Twentieth sunday After Pentecost: October 27, 2019
Year C, Proper 25: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-17; Luke 18:9-14
At the time of posting, there was no audio recording of this sermon.
Parables are a little bit like Halloween in that they full of attractive features – outsized characters, bright colors. We welcomed more than a few of those outsized characters and brightly colored costumes right out in the front of the church yesterday. Among the outsized characters in today’s Gospel reading are a Pharisee and a tax collector.
The Pharisees loom large in the Scriptures. Over the last two thousand years, we have made them into this caricature: when we call someone a Pharisee it is an insult. We are referring to people as self-righteous, rule-bound religious leaders, lacking in compassion and insight. The definitions you find in the online Oxford Dictionary are 1) a member of an ancient Jewish sect, commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity; and 2), a self-righteous person, a hypocrite.
Actually, what Pharisee means in Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew is “separate”, or one who is separated, much like priests in ancient times were seen as set apart. The Pharisees were devout. They were regular in attendance at worship. Pharisees were considered experts at accurately explaining Jewish law. The aim of the Pharisees and Pharisaic law was to make the observance of Torah available to all. They were righteous and upright.
In contrast, at least in this story, we see the tax collector who is often regarded as the repentant and meek. He humbles himself before God.
But we have to put this parable into the first-century context. Tax collectors were reviled because they earned their living by working for a foreign government collecting taxes from his own people. For years he has collected high taxes from his Jewish neighbors to give to the Roman government. He gives the Romans their flat rate on every head and keeps the excess for himself. How the tax collector collected this money wasn’t an issue; how much he pocketed for himself didn’t matter as long as the Romans got the money they wanted. Tax collectors were unscrupulous and dishonest.
Most likely it is for those reasons that the tax collector comes in with his head lowered. We don’t know why his guilt got the better of him, but there he is in the temple, full of remorse, beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
If we’re a first-century citizen imagine the shock you would feel when Jesus comes along and approves of the tax collector. The person who has been stealing from us and taking our money is the righteous according to Jesus. And if we’re honest, we probably feel a bit self-satisfied as we attend church on Sunday morning while our neighbors are playing a round of golf or enjoying a morning brunch or “praying with the New York Times” as one of my friends used to call it. We can think to ourselves (and I have) that I’m serving on many committees, I’m pledging faithfully, I’m serving church.
But the key word that I just used in that last few sentences was “I”, “I”, “I” statements. The tax collector is asking for God’s mercy, in contrast to the Pharisee who is proclaiming his own righteousness before God.
We are called to serve God as the Pharisees did, and we are called to do that with the humility shown by the tax collector.
Jesus challenges believers to avoid trusting in our own efforts at fulfilling the law, and, rather to humble ourselves before a loving and merciful God. Trust is called for, but not trust in ourselves or in our ability to keep God’s law. Jesus calls us to trust in God’s mercy. In a culture that values individual achievement, that values “I” statements so highly, this can be a tall order, but even as we are cautioned not to trust in our ability to fulfill the law, nowhere does Jesus say that we may ignore the law.
For some of us, it is only when we make a major mistake in our life that we gain the humility the tax collector displayed. Sometimes, it takes hitting what we refer to as “hitting rock bottom to help us see our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. Only then do we echo the tax collector’s words, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
I’m not much of a Rite I person, but the Prayer of Humble Access is something I have always loved, not only it’s poetic meter, but its expression of self-emptying humility. It gives us a window into how the tax collector could be exalted in the eyes of Jesus.
Listen to these words:
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O Merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear son Jesus Christ and to drink his blood that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.”
That, I believe, is the meaning of today’s parable. To always open ourselves to God for mercy. When I pray this prayer, it reminds me that in Jesus Christ we have love, mercy, and forgiveness. When we get too sure about who God loves, or when we start to draw lines to try to keep our love or God’s love in particular communities or countries, Jesus is there, reminding us as he did when telling this parable that all are worthy of God’s love.
Discipleship is a balancing act. It’s about being the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It’s about being able to serve God and Christ Jesus at all times and in all places.
Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector isn’t separating himself from others or categorizing others by their behavior. He says: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”
I look around our country, and what I hear is people defending themselves by accusing and categorizing others according to their sins or imagined sins. I know that when I become angry, that from time to time in that anger, that I have characterized others as the unrighteous, and myself and my friends and family as righteous. That does not lead to healing or the resolution of the situation. But it is not through accusation that we find the truth, but through sharing in the mercy of God, of trying to understand the struggles and suffering of others.
Healing only comes through reaching out to others in compassion, hearing the pain and complexity in their lives, and encouraging others in the abundance of God’s mercy.
“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other…”. The tax collector could receive God’s mercy because he was trying to live in the truth.
How common is it in our lives that we are tempted to avoid acknowledging the truth? And, how common is it for people to pretend that they don’t need mercy?
All are one in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Christ, we have redemption and forgiveness because of the mercy of God. And we have nothing at all to do with it because it comes from God.
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