All posts by Jon Swanson

About Jon Swanson

Social media chaplain. Author of "Lent For Non-Lent People" and "A Great Work: A Conversation With Nehemiah For People (Who Want To Be) Doing Great Works." Writer of I help people understand. Understand some of the Bible. Understand what Lent can be about. Understand what it means to follow.

Mildly contemptuous.

(The third of a series of posts from a message on October 23. The texts were 2 Timothy 4 and Luke 18:9-14. You might want to read those first.)

The first person in this story was the Pharisee. The second was the tax collector. But the third person in this story is Jesus, the teller of the story. He tells the story to turn everything upside down. To offer hope.

I want to suggest a challenging thing. In this story Jesus is talking about people who are at the ends of the spectrum. The most outwardly spiritual group and the least.

But most of us live in between. We’re not great, but we’re mostly good enough. We listen to the prayer of the Pharisee and maybe we hear something that sounds a little familiar.

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people. At least I’m not a robber like that person. At least I’m good most of the time, not like that person. At least I’m usually honest, I’m frequently loving. At least I’m better than the worst person.”

And then the Pharisee identifies the actions that make him good: “I fast two times a week. I give 10 percent away.” And we think, “I give up meals sometimes to help people in Haiti. I give a little money. I go to church some of the time.”

Jesus suggests that mostly good enough, only mildly contemptuous of others, still isn’t a good place to be. Better than others isn’t connected to God.

Think for a second about how Jesus talked about the Pharisee.  He was impressed with themselves. He had contempt on others. He was outwardly spiritual but inwardly proud.

But the answer isn’t in giving up. In assuming we are useless. The point of the story is humbly saying to God, “I need help.” One translation of this story says that the Pharisee prayed to himself. In contrast, the tax collector cried out to God. He asked for mercy, assuming that it was available.

And that’s the point of the story. That mercy is available.

Jesus looked at the tax collectors who looked hopefully at him and said, “those who humble themselves can sit with me.”

Who’s the most spiritual?

(The second of a series of posts from a message on October 23. The texts were 2 Timothy 4 and Luke 18:9-14. You might want to read those first.)

Jesus talked one day to people who were confident of their own righteousness, their own goodness and who looked down on other people. Other people were people who didn’t measure up, who didn’t get things right. Who weren’t holy enough or spiritual enough or religious enough.

There are three people in this story that Jesus told.

Let’s start with the Pharisee.

We’ve heard of Pharisees, many of us. They were really religious people. When they started, they were doing a good thing. In fact, in the time between the old testament and the new, between 400 BC and 0, they were the ones who obeyed the Bible and taught it. They had kept the faith alive.

But by the time that Jesus was teaching, they had become so consumed with keeping the rules that they forgot that the rules had come from God and were there to help people follow God. They had gotten obsessive. They were proud of the specificity of their daily and weekly and annual rituals. When they prayed, they got the best location. And they were obsessively aware of the people who did not measure up. Which was almost everyone.

And then there is the tax collector.

Tax collectors were Jews who worked for Rome, the country who occupied Israel and demanded taxes. Tax collectors were responsible for getting a certain amount of money per person to Rome. If they charged a little extra, that was their money. If they charge a lot extra, they got rich. And it meant that the fellow citizens of the tax collectors feared them and despised them. When it came to spiritual things, to God things, tax collectors had sold out, gone too far. When they prayed, they were at the edges.

So imagine you are in the crowd listening to the story.

And thinking, “Jesus is exactly right. He knows our culture well. Of course Pharisees are great. Of course tax collectors need mercy.”

Until he gets to the end.

And at that moment, when he tells the Pharisees they are less spiritual than a tax collector, everyone gasps. This is ridiculous, at best. This is crazy talk.

But at that moment, when the Pharisees are getting mad and looking at each other, all the tax collectors at the edges of the crowd look up. The sinners. The prostitutes. The outcasts. The people who felt adrift. They followed Jesus around because he seemed to care. But they had been hopeless against the system. And Jesus just gave them hope.

No one came.

(The first of a series of posts from a message on October 23. The texts were 2 Timothy 4 and Luke 18:9-14. You might want to read those first.)

Paul was in Rome. He was locked up.

Whether at this moment he was in a dungeon or a cell or a house isn’t clear, but he was not a tourist. Not free to roam around the city.  He had visitors, but not always. A lot of time he spent by himself.

While locked up, he wrote a letter to a man he’d been mentoring.  He reminded Timothy of lots of lessons, because this was his last letter, his last chance.

But when we come to the part of the letter we read this morning, Paul gets very personal, very reflective. And he says,

“No one came to my first defense.”

Paul was talking about what we would call an arraignment hearing. You stand in front of a judge. You hear the reading of the charges against you. You get to respond by agreeing that you are guilty or by declaring your innocence. If you admit, the trial is over. You get to end this.

If you declare your innocence, the trial gets scheduled. You go back to jail and begin to plan your defense. It’s got to be a hard situation.

And Paul writes to Timothy and says, “no one came.”

All alone, only guilty of obeying God. And no one came to support him. No one came to speak on his behalf. No one came to intercede with the judge. It was Paul and everyone against him.

Like being stuck in a hospital bed, alone. Like being at work out on assignment. Like being a Cubs fan in Cleveland. All alone except for everyone who is on the other side.

Paul felt the kind of isolation many people feel when they are doing the right thing and everything goes wrong.

“But the Lord.” That’s how Paul follows up on this feeling of isolation.

“But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.”

Paul says that the one person who came was the one person who cared for him, the one person who mattered to him, the Lord.

Paul doesn’t condemn those who didn’t come.

He doesn’t talk about how he doesn’t deserve to be in this situation.

He’s a much different person than he used to be. He used to be the kind of person that Jesus talked about in his story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.


If you see.

I know. It’s election season in the United States. And people express the opinion that people like me should have an answer to a very simple question: “How will you vote?”

There are hundreds of posts on every side of the Christian divides saying how we must vote. And those of us who are on Facebook read one opinion or another and get upset.

I was thinking about this level of upsetness the other morning and remembered a phrase. “If you see your brother in need.” I started playing with it.

“If you see your brother in need and you would probably do something, but you are lamenting the truth and lies about the candidates and the process, Jesus says…”

But I couldn’t remember how it ended. Or even how it started.

I needed to find it. img_1949Because I have this tension in my heart. It’s a fear that I am missing the real issue, that I’m somehow not seeing the thing that I should be doing or saying during this season. After all, my degrees are in rhetoric, rooted in the analysis of persuasion. In the old days of my life, campaigns were a delight, analyzing the ads, critiquing the commentaries, deconstructing the debates. But I don’t seem to have the energy for that work now.

So I went looking for the source of “if you see your brother in need” to see if I could find out what was eating at me.

I found the source of the phrase in 1 John. John, follower of Jesus, protector of Mary, pastor of pastors, victim of both Romans and countrymen.

He writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

During this season and all seasons, John calls me to offer the material support of those in need, and to do it with compassion. Before I condemn your position or you for holding your position, I need you to be able to read this text in my life. Before I waste my energy in worry and count it as sufficient excuse for not laying down my energy – my life – for you, I need you to be able to read this love in my life. And at the moment, I’m not satisfied with what you see.

I know. That doesn’t answer your question. But did you really think I would?

Peace be with you.

I choose to.

Our friend has changed her eating in very significant ways. But it’s not that she can’t eat certain foods. It’s that she chooses not to. For the sake of her health and for her life and for her family.

The choice feels pretty extreme. The options seem boring, eventually. Because there aren’t premade options that conform to the choices she is making, she has to prepare almost every meal.

imageHer choices are about life.

I understand that using the language of choice rather than the language of obligation is, in fact, a choice. But I also understand that there is freedom in this language. She could blame others for her situation. She could focus on the restriction. Instead, she focuses on the freedom from current medication and future complications.

At times I have conversations about the restrictions that seem to exist around faith. Particularly around the focused faith I have in relationship with Christ. People in traditions around me have added layers of obligation. Although some of those obligations are a result of interpretations of interpretation, some come from Christ’s mouth and Spirit and are quite specific.

We are told to forgive. We are told to stay married. We are told to not desire what is not our own for our own pleasure. We are told to not call our brother names. We are told that we cannot worship until we reconcile with those who are mad at us. We are told to not retaliate. We are told to offer more than is asked of us.

These could feel like tremendous obligations which must be met to stay out of hell, to keep God happy with us.

But maybe I don’t have to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute my sisters and brothers.

Maybe I can choose to.

It’s about life.


And yes, the pizza in the photo fits within her choices. Cheese and coconut flour crust.