October 23, 2022
Today, for our second reading, we hear another of Jesus’ great parables from Luke’s gospel. Listen as God speaks to you.
Don’t you just love parables? They never cease to teach no matter how many times we’ve heard them. I know whenever this particular parable comes around in the lectionary cycle… my first thought always is to imagine how this is the Sunday I get to say something like… yeah, what he said… and then turn around and go sit down. That thought… unfortunately for all of you … doesn’t last too long because soon I start to feel the tug at my preacher’s conscience. The tug that says… slow down… be careful here… you’re going to want to engage your brain on this one. Because like most of Jesus’ parables there is a hook that if we breeze by too quickly… we’re going to get caught. We like to think that these parables are always meant for those other people… but usually the lesson is right there for us.
So… at the center of this parable we have a tax collector and a Pharisee. Let’s start with the Pharisee. For weeks now as we’ve read passages from Luke’s gospel, the Pharisees have been popping up in opposition to Jesus. They are… in the context of the story being told… what we might call the spiritual villains… of so many of the gospel stories. Which is why, I feel I have to constantly give my usual and oft said counter statement that historically the Pharisees… as a group within Judaism… were good people who were seeking to live out their faith in real and daily ways. They were primarily a lay movement that sought to keep their Jewish values alive and relevant in a constantly changing social landscape. Sounds very Presbyterian that. Or to echo something I heard someone say recently… they were seeking to be the people of God without conditions or concerns for the times… they were seeking to be the people of God defined by the will of God alone. Although Pharisees have become… for us… short-hand for overly legalistic religionists… and because of their portrayal in the gospels we often think of them as one dimensional villains and hypocrites… Pharisees, by and large, were both a popular and a successful movement within Judaism.
I mean… look at what this Pharisee in the parable says… and I know what he says we often overshadow with how we perform what he says… always said in some snide, mustache twirling manner… “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.” His actions, though… if we strip away our usual framing… his actions really are commendable… fasting as a spiritual discipline. How many of us are good and consistent in some form of spiritual discipline? Mr. Gendy is wondering how many of you are tithing as we receive your pledges for 2023. Am I right? There is gratitude here in this prayer. I give thanks I feel almost on a weekly basis for the faith that has been given to this congregation… to each of you. I give thanks for the spiritual gifts that have been given to you… that you nurture and grow in your own life of faith. I give thanks for this congregation and the ministry of this church. How often do I preach on ethics and the values that should define our character because of our faith? Is it so bad to be thankful not to be a thief or a rogue or an adulterer or even to be like that tax collector? To be thankful to not be ensnared by the sin that unfortunately does trap others?
Think of it this way. Whenever you hear this parable aren’t you glad… aren’t you glad you’re not like this Pharisee? Cause you know as well as I do that if you say “yes”… the hook has you and you’ve been caught. If… in hearing this parable… we find ourselves feeling contempt for this Pharisee… then we’ve been hooked. That’s the trickiness of this one that gets us every time. We’ve been hooked just like every time we use Pharisaic as an adjective to describe why we are thankful we’re not like those others… those poor misguided conservative evangelical Christians. Lord, I’m so thankful I’m not a Southern Baptist… or others who deceive themselves into thinking that they’re non-denominational… but they’re really Southern Baptists. I’ll admit to uttering that one time and again.
Sometimes there’s just not a whole lot of light between thankfulness and contempt, is there?
All who exalt themselves will be humbled. “Exalt” is such a Bible word. Though I guess “pride” doesn’t quite work here because pride isn’t always backhanded or arrogant or boastful or rude. Thanks to Paul and his definition of love… contempt… we can see… contempt is a failing in love. Like so many other of Jesus’ teachings… we’re being warned about heart disease. Diseased love. If this is another lesson from Jesus teaching us how we ought to love our neighbors… how we ought to love others as God loves us… then contempt is itself a failing in love. Who loves through contempt? Paul points us in the same direction in his letter to the Philippians… “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” If only this Pharisee knew that lesson as well as Pharisee Paul. Or the lesson found in the letter to the Colossians… “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”
Easy words to write and to say… right… but not always easy words to do. Faith isn’t easy to practice and is full of our failure and our repentance and our striving to learn and to grow and to hopefully be a bit better the next time. We know… we understand that contempt is a poison… but… we pray… that it is a poison with an antidote. That we can generate enough humility about ourselves… not to be loose with what we truly value… but to be honest with ourselves when we see ourselves falling short… when we see contempt growing in our hearts and then… having the courage… looking at what our contempt says about ourselves.
Which brings me back to our tax collector. I don’t want to forget him today. Because as we do… we can be a bit too legalistic when it comes to Jesus’ parables. What is commendable about the tax collector in this parable is that he is honest with himself in this moment. He is a sinner. So is the Pharisee. So am I. So are you. That ritual we do of confessing our sins together whenever we worship together… it’s there to orient us… to center us… to ground us… to help us be honest with ourselves… to make sure we’re not getting a little too big for our spiritual britches.
But it has to be more than saying the words. Our tax collector has to do more than make the show… say the right words… show the proper signs of humility in the moment. There has to be a what comes next. What comes next after leaving the Temple humbled… justified? What comes next if he feels the burden of sin lifted? He’s a tax collector after all! Luke’s storytelling puts tax collectors in their own special category of sinner. Remember another story where those Pharisees accuse Jesus of eating with tax collectors and sinners? Regular sinners don’t even want tax collectors to be associated with them they’re so bad!
So… what comes next after justification. Does his humility remain in the world he lives in? Does his tax collecting tend to skew more towards the social good of taxes and less from the opportunity for his own personal gain? Does he give up tax collecting altogether? Maybe he’s the tax collector with a heart of gold. Maybe all tax collectors have a heart of gold and its just the system that corrupts. It’s not as though we would ever paint with large brushes of contempt for Pharisees and mercy for tax collectors. Surely by now we’ve gotten past such things. Sarcasm. Sarcasm. Eye roll.
Maybe the lesson today we need receive from this parable is about quick judgments and the long journey of faith. Yes, the Pharisee needs a dose of humility this day so he can continue to move forward and continue to grow in his faith. The tax collector may go home justified, but his journey is just beginning. If he comes back to the Temple next week and beats his breast saying “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And the week after that. And the week after that. But… God’s mercy never penetrates… never begins the process of healing the tax collectors heart disease… what is the good of that? Justification without sanctification is just as worthless as sanctification without the understanding humility of justification.
Don’t you just love parables? They never cease to teach no matter how many times we’ve heard them. Amen.