Sermon April 25, 2021 by Rev. David Hodgson

Virtue Signaling…

 by a Pro!

“Then he told this story to some who boasted of their virtue

 and scorned everyone else.” Luke 18:9 TLB

One of the most obnoxious trends in society today is virtue signaling ~ the condescending way the most virtue-challenged people on the planet claim for themselves the high moral ground so they can look down with contempt upon the rest of society.  Say anything to challenge their pious self-delusion and like a child having a temper tantrum they shout: “You’re sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic!”

 I am often tempted in their presence to say something offensive like, “I’m in favor of motherhood and apple pie” just to trigger the response:  “You’re sexist, racist, etc….” 

But virtue signaling is not new and was a common phenomenon in Jesus’ day.  The Pharisees fancied themselves to be more virtuous than everyone else, in part because they made the rules that they imposed on everyone else.  They decided how much weight one could lift on the Sabbath without actually working, and how many steps one could take without violating the traveling-ban on the Sabbath, and what foods one could eat, and what sacrifices needed to be placed on the altar before one’s worship would be acceptable to God.  Literally thousands of regulations, all designed to showcase their moral superiority.

Well, one day, he told the Pharisees a story that challenged their claims of moral superiority.  He told them what seemed to be an hypothetical situation in which a Pharisee and a tax collector went into the Temple to pray.  It was a common sight, and they felt like they were spectators, observing two imaginary characters in the Temple praying.

But when Jesus revealed what each of them was praying, they began to squirm with emotional discomfort, for the prayer of which he spoke was very similar to one they actually offered.  Thank God, I am not a sinner like everyone else, especially like that tax collector over there!  And then he went on to describe the way they actually held up their credentials of piety before God, as if to impress the Almighty with their moral superiority.  I go without food twice a week, and I give to God a tenth of everything” 

Then to twist the truth to its painful conclusion, he revealed to the Pharisees the crooked tax collector’s prayer:  God, be merciful to me a sinner!  Then, speaking for God, he let them know that only one went away forgiven, and it wasn’t the Pharisee. 

 How’s that for virtue signaling by a pro?  The Son of God announcing to the virtue signalers of his day and of every age, that it is not we who determine the high moral ground and claim its advantages as our own, but God who determines the moral ground, and by divine grace and forgiveness the repentant sinner, not the self-righteous Pharisee, knelt humbly on the high moral ground.

And then Jesus walked on down the pathway of life leaving them to piece together what was left of their worldview.  What had gone wrong?  One moment they were securely standing on what they thought was the high moral ground, and the next moment they were made to feel that the repentant sinner they scorned was on more secure footing by the grace of God than they were, and by the wisdom and wit of Jesus their virtue signaling would never be as satisfying as it once was. 

Clearly, one does not stand with arrogance on high moral ground.  High moral ground is for kneeling, humbly before God, for God alone determines the landscape of morality, and we ignore that truth at our peril.

There is another word I would like to add to the lexicon of all who feel compelled to virtue signal.  It is alethophobia, which is defined as “a fear or dislike of the truth; an unwillingness to come to terms with truth or facts.”  Those who yell with an air of moral superiority: “You’re sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic!” are actually alethophobic ~ afraid that truth would prove them wrong, afraid that honest dialogue would undermine their worldview, afraid that truth beyond their own perception would discredit their claims of moral superiority. 

I am not a psychologist ~ a theologian, but from everything I know of the Bible’s revelations of truth, alethophobia does not afflict those who live God-centered lives.  It only becomes a pathological state when God is removed from the common life of all, leaving virtue signalers afraid that one day a truth greater than their own will bring them down.

Jesus also tormented them intellectually with his parable of the sheep and goats.  Remember that one?  How in the final judgment the Son of Man in all his glory would separate the moral from the immoral the way a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  And the whole point of his parable was that those who think they deserve to be in heaven will be sadly mistaken, and those who feel unworthy of glory will surely find it.

We somehow have the impression that he told the parable once and Matthew took copious notes so he could place it in the Bible; but I have a different view.  I think he told the story more than once, and chose when and where he thought it needed to be heard.

For example, I imagine him saying to the virtue-signaling Pharisees, “Have I told you the one about the sheep and goats?”  And they would look at each other the way folks do when they think someone is having a memory problem.  “Yes, Lord, you’ve told that one before.”  “Well, clearly you need to hear it again because you still don’t get it!”  And he would say:  When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.(Mt 25:31-33).

How’s that for leveling the moral playing field with wisdom and whit, and signaling the virtue-signalers with the very authority of God!

The biblical image for the moral landscape of life is the Kingdom of God.  He spoke of it in terms of heaven on occasion, but most of his references to it were meant to be understood in terms of life on earth.  He said his Kingdom was here, that it was also coming ~ not in some end of time scenario, but in the here and now.

 His kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven when faith-filled people search for the will of God ~ for truth ~ and muster the moral courage to live it.  Granted, such expressions of truth only cause the arrogant and insecure to lash out:  “You’re sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic!”   And when they do, just shake your head at the brazen display of their alethophobia and walk on down the pathway of life in the footsteps of our Lord.

We live in fascinating and frightening times ~  times that require great living!   And the most troubling realization for me is that so many of us allow ourselves to be silenced by their slanderous ignorance and chronic immaturity.  Without God in their lives for insight and inspiration, without God in their world revealing divine providence unfolding, they claim the right to redirect the course of history for those they deem to be immoral and ignorant, to impose on society restrictions that seem to justify their superiority, and they make fools of themselves daily before our Living and Loving God!

“Then he told this story to some who boasted of their virtue and scorned everyone else.”    Yeah, I’ll bet he did!  And I bet he did it more than once ~ and enjoyed it every time.  The perfect life of Christ, the only one qualified to stand on high moral ground, using humor with grace to help us to see the foolishness of our ways, and then to help us find our way back home.

David Hodgson, Peoria Presbyterian Church, April 25, 2021