“Owning Up to Our Own Darkness and Light


A sermon preached on October 28, 2007 based upon Luke 18:9 – 14, entitled, “Owning Up to Our Darkness and Light.”

For me, this is one of the truly tough parables to take in. Here’s what I try to do to make it more palatable:

The Pharisee, whom Jesus tells us went home from the Temple cut off from God, well, he must have been a stuck up, pompous ass. I imagine him with no sense of humor — no real friends. He’s one of the guys who conspired to get Jesus killed. Surely I am not the Pharisee. I tell jokes. I have friends. Jesus is my pal.

And then the tax collector — I picture him as basically a nice guy who has made some mistakes for which he feels sorry. He’s easy to be with; the kind of guy you’d love to have as a friend if you just got the chance to get to know him; basically misunderstood, but when you get down deep, just like the rest of us.

And I take comfort hearing that he came away from the temple justified, forgiven, okay in God’s book.

No. I don’t think so. The Pharisee is a truly honorable man. He lives a disciplined life that makes it possible for him to do a lot of good in this world; he gives away a good portion of his money to help others, he has never done anything overtly cruel in his life. He’s faithful to his wife. He keeps his word. You ask him to do something and if he says yes, you know he will do it. He probably has friends — lots of friends — and yes, he probably knows how to tell a joke.

And the tax collector: The comfort of his lifestyle has been built on the suffering of others. He has robbed the poor to make himself rich.

So here’s the thing. I want to imagine myself as being among those who come away from the Temple right with God, when in fact my life has a peculiar resemblance to that of the Pharisee, the one Jesus shakes up his listeners by saying he came away condemned.

It seems to me that this parable calls for a good deal of introspection, so in advance, I beg your forgiveness that I will be using myself as my primary sermon illustration, since, for better or for worse, my life is the one I know best.

Objectively speaking, I am one of the more honest people I know. I had a hard time when my kids reached a certain age and would ask me, “Tell me Daddy, is Santa Claus real?” because I was so uncomfortable with the concept of deceiving my kid, worrying that my kid would later conclude, “Hey, if Dad lied to me about Santa Claus, what else might Dad lie to me about?”

You can ask my wife: one of the ways I won her heart early on in our courtship was the manner in which I gave her a gift of a bracelet I had bought. It wasn’t the bracelet itself that touched her — as I recall, it was pretty cheap. Rather, it was the fact that I prefaced the giving of the gift by confessing that I hadn’t actually bought the bracelet for her. I actually bought it for another woman, but since my relationship with this other woman had broken off, I wanted her to have it instead. Now, given her own personal history with a previous relationship in which the man had played fast and loose with the truth, Sarah found my honesty about the gift so refreshing that she was utterly charmed by me.

Now I can’t say I’ve never told a lie, because that might well be a lie, and I try my best not to tell lies. I know for sure I’ve told plenty of what we call “white lies” — unfortunately I probably tell them pretty routinely, as do we all, but the point here is, as I said, objectively speaking, from what I can tell, I worry more about telling the truth than most people.

The last time I recall having stolen anything was when, at the age of maybe ten I found myself in a five-and-dime store in the company of some popular kids who gave the impression that they shoplifted there all the time, and so I pocketed something for which I hadn’t paid. Afterwards I was riddled by guilt, and later on when the same store short-changed me on a purchase I made, I didn’t complain, figuring I was just making amends.

I’ve never killed anyone. And I’ve never committed adultery.

Now, all of what I’ve just told you is objectively true. The question, then, is what am I to make of these “facts?” What do they mean?

Well, one possible response is to pat myself on the back, to pride myself in what a good man I am, and to look down on others who have fallen short of the standard I‘ve managed to keep, which, I can assure you, I’ve done plenty of in my life — especially when I’m under stress, which, unfortunately, feels like a good portion of life.

This, of course, was the reaction of the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, so the parable is, in fact, about me.

In my more reflective moments — in those moments when I give the Holy Spirit room to move in my inner thoughts — I realize that there is something quite self-deceitful about this self-righteous response, and that there are a couple of other things to consider in regard to what I have referred to as the “facts”.

First, we all are given by God the particular set of brains with which we find ourselves. Each brain is wired distinctly, with a unique combination of what we could call strengths and weaknesses which are simply there from the “get go”. We didn’t “earn” them, or “achieve” them, they were simply “given” to us. Call it DNA if you will. For better or for worse, God wired my particular brain with a certain hypersensitivity that leads me to readily tune into the feelings and reactions of others.

One of the good things about such a brain is that it lends itself to such qualities as honesty and fidelity, because my brain just doesn’t tolerate guilt well, and I will go out of my way to avoid feeling guilt.

If God gave me such a brain, in a certain sense, I have no right to take credit for it. To do so would be a little like someone who just happens to be tall feeling superior to someone who just happens to be short, as though tallness and shortness was some kind of achievement. Or like a naturally fast runner priding herself for being faster than someone who is just naturally slower. The pride has no basis in reality.

The same can be said about the blessings of having been given good role models in our parents or in our church. These aren’t things we can take credit for; there are simply things for which to give God thanks.

Brains like mine, however, have their down sides. Hypersensitivity can go hand in hand with timidity, and that too has been a part of my life. And so if I have avoided some of the sins of commission, there are sins of omission I’ve committed along the way as well, because that same hypersensitivity held me back.

Now the second thing to consider in regard to my ability up to this point to refrain from murder, stealing, adultery, and to a some degree, lying is to remind myself that it has been my good fortune not to be lead into the kind of severe temptations that would be, so to speak, pretty irresistible.

Each day, Jesus said, pray these words: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”, the point being, we all have our breaking point. If we don’t think so, then we are those who, as the scripture passage says at the outset, for whom Jesus told this parable — people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.” (Luke 18:9)

Looking at somebody else who has stumbled, the only truly accurate response is to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I was fortunate not to be lead into irresistible temptation.

If I haven’t murdered anyone, (yet), thank God I haven’t been tempted more severely to do so. If I haven’t stolen, thank God I’ve never come to the point where I felt I needed to. If I haven’t committed adultery, well, you get the picture.

Just as an aside: When asked if she had ever been tempted to commit adultery in her marriage, Dr. Joyce Brothers responded, “Adultery? No. Murder? Yes.”

Implicit in all this is the fact that the potential for all these sins lies within all of us.

Jesus was making this point when, in the Sermon in the Mount, he said that if you have ever felt anger in your heart, then, in essence, you are no different from a murderer, and if you have ever experienced lust, well then you are, in essence, an adulterer.

Inside of each of us, a deep darkness lives. Those of us who aspire to be “good” are perpetually tempted to deny the presence of the darkness — to pretend there is only light inside us.

Jesus recognized that one of the primary techniques we use for denying the presence of the darkness within ourselves is by focusing our attention on the darkness we see in others. In that same sermon on the mount, he says,

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the long in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3 – 5)

When we don’t own up to our own darkness, then our darkness has a way of spilling out in ways we hadn’t intended, as in the hard heart the Pharisee develops that doesn’t let God get close.

Life is funny, though. The fact of the matter is that both characters in Jesus’ parable live inside all of us. There are times when, like the Pharisee, we impress ourselves, and in arrogance we look down on others.

But there are also times when we look at ourselves and our reaction is more akin to the tax collector: All we see is sin; all we see are our faults, our shortcomings, our hypocrisies. All we see is the darkness. And we are tempted to judge ourselves to be a worthless piece of cow dung.

This, too, is inaccurate.

There is darkness within us, yes, but there is light as well; a light that comes from being made in the image and likeness of God.

We human beings are truly amazing; full of mystery. We are constantly trying to reduce the mystery of who we are, and one of the primary ways we do this is by trying to fit ourselves and others into nice, tidy “black and white” categories of basically “good people” and basically “bad people.” Simultaneously, we all have capacities for great goodness and great evil. Inside of each of us there is a Hitler but there is also a Mother Teresa.

How does the Mother Teresa part grow stronger? By facing up to the presence of the Hitler. Trying to hide Hitler in the closet, pretending he doesn’t exist, doesn’t work. It just gives him more time to plot devious, insidious schemes for wreaking havoc in our lives and our relationships.

On the other hand, on those days when all we can see is our inner Hitler, know that there are great untapped potentials for good, for love and creativity placed within ourselves by God that we’re just not letting ourselves see. (This, too, is a kind of pride.)

Jesus finished his parable by saying,
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

All who exalt themselves (that is, see only the light, refusing to face the darkness) — well, they will be humbled (which is to say, they will find that life has a way of forcing them to come face to face with the darkness within, whether they like or not.) But those of us who embrace life‘s humbling, (that is, face up to the darkness within) — we will find that beyond the darkness there is a light that no darkness can diminish… that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, including our own darkness.

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