October 20, 2019 / Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost /Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Genesis 32:22-31/ Second Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5/Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
What would it be like to be a leader who has a very high opinion of himself, who trusts in his own goodness, and has contempt for those whom he regards as inferior and unworthy? Jesus describes one such leader in today’s gospel. The Pharisee was a respected figure in the community – a man of authority and responsibility. When he goes to the temple to pray, we are able to listen in on his prayer. He begins well – in a spirit of gratitude. Thanksgiving is always an appropriate element of prayer. He says, “I thank you God….” If only he had stopped right there and said: “Amen!” It would have been a beautiful prayer – short, yet right to the point. It would be similar to praying: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Certainly it is right at all times and in all places to offer thanks and praise to God. However, the Pharisee did not stop with saying: “I thank you God.” He continued…”that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers – or even this tax collector.” That is: “Thank you God for making me better than them. Thank you for making me such a great and noble person.” And then to remind God of his own worthiness, the Pharisee mentions his religious virtues: “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The man is a tither – a desirable asset in any congregation. Apparently he is a good and pious person.
What must it be like to be such a person? To have a soaring sense of self-esteem, to believe you are better than most others, to see yourself as God’s gift to the world. What do you suppose might be on his mind on his way home from the temple? Perhaps: what a good boy am I! Or – did many people notice me praying so devoutly? Or - why do they let a lowlife like that tax collector anywhere near the temple? Did the Pharisee feel closer to God for having prayed – or was he already as close to God as anyone could be? Or maybe, was he thinking more about himself than about God? What would that Pharisee have thought if he had heard Jesus tell this parable? Jesus addressed the story “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt.” Had he been in the audience, would the Pharisee recognize himself in the story? Would he be convicted? Or - would he be outraged and dismiss the story as fake news.
Then there’s the other man who goes to the temple to pray. What would it be like to be that man? As a tax collector he was widely despised for serving the oppressive Roman Empire – and for gouging fellow Jews out of their scant resources. His livelihood was derived from their misery. His unworthiness was no secret – it was known to all. In his shoes, what kind of prayer might a person be moved to offer? “Lord, help me to keep this job because I have a wife and children who are depending on me?” Or – “Lord, if I didn’t do this job, somebody else would. People should be mad at the Romans, not me.” Or – “Lord, I’m only working for the Romans until I make enough that I can afford to quit. I won’t be a tax collector forever.” Or – “Look, everyone in this world makes compromises in order to get by. I’m no worse than a lot of other people.” In many and various ways people go about trying to justify themselves and their behavior. Instead, however, this tax collector offers a very different prayer, short and to the point. “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Amen) Instead of patting himself on the back, like the Pharisee, or trying to explain and excuse what he does, the tax man makes a direct plea for mercy and forgiveness. He humbles himself as an unworthy sinner in the presence of almighty God, and asks for what he knows he does not deserve: MERCY. Jesus then proclaims the unlikely conclusion to the parable: “I tell you, this tax collector went down to his home justified rather than the other.” The despised sinner goes home right with God, while the esteemed Pharisee does not. To underscore the message, Jesus adds this: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Many of us have heard this story enough times to get the point. It’s good to be humble. It’s bad to be self-righteous. Therefore, all pompous, self-righteous narcissists like that Pharisee are to be despised and condemned. Their pride and vanity will surely cause them to fall. We can be thankful to God that we are not like them! Which, sadly, misses the point of the parable! We can make the same mistake as the Pharisee: judging and condemning another person – and congratulating ourselves for being so much worthier when compared with them. Consciously or unconsciously, we thank God for making us so good, well above average. I have always been very irritated by self-righteous individuals. Their pretensions about being persons of superior worthiness, and their propensity for freely judging and condemning others I find troubling and annoying. I long for such prigs to be exposed in all their arrogant hypocrisy – like the emperor parading in his new clothes. For this reason, I have always treasured this parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee. It confirms my virtuous judgement of all the vain, self-righteous pretenders in this world. It’s great to be on the right side, to be one of the good guys, calling out the hypocrites for all their abuses and deceptions. This parable justifies me and my wise and insightful judgements of others.
Except that it doesn’t. Instead, I hear Jesus saying to me: Remember to whom I told this parable in the first place: “…people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I like to picture myself standing next to Jesus, saying: “Yeah Jesus, give it to ‘em. Tell it like it is.” Actually, I belong among that crowd of folks who are convinced of their own goodness and are inclined to regard others with contempt. To be sure, self-righteousness and prejudice are sinful and destructive. But we can’t get right with God by condemning such behavior. We cannot justify ourselves by being wiser or better or more religious than others. All our efforts to feel good about ourselves because of our accomplishments, our intelligence, our status, our likeability, our wealth, our politics are misplaced and doomed. Self-justification is a fool’s errand. As Isaiah pointedly observed: “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.” (Is 64:6) No one is truly good but God – so it is God alone who can justify. And that is what God does for us in Jesus Christ. You and I don’t need to be better than anyone else. (In fact, we are not.) We don’t have to be good enough for God. The good news is that God is more than good enough for all of us. There is no sense to regarding others with contempt, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And it is a serious mistake to try to justify ourselves and to trust in our own goodness. Our true hope is to trust in the goodness and mercy of God. That’s what the tax collector did. What do you suppose was on his mind as he went home from the temple? (And what will be on our minds as we depart?) Was everything right in his world? Hardly. He was still a compromised tax man. He still lacked many of the commendable qualities that the Pharisee had. And yet he saw himself truly – and he saw God truly. He saw himself as a sinner in the hands of a gracious and merciful God. May God grant us the grace so to see and to know ourselves.