Sermon, October 23, 2016 – Proper 25, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In today’s gospel, we hear one of the most familiar parables of Jesus. This is one of the parables that we most enjoy because none of us imagine ourselves in the place of the Pharisee. Instead this seems to be a most enjoyable smack down by Jesus of an obnoxious and arrogant villain. The message – be humble, not arrogant. Next parable.
But wait. Not so fast. Let’s look at this parable a little more closely. On reading what the commentaries have to say about this parable I found one observation to be very surprising. I had always assumed that Jesus was making a bit of a caricature here of a Pharisee in order to make his point. I hadn’t thought that anyone would actually have prayed like that. But I was wrong. Scholars believe that the Pharisee’s prayer was most likely a standard Jewish prayer of thanksgiving from the time. The Jewish people to whom Jesus told this parable would not have been startled or unsettled with the story Jesus told until the very end, when Jesus told them that it was the tax collector that went home justified before God.
How can this be? Were people really so arrogant and smug back then? Or perhaps the proper question is this – are people so arrogant and smug now? I would venture to say yes, I think we are.
One thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t just a story of the school teacher putting the secretary down. Or the baker looking down at the car insurance agent. When you are imagining yourself in this scenario, don’t think of the other person being your friend or colleague. No, the characters in this story by Jesus are a Pharisee and a tax collector, and that is important.
Despite their very bad reputation to our ears, in the time of Jesus, Pharisees were looked up to in Jewish society. They checked off a lot of boxes, including being respected religious leaders, loyal to the Jewish people and not to the Roman overlords, pious, and very upstanding citizens. They were the sort of people who, if they visited our church on a Sunday, we would want to make feel very welcome and included because we would want them as new members.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the scum of society. They were seen as greedy, unclean and traitors to the Jewish people since they collected taxes for Rome. These were the people who you did not want to associate with or seen to be associating with. Everybody looked down on tax collectors.
So let’s rethink this parable. Join me in a little thought experiment. Imagine if you will, one of the dumbest, most shrill, most irritating, most loud mouthed supporters of a candidate for president that you loathe. Not somebody who is a reluctant supporter, but an in your face, annoying, irritating, opinionated supporter. Imagine such a person. Perhaps they are in your Facebook feed and they keep posting annoyingly stupid posts. Or maybe you watch them on your cable news channel at home, making idiotic comments to the host. Or maybe you watch them on the evening news at protests or shouting down the candidate you like. Imagine that person. The person you have no respect for – who you think is foolish, gullible, stupid and about to betray your country to four years of horrible leadership.
That person is your tax collector in this story. You are the Pharisee. And now imagine that you are talking to your like-minded spouse or friend. Is it too hard to imagine the following conversation? “Thank God I am not that stupid. What a moron he is. How can she say such an idiotic thing? Thank God I am smarter than that.” I think that if we are all honest with ourselves, we would have to say that we either have had or could very easily have had just such a conversation. Now maybe this conversation for you wouldn’t be about politics. Maybe it would be about sports, mobile phones, television shows or any subject that we feel especially strongly about. The point is that we are not so different from the Pharisee in this story then we think.
And we might even be very sincere about our thoughts. What if the other person really is stupid, opinionated and loud? Should we not be thankful to God that we are have been blessed with clear thinking, brains and refinement? Shouldn’t we thank God for the gifts that we have been given? Isn’t that what we are called to do by God? Doesn’t Paul in 1 Thessalonians tell us “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus”?
Yes, but the problem here is with the attitude. Jesus was teaching people to pray. In the passage that comes just before today’s parable, Jesus taught that we should never give up heart when we pray. In today’s parable Luke tells us that Jesus was targeting “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” As I mentioned earlier, the Pharisees were very pious and followed the law. They were pillars of society. And they knew it and thought that, as a result, they had earned their own salvation.
The Pharisees thought that if they followed the law very closely and did all that the law required of them, that God would be pleased and reward them with salvation. And this is why they would thank God – for making themselves so good. But look how he thanked God – certainly not in a humble fashion, but rather by comparing himself to others. He said “God, I thank you that am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector.” But that’s not all. He then goes on to tell God that he fasts twice a week and gives a tenth of all he gets.
This Pharisee is a man who has no need for God. He has no need for Jesus Christ to take away his sins. He has no room for mercy on others. He is a man who figures that he’s already there, on his own. The problem is he has no heart, either for God or for others.
Contrast this to the tax collector. Yes, he was a low life, traitor and a cheat. That’s what it took to be a tax collector. But the tax collector came to realize the truth about himself. He “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” This is the heart of the Gospel. We are sinners and we need God to rescue us. We can’t do it on our own. All that we can do is approach God in all humility and confess our utter dependence on him.
It doesn’t matter how clever or smart we are, or how pious and nice we are, or how much we give to charity. These things are good, they are what God calls us to do, but they do not make us right with God. At the end of the day, we have no better claim to be right with God than anyone else. We all need God. We all need Jesus Christ to take upon himself our guilt and our sins. Which he has already done for us. We need to say “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We do not justify ourselves. And that is what the Pharisee did not understand. It is only God who justifies us, and it isn’t until we acknowledge our need for God that this can happen. There are only two choices here – we either think we can justify ourselves or we confess to God that we are completely at his mercy. The tax collector understood this, and it was this acknowledgement that led Jesus to declare that he went home justified before God.
Let us pray, in words taken from Psalm 51.
Have mercy on us, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out our transgressions. Wash away all our iniquity and cleanse us from our sins. For we know our transgressions, and our sins are always before us.
Create in us pure hearts, O God, and renew steadfast spirits within us. Do not cast us from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from us. Restore to us the joy of your salvation and grant us willing spirits, to sustain us. Amen.