Probably my favorite TV show running right now—and perhaps ever—is the NBC comedy The Good Place.
Before I continue, I this is your spoiler warning, so if you still plan on watching the show or are a season or two behind, listen at your own risk. This will also be the only time ever I invite you to walk out of the sermon. So, maybe consider all your options! LOL!
For those unfamiliar, the series focuses on Eleanor Shellstrop, played by Kristen Bell, who wakes up in the afterlife and is introduced by Michael, played by Ted Danson, to "the Good Place", a highly selective Heaven-like utopia he designed, as a reward for her righteous life.
However, soon after she realizes that she was sent there by mistake and must hide her morally imperfect behavior while trying to become a better and more ethical person with the help of her “soul mate” Chidi Anagonye, played by William Jackson Harper.
At the end of the first season, Eleanor figures out that “the Good Place” is actually a “the Bad Place,” a Hell-like netherworld where humans are tortured. Except, in this instance, rather than the expected burning flesh and gnashing of teeth, these four humans had been placed together so as to emotionally torture one another for eternity.
Being an all-powerful, eternal being, at the start of season two, Michael simply restarts the experiment, clearing from their brains any memory of the previous attempt. Yet, despite the restart, the four humans figure out the ruse again, leading to countless restarts. Eventually, Michael’s co-workers grow weary of the constant reboots and threaten to blow the whistle on these constant failures. Facing likely punishment himself, Michael realizes it’s in his best interest to befriend the humans and let them in on the secret. In time, Michael begins to see their point of view and changes his ways from wanting to torture humans to instead protect them.
Season 3 of The Good Place centers on the premise that for the last 500 years or so, zero humans have actually made it to “the Good Place” and are actually all in “the Bad Place” being tortured. After learning this, Michael and the humans make an appeal to the eternal judge in an effort to change the accounting metrics by which “Good” and “Bad” place points are given.
In chapter 38, titled “Chidi and the Time Knife,” Michael and the humans travel to the “IHOP,” the “Interdimensional Hole of Pancakes,” the crossroads of all dimensions for time and space. Michael purposely chooses this locale because the judge’s powers are limited and she can’t just immediately punish Michael. There in the IHOP, Michael and the 4 humans plead their case to the judge—basically, something is wrong with the points system, the method by which humans are judged to be good enough to go to the good place.
“Life now is so complicated, it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for “the Good Place,” he bemoans.
To illustrate this point, Michael shows how an action that should conceivably earn someone good points—buying a tomato from the grocery store—actually in the current system loses someone points. Why? Because in buying a tomato, a human is unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, and contributing to Global Warming. Michael makes that point that humans think their making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making.
Unfortunately, the judge is unimpressed by the conclusion that “life is complicated.”
Instead she counters, “if you don’t want the consequences, do the research, buy another tomato.”
Chidi tries to intervene by referencing Jean-Paul Sarte, but Jason intervenes by telling a story about his friend, “Big Noodle.”
After being challenged to see things the way humans do, the judge takes a trip down to earth to see things for herself and is overwhelmed by what she experiences.
“That was rough. Earth is a mess! Also, I guess I’m black, and they do not like black ladies down there!?... It’s terrible everywhere, and always in a different way.”
Relieved that the judge is beginning to see things their way, Michael says;
“See, that’s the problem, life is chaotic and complicated, and even if you do manage to make good decisions, you still lose points because of the unintended consequences.”
And then, Eleanor interjects into the conversation and says,
“There are booby-traps everywhere! Like, there’s this chicken sandwich, that if you eat it, it means you hate gay people, and it’s delicious!”
The judge responds; “it is, it is so good!”
Life, indeed, is complicated. And, whether we mean to or not, many of our actions and choices in life can have all kinds of unintended consequences.
Let me throw myself under the bus here as an example.
I’m someone who would consider myself to support fair labor practices, LBGT equality, and protecting the environment.
Yet, I’m also someone who regularly buys things from Amazon, eats at Chick-fil-A, and drives across town multiple times a week.
And, before you label me as a hypocritical, people-hating, toxic polluter—consider this.
I don’t do these things because I’m against living wages, LGBT rights, or protecting the environment.
Rather, I shop on Amazon because sometimes, driving two kids to the store, keeping them from falling out of the shopping cart, and getting the back into the car and home in one piece—seems exhausting.
I eat at Chick-fil-a because sometimes when you’ve it’s cold outside and the kids are going crazy, you need a place that has an indoor playplace—preferrably enclosed so your toddler can’t run all over the store, and you’ve already been to McDonald’s one to many times that week!
And, I drive across town so my in-laws can watch my kids because childcare is ungodly expensive.
So, it’s not that I intend to be against any of these things, and while I do understand my actions have consequences, it’s also that, as I just explained, life is complicated! Before you judge me, I’d like you to consider the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.
So, back when Jesus was alive on earth, he often told these kind of stories known as parables. A parable was a simple story with a deeper meaning used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. For instance, a modern day example of a parable might be the story of “the ant and the grasshopper”—or “the boy who cried wolf.” Just like these stories, so to in the parables of Jesus, there’s more to the story than what just appears on the surface.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells a couple parables, with the one we’re looking at today being about a Pharisee and a tax collector. (Luke 18:10-14)
Two men went into the temple to pray. The are both Jewish people. They are both religious, although the Pharisee is publicly recognized for his faith. The tax collector, on the other hand, is generally scorned by his neighbors, as he works for the enemy, the Romans.
The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He obeys the commandments. He’s a model citizen. He’s the complete opposite of the tax collector.
The tax collector was not like our modern day IRS agents. No matter how you feel about taxes or the IRS, even the most corrupt agent doesn’t compare to this ancient system. See, back in that day, the Romans hired Jewish people to collect taxes from their fellow citizens. But here’s the thing. Rome gave the tax collectors a flat amount they needed to collect, and anything collected above and beyond that amount, the tax collector got to keep.
So, say the tax collector was due to collect $10 each from 100 people, he could go ahead and charge each person $15 dollars each and keep the difference. It’s no wonder they were universally despised.
This tax collector here seems to understand his mistakes and begs for mercy. His prayer to God, rather than one of pride, is one of humility and remorse. “Have mercy on me, O God.”
Through the years, this tax collector has been highlighted as an example of faith and humility, someone willing to acknowledge and confess their faults to God, begging for forgiveness.
Accordingly, the Pharisee is often despised as a prideful, haughty person, too obsessed with his own external acts of faith to realize he may be doing them for the wrong reason.
This parable is then, a lesson in humility.
We should be humble, acknowledge our mistakes, and seek to do better.
Getting back to the example of The Good Place, life is complicated, we all make decisions that have unintended consequences, so we shouldn’t think to highly of ourselves.
But is that it? Is that all the parable is trying to tell?
I’m not so sure.
See, the thing is, this tax collector’s plea for mercy must result in right behavior. He can’t ask for God’s forgiveness, then go back to cheating people out of money. Something must change.
And consider this. In this book of Luke, there are two other tax collectors highlighted; Levi who became a disciple of Jesus, and Zacchaeus, the short man who climbed up into a tree. For these two tax collectors, when they started following the way of Jesus, things changed dramatically.
Levi threw a big party, celebrating his new life.
Zacchaeus promised to repay every single person he had cheated.
So, as we look deeper below the surface of this story, it seems pretty clear to me at least that Jesus wasn’t just telling a nice little story about being humble.
I mean, this guy can’t just go home and keep being a tax collector, regularly cheating people out of money.
As a person of faith, he needed to make some hard decisions and re-examine whether he could continue to participate in a system that regularly cheated and exploited people. Again, I think the unspoken conclusion is that he could not, in good faith, do that. Something had to change. Maybe it meant him quitting his job. Maybe it meant him only collecting what was fair. Maybe it meant challenging his fellow tax collectors to do the same. He had to ask himself some hard questions.
I think we too, this morning, need to ask ourselves some hard questions too.
Are we just going to be a Sunday morning Christian?
Are we just going to be a person who’s unconcerned about the consequences of our actions?
Are we just going to be a follower of Jesus in name only?
Or are we going to live out the ethical implications of our faith?
And, this is hard, this is humbling, because it may require taking a hard look at the ways we participate in unethical, unjust systems, structures, practices.
And, this isn’t easy, because these systems, these structures, these practices are constructed in such a way to lure us into the system, make us dependent on the system, then make it basically impossible to anything outside of the system.
And yeah, I know I’m sounding a little conspiracy theorist here, but it’s basically just consumer marketing practices I’m describing here.
Rome doesn’t care as long as it gets its money…
But maybe you’re thinking to yourself, Loren, that’s far easier said than done. And yes, you’re right. We can’t just all sell our homes, pack up our stuff, and live off that land in a cabin somewhere collecting rainwater for drinking, growing our own food, and harvesting solar power.
We’ve got to try to exist in the real world trying to pay our bills, feed our children, and just plain afford life.
So, sometimes, the only real thing we can do is just question the system.
Why can’t there be good jobs that pay a living wage? Why can’t we figure out how to offer affordable child-care for working parents? What’s wrong with LGBT persons having the same rights and protections as everyone else?
Jesus did that a lot, asking why are the people most in need of God’s love shunned? Why don’t the poor get more help from the religious people? Why do we have to set limits on God’s love?
Yes, life is complicated. Yes, our actions have unintended consequences. Yes, we should acknowledge where we fall short. But we can’t just stay there.
If we’re going to be true to what we believe, if we’re going to really be like the tax collector, we’ve got to start doing things differently.
And while that’s going to cost us something—time, money, energy, effort, etc.
The opposite, doing nothing, pretending everything is fine, it just so ridiculous.
I mean, even today we see people like the Pharisee. They walk around just as pompously saying;
“God I’m thankful I’m not like that struggling family, that single working mom, that student trying to pay for college.
“I’ve worked for every dollar that I’ve earned—And I’ve included in my will for a portion of my wealth to go to charity.”
“God, I’m so glad I’m not like that single mom struggling to get by, that family trying to pay their medical bills, that LGBT person seeking equal treatment. I’m so much better than them…”
Really, the question before us, the question Jesus asks of us is, which person do you want to be?
I’ll tell you one thing, only one person came home that day from the temple a transformed individual, I bet you can guess which one it is.
That’s who I want to be, how about you?
 Johnson, 215.