That higher than fuel economy which came in at 36 percent, and even lower emissions which came in at 25 percent. “I really want people to know that I care about the environment,” said Joy Feasley of Philadelphia, owner of a green 2006 Prius. “I like that people stop and ask me how I like my car.” The Prius is outselling other hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Camry and the Honda Civic. Mary Gatch of South Carolina chose the Prius over the hybrid Camry because...well, I will her speak for herself: “I felt like the Camry Hybrid was too subtle for the message I wanted to put out there,” Ms. Gatch said. “I wanted to have the biggest impact that I could, and the Prius puts out a clearer message.”
Today's gospel at first doesn't seem to have anything to do with people buying a car, but in fact it does. Jesus tells a parable about two men. At the beginning we are told the reason Jesus tells us this story was because some trusted in themselves and held others with contempt. Anyway, two men go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee and the other is a tax collector. The Pharisee prays to God and thanks God that he is not like all the bad people in the world, thieves, rouges...or this tax collector. The tax collector stands off at a distance and doesn't even look up to heaven. He says, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus says this one went home justified.
Now, you have heard me say this enough that you are probably sick of it, but parables are not moral tales, but showing us the world in God's eyes. If you walk away from this sermon thinking Pharisee=bad and tax collector=good, then I have failed you in helping to understand what this passage is saying.
A lot of people see the Pharisees as stock villians, but that is too simple. In doing some reading about this passage, we find out that the Pharisees are responsible for basically keeping Judaism alive and prospering. The Pharisee in this story was probably not a bad person, but trying to do good. He was trying to follow the law handed down by Moses and was trying to make sure that the Jews were trying to uphold their law in the midst of an alien power that controlled the land.
When you are involved in a cause, it is so easy for pride to start creeping in. We are doing something good and we start to see those that aren't part of the cause as somehow less than worthy. So you have this religious leader, doing what he can to keep the community faithful and sitting next to him is this tax collector. Tax collectors of that day worked for the Roman Empire, so they were seen as collborators. In addition, they also collected more than what the government wanted and pocketed the extra money. So, they conspired with the enemy and they extorted money. That didn't endear them to the community. If you were the Phraisee and this traitor was sitting next to you, you might even say the same thing he said. He was doing what he could to keep the community together. The tax collector was doing all he could to help destroy it.
Now, we all want to identify with the tax collector who was humble. But that's the problem; because in reality, we are closer to the Pharisee than we would like to think.
Pride is a funny thing; it's so insidious that you don't know how full of yourself you can be. If you want to see a place where pride is operating in full force, just go to church. The issues that we get involved in, whether it's the Iraq War or homosexuality, is full of people on both sides who are “full of it.” We tend to think and say to God, “thank God I am not like those liberals or conservatives or fundamentalists, or Democrats or Republicans,”or what have you.
The Bible says that the tax collector went home justified. He went home justified because he knew that the only One that could save him, that could have mercy on him was God. He went home justified by faith. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Church at Ephesus, it is by grace that we are saved through faith.
We human beings tend think it is what we do that makes us justified. But we are justified not by our works but by what Jesus has done on the cross. By grace we are saved though faith.
Concerning the Prius owners, I am not saying people should not buy the car. We all should be considering choices that will not hurt God's earth. However, there is something wrong about wanting to buy are car to make a statement about how good you are. In a way, that seems close very close to the Pharisee's own pride.
The thing is, even though we are prideful beings, God still loves us.
For our Lutheran brothers and sisters, today is Reformation Sunday. It is the Sunday they remember when a young monk by the name of Martin Luther pounded his document called 95 Theses on the door of a building in Germany. As I was putting together this sermon, I was reminded of a saying attributed to Luther as he was asked if he would recant his beliefs which were considered hertical. He said to have replied, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
Here we stand. We try to seek God's will and seek to do justice and be merciful in the world. But as Luther, we are called to do this with humility. Because in the end, it's not what we do that saves us, whether that's tithing or buying a Prius, it is our faith in the one that loves us even when we are self-righteous.
He we stand. We can do no other. God help us all. Amen.