So, You Think You're Good? Why Your Virtue Signals And Self-Righteousness Count For Nothing

Text: Luke 18:9-14

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

God, I thank you that I am not like those conservatives: capitalists, racists, science deniers, homophobes, and fascists.  I wear my mask, I social distance; I care about police brutality, racism, minorities, and economic equality.  Thank you, God, I am not like those conservatives. 

God, I thank you that I am not like those liberals: socialist, secularists, atheists, radical feminists, and anarchists.  I use common sense; I follow the law; I care about order, fairness, family, and equal opportunity.  Thank you, God, I am not like those liberals.

Dear friends, as you and I already know, America is extremely divided.  However, what you may not know is that the majority of the conflict is ‘not’ rooted in the differences between opposing political theory, economic systems, and social issues.  But instead, the conflict is rooted in something quite obvious but often overlooked.  The conflict is rooted in people’s self-righteousness.  In other words, when we find people slinging mud at each other on social media and television, well… there is a very good chance that the mudslinging is not over political theory, economic systems, and social issues.  Most Americans do not know enough about these things to have a meaningful debate on these subjects.  However, we Americans sure fight with others when they say their political party is better than the one we support.  We sure get defensive when family members, like Uncle Bob,  mock one of our political or social leaders.  The gloves go off.  The fists go up.  And the reason why?  We Americans have a very strong need to justify ourselves – to be right. 

Dear friends, do not let anyone tell you that Americans are not moral.  We are indeed, very moral.  In fact, all of humanity is very concerned with being good, right, and whole.  No matter the person, everyone has this ingrained need to consider themselves as being right – morally good.  We need to be right in our minds, and it sure feels good when we know that everyone else around us is stupid, wrong, and immoral.    

Now, keep in mind that God’s Word has a lot of things to say – things that certainly shed light on the issues of politics, economics, and social issues; however, that is not the main focus of the reading from the Gospel of Luke. 

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about a Pharisee.  And what we observe in the actions and words of the Pharisee is the human condition - the need to justify ourselves – to be morally good and right.  Simply stated, the Pharisee trusts in himself and what he is about.  The way that he lives his life, the way that he acts and talks, and the way he thinks – it is morally good and right.  And those who do different from him and his right way?  Well, they are obviously inferior to him.  If they don’t see things his way or do things his way, well… they are wrong.  They are losers.  They are stupid.  They are corrupt.  And just in case someone would dare question how right and good the Pharisee is, he displays his virtue and goodness for all to see.  He fasts twice a week and gives away 10% of his money.  These are his virtue signals; they are visible things he does to show everyone else outwards that he is morally right and good.  And there is a catch; no one can question the Pharisee’s goodness because his virtue signals prove that he is a good guy. 

Now, it is easy for us to pick on this Pharisee today, for it is obvious that he is living in an awful delusion.  He has used his own standards of what he thinks is right, declared himself good, and made everyone else immoral.  He has declared himself to be king… to be right… to be the good one. 

Now, Jesus does not address this in the parable, so one can only imagine.  But let us imagine for a moment if a Sadducee came to the temple that day to pray, and stood next to the Pharisee.  And let us imagine the Sadducee praying out loud:

“God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisees.  I fast not two times a week but three times a week and give not 10% of my income but 20% of my income.  Thank you, God, that I am not like those Pharisees.” 

Wow, can you imagine? 

I do not think the Pharisee standing next to him would have said,

“Mr. Sadducee, I couldn’t help but hear you pray.  My, my, that  is impressive, well done.”  

No, I don’t think so! 

Instead, there would be a theological and moral cage fight – potentially to the death.  Words would be exchanged.  Virtue signals would drop on the table, and conflict would be everywhere!

And this is why we fight so much in our culture today.  We are a bunch of moralistic Pharisees thinking that we are better than those who are different from us.  And when we are challenged, the spirit of Cain comes out in all of us, making us want to fight.  We want blood.  We want those who challenge us to suffer and die. 

How dare they challenge our righteousness! 

How dare they say we are wrong! 

How dare they second guess us and our intelligence, work, goodness, and credentials!

Now, please understand that there is nothing wrong with debating political theory, economic systems, and social issues.  These are indeed a part of your vocation as citizens.  You should debate and think about these things.  However, the point that is being made is that we easily become a bunch of political, economic, and social Pharisees.  You see, you can be 100% correct in your theology, good works, politics, piety, economics, and social concerns… and still, be a smug, self-righteous Pharisee.  We must understand this crystal clear; even though we may be right, we are not justified by anything with think, say, or do.  Righteousness before God does not come from our political party, our economic theories, or even how right we are.  This is why Jesus clearly tells us in the Gospel reading that the Tax Collector – not the Pharisee – went away justified that day. 

Think about that for a moment. 

The Pharisee crossed his T’s and dotted his I’s. As a Pharisee, he tithed, fasted, kept the Sabbath, and loved God’s Law, but was not declared righteous.  Sure, the Pharisee told himself that he was good, acted like he was good, and virtue signaled to everyone else that he was good, but he was not good before God.  He was not good because he put confidence in himself while regarding others with contempt. 

Baptized Saints, there is only one kind of righteousness that declares you good.  That righteousness is Jesus.  And so, if you think you are better than your neighbor because of your views, political theories, economic systems, or social agendas, you are a Pharisee and need to repent.  If you think that your actions – your virtue signals - prove to everyone that you are superior - know this, your virtue signals will burn like chaff at the great last day.  Virtuous things done to snub others and prop up your own worth are not virtuous but evil poison.    

Mark this; there is only one kind of righteousness.  There is only one way to be justified.  And that is Jesus – not you, not what you have done, not your ideas, not your theories, not what group you are a part of, and certainly not your virtue signals. 

Frankly, you can live your life as a Pharisee, thinking that you are better than everyone else – constantly fighting to display your virtue, constantly telling others how great you are, and snubbing others that don’t meet up to your personal standards, and still go to hell.  Or, you can understand – with the tax collector – that there is no one good, not even one.  With the tax collector, you can beat your chest, confess that you are a sinner, and hear the good news that Jesus Christ did not come for self-righteous Pharisees but sin-sick sinners.  The Gospel is for sinners only.

You see, as a tax collector, life is much different.  You don’t spend your time trying to convince everyone else how great you are.  You simply, confess your sin, acknowledge your weaknesses, and open your hands like a beggar to receive righteousness from Another as a gift – Christ’s righteousness. 

Does all of this mean that you cannot have thoughts, opinions, and insights on political theory, economic systems, and social issues?  No, you can.  And you should.  But hear this, as you weigh into the events of our culture, you do so knowing that that blood of Christ that has justified you is the same blood that is for your neighbor, who might happen to disagree with you.  Sin is not found exclusively in your neighbor’s heart, but in both hearts – both your heart and your neighbor’s heart need the righteousness of Christ.  It is only through the blood and righteousness of Jesus that you can love your enemies.  It is only through Jesus’ blood and righteousness that you can debate, visit, and converse with your neighbors with humility – not smugness. 

And conversely, when others pressure you to adhere to their superficial virtue signals, you need not fear or worry, for your righteousness supersedes the foolish attempts of mankind.  Your virtue signal is a cross and empty tomb – your virtue signal is Jesus and Jesus alone. 

Never forget that the Lord declared you righteous in Baptism.  Never forget, He declared you righteous today in Holy Absolution.  And never forget, He puts righteousness into your mouths and into your bellies, so that you may know that the Lord is merciful to sinners like the tax collector, you, and me too. 

You, Baptized Saints, are not Pharisees.  You are sinners whom Christ died for.  You are justified – declared holy in Christ - for He has had mercy on you.  Rich grace for you – righteousness not in you or other things, but in Christ.  Nothing held back from Christ – righteousness given to you as gift!  

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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