LECTIONARY 30 C
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy God, our righteous judge, daily your mercy surprises us with everlasting forgiveness. Strengthen our hope in you, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may find their glory in you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
READINGS AND PSALM
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 Jerusalem will be defeated
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 The good fight of faith
Luke 18:9-14 A Pharisee and tax collector pray together
There is something essential missing from this parable that Jesus is telling; this story of a Pharisee and that other guy. Now the Pharisee is everything that last week’s nagging widow is not. He is powerful because he is male, and because he does the right thing. All the time. He is law-abiding. To the point of perfection. And thus he has the unceasing admiration of the community. He is a generous giver. Ten percent of his income. That’s called tithing. He didn’t even ask: “Ten percent before taxes or after taxes?” He just gave the ten percent because it was the right thing to do, because he was such a good person. The best person. The greatest person that ever lived. Some probably wondered why he even needed to go to the Temple to pray. After all, they saw him as the ideal of the faithful person, so it was only natural to figure that he must be close to God all the time, even when he wasn’t standing by himself (because he had no peers) praying in the Temple. Perhaps for him, praying was redundant. But he is such a good person, he goes, and prays anyway. Perhaps he wants to help others learn from the example of his perfect ways. Give the others encouragement to follow in his ways.
But let’s go back to the first thing I said before we got distracted by the glow of this very model of a law-abiding Pharisee. The first thing I said was: There is something essential missing from this parable. With such a perfect person as this Pharisee at the center of the story, how could anything be missing, you ask. Well, as bizarre as it may sound, I’d like to add a laugh track. You know, like the ones they add to the TV comedies that are not filmed in front of a live audience. Would you help me do this? I know we are in church and we’re supposed to be serious, and I know it’s still kind of early on a Sunday morning, it’s even a little cold for the first time this season. But give it go. (Hopefully we have some good belly laughers here this morning.)
So let’s go back to the story and add some laughter at key moments, at ridiculous moments. But let’s use a variation on: What would Jesus do?, and laugh according to: Where would Jesus laugh? as our directive.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, (okay, nothing major there, setting the scene) one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. (Characters are introduced. Now we might laugh that a tax collector – collaborator with the Romans and cheater of his own people is daring to set foot in the temple as is it is going to do any good. But this is the Jesus-inspired laugh track and he certainly wouldn’t laugh. He’s the one who eats with tax collectors. Back to the story.) 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: (okay, big laugh here) thieves, rogues, adulterers, (the laughter grows with every entry to the list) or even like this tax collector. (laughter hits a crescendo’s peak) 12I fast twice a week; (That gets some laughter, though we’re still a bit worn from that last big one.) I give a tenth of all my income.’(Some where we get the energy to increase our laughter for that one. Perhaps with a mocking tone of: “We’re impressed. Not.”) 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (And we smile with all the joy of truth being embraced.)
But let’s set aside this Jesus-directed laugh track and think for a minute. If the modern edition of that Perfect Pharisee entered and sat down: would we really laugh? If they came in, wanting to join our community of faith, pledging countless hours of volunteer time, and pledging a tithe, giving 10% of gross income, would we really pull them aside and say: “sorry, you are not justified in God’s eyes, and God’s not interested in all those gifts and contributions.” Is that what we would say to such a devoted and dedicated person, such a potential asset to a struggling community?
And would the modern day tax collector’s prayer get a knowing smile from us. The equivalent is not the IRS worker who is doing a respectable job. The modern day tax collector is the lowest of the low, the community pariah, the untouchable. The homeless, the drug addict, the completely other one who just seems to challenge everything we stand for, everything we believe in, or maybe it is the one who just works our last nerve over and over again. Can you smile as God hears that one’s truthful admission of acknowledging the sin and brokenness that is the death they live in? Can you keep smiling as you see God smile on that one while God is deaf to everything that the other one is bringing to us?
But here’s the kicker – can you keep smiling when that lowly one comes back next week? Same condition, no movement, no amendment of life, no reform, just the same prayer: “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” spoken by the same individual. Are you still smiling with the joy of truth embraced? Smiling with the angels welcoming home a sinner? Again. Because God’s smile of grace will not dampen at all. That’s why it is called grace. God’s smile of grace will not dampen next Sunday or the next Sunday or a whole life of Sundays as the same prayer “God be merciful to me, a sinner” is heard.
Once again we see that, in Jesus’ stories, it is the one who tells the truth of sinfulness that experiences the outpouring of God’s grace. It’s not that the perfect Pharisee does not also receive a full measure of God’s grace. That is why it’s called grace. But the perfect ones, the ones who trust in themselves and their own works (as Luke writes in the introduction to this story), the ones who are self-righteous, also put – the ones who are working so hard themselves to get it all right, to get God’s approval through actions, the ones who are filling their lives with the stuff of self-satisfying goodness; they are the ones who have not room to experience God’s grace. For that grace is most fully experienced when we empty ourselves by telling the truth about ourselves.
It is the truth-teller who says, with the help and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, “I am dead, I am broken, I am empty.” That is the person who has room to experience the outpouring, overflowing, grace of God. The emptied one is the one who has room for the seeds of our new, resurrected life in Christ to be planted. They may not grow so that we see, but they are still planted. Meanwhile the self-righteous one is busy pruning and shaping the hedge of they’re own planting.
This is not a story about humility and letting everyone go through the door before we do. It’s not about staying late at every church dinner, being the last one washing the dishes. This is not a story that church leadership wants read at a time when everyone is asked to pledge their time, talent, and treasure for the coming year. (It was so much easier in the medieval days of fearing God’s wrath and doing works to pacify the Almighty, All-Anger One. But that is for next week when we look at the roots of the Reformation.)
This story is the perfect prelude to next week. As we begin a 500th anniversary commemoration of a re-awaking to the message of this story that Jesus told 2000 years ago.
It is by grace, they we are saved through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God. Not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph.2:8).
God’s grace is for all through Jesus Christ who saves us. But the ones who experience it mostly deeply through the work of the Holy Spirit, are the ones who see that everything else – good works and horrible sins, everything else, is to be laughed at.
The Rev. Mark Erson,