Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
Is political fatigue settling into you yet?
I suspect you will all agree with me that of late our political discourse has sunk to new lows. There is so much back and forth these days – so much vitriol, so much real and manufactured outrage, so many people talking about not much at all. And so many politicians who are sure that they are more virtuous then their companions across the aisle. And while none of us can begin to say where all this is going, there is no question that it’s going to get nastier before it gets better. To slightly misquote Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride!”
All of this reminds me of the place we find ourselves in Jesus’ parable from Luke’s gospel: in the first sentence we read that, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” And what is perhaps most interesting about this story is that it seems Jesus has laid a trap for us.
Two men pray. As soon as we hear that one is a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector, we know whose side we are likely to be on. After all, Pharisees are usually painted as the opposition; and those rejected by society (as the tax collector was in Jesus’ day) are usually found to be the recipients of the kingdom. Let’s read on.
The Pharisee prays in thanks to God that he is not like all those bad folks—thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors. He is righteous, following God’s law to the letter. The tax collector, however, won’t even look God in the eye, so to speak. Instead he looks down, beats his chest in a manner that gives physical expression to his penitence, and says, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” And then Jesus confirms what is clear: that the tax collector is the one who received God’s blessing, because of his humility.
So then, we all know that we should be like the tax collector, and not the Pharisee. We shouldn’t judge ourselves based on the actions of others, like that first man. But wait a minute—if we say we certainly don’t want to be like that Pharisee, aren’t we guilty of exactly what Jesus is warning against? This is a parable in which Jesus helps us see that, by pointing to someone else’s sin, the Pharisee condemns himself. And the tax collector who looked only at his own sin was justified. In order to get Jesus’ point the hearer has to point to the Pharisee’s sin, thus condemning one’s self.”[i]
Tricky, isn’t it? Well, maybe there is another way to look at all this. First, we should notice that, even if we don’t like the Pharisee’s attitude, he is right. He is a righteous man; he has been following God’s law faithfully. His problem is in his approach to God in prayer. Look again at what he says: it’s all about himself. It’s all “I” statements. He trusts in himself; He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
The tax collector, however, is reliant on God’s benevolence. He recognizes his shortcomings—he knows that he has done wrong in the eyes of the Lord—and he prays for God’s mercy.[ii]
This makes it all quite a puzzle. One man, who follows God’s law, prays in a manner that we don’t like; the other man, who has violated God’s law, prays in a humble, and devout way, worthy of imitation. Who should we identify with?
Well, I suggest we resist the temptation to think that we must make decisions about who is in and who is out. I don’t really think that is the point Jesus is trying to make. I don’t think this is a parable about human behavior, or about self-righteousness and humility. Instead it is about God: It is about the only one who can truly judge our actions and, in that way, it is about the nature of our interaction with God.
As always, the context of this story—what comes before it and after—may help us better understand the message Jesus sends to us through the ages. Last week we read from the first part of this eighteenth chapter of Luke, about perseverance: that God will grant justice to those who are persistent in their prayer. And at the beginning of the 19th Chapter we get the story of that wee little man, Zaccheus. There we will see how Jesus helps Zaccheus understand that his self-worth comes from within, not from the judgment of others. Through the gift of eating a meal with Jesus, Zaccheus realizes that he is a good person, and with this he turns his life around.
Through this series of stories, I believe we are learning about the nature of our relationship to God, and about who are as children of God. The first two stories are about our approach to God; and with the story of Zaccheus we reach the pinnacle of this series of stories, as we learn that the goodness of God is within each of us.
Today Jesus asks us to approach God with humility, yes, but with a clear understanding that no matter who we are, God see the best in us, and will act justly with us. We can dare to come before God just as we are, warts and all—in fact, I think God longs for us to be honest when we come before God in prayer.
Now, you know that I love the Book of Common Prayer. Our prayers are written using such beautiful language, words that carry profound meaning. But I sometimes fear that, by using the same words each week, we may not always really hear them. Recall the words of confession that we will say again in a few moments: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Do you really hear those words in the context of your own life? Are you able to really bring before God the ways that you have acted contrary to God’s will? As we pray these words, we must fill them with the reality of our own lives. Only then can we humbly repent.
In fact, the prayer of the tax collector is really the condensed, reader’s digest version of our prayer of confession, isn’t it? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Those simple words could well be our primary prayer. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
And when we can pray to God in this way—openly and honestly about our shortcomings, our fears, our faults—the parable says that the grace of God will be ours. We can trust in God’s mercy. What an amazing gift!
Now, I don’t want to suggest that all of this is easy. Perhaps it is the hardest thing we can do, to be really honest about who we are. But Jesus tells us that this honesty and humility is the key to a fruitful relationship with God.
Hear these words from Thomas Merton:
A humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, even of himself, since perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God before Whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle. Humility is the surest sign of strength.[iii]
God calls all of us to this kind of humility. This is a much higher standard than the one set by grandstanding politicians. Dare to walk humbly with God. Have an honest conversation—a real conversation with the one who is the beginning and the end. And then, be prepared to reap God’s mercy. Amen.
[i] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=815. Accessed 10/16/19.