By The Rev. Sherry Deets
23 Pentecost, Proper 25 – October 27, 2013
In this week’s Gospel lesson, we are confronted with two very stark images of sinners. The first, a Pharisee, bases his definition of sin on whether or not he keeps the law. For him, righteousness is keeping the law, sin is breaking the law. He prides himself on knowing and observing the law, so he does not consider himself to be a sinner. By his own definition, he is righteous. His counterpart, however, is a tax collector. His profession is a despised one in which extorting fees over and above the taxes due is the source of his income. He is also most likely an agent of Rome. His vocation makes him outcast from his own community along with beggars, thieves and robbers. He is by definition clearly a sinner.
Let’s look at the Pharisee. Truth be told, he does speaks the truth: he is righteous. He leads a life blameless according to the law. He fasts and gives alms and indeed bears no resemblance to the unsavory characters with which he compares himself. What, then, is his problem? It narrows down to one thing: while he is right about the kind of life he should live, he is confused about the source of that life. For while he prays to God, his prayer finally is about himself, and because he misses the source of his blessing, he despises those people God loves. For this reason, he leaves the Temple as righteous according to the law as when he entered, but he is not justified; for it would never occur to him to ask.
Now, the tax collector. Once again, Jesus in Luke’s story messes with our expectations. There is no note of repentance in the tax collector’s speech, no pledge to leave his employment or render restitution to those he has cheated, no promises of a new and better life. Nothing, except the simple acknowledgment that he is utterly and entirely dependent on God’s mercy. The tax collector knows the one thing the Pharisee does not: his life is God’s — his past, present, and future entirely dependent on God’s grace and mercy.
The difference between the two men is one of self-awareness. The Pharisee is arrogant, self-satisfied, and confident that if he keeps the rules, he does not need to worry about his standing before God. And if he breaks a law, he knows what to do to atone for it. He is the master of his own soul.
On the other hand, the tax collector has been humbled by his life. He knows that he has no claim to innocence or privilege. He knows that he cannot rely on himself to save himself. He can only openly acknowledge his sin and pray for forgiveness. He has a healthy awareness of his need for mercy.
Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable to people who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” It is safe to assume then, that Jesus was not speaking to people who were scrabbling for a living, or living on the moral and financial margins of society. Jesus was, and is, speaking, pointedly, to those who “have it all together” and feel free to judge and condemn others who don’t.
But there is something else. Both of these men desperately need mercy. One is oblivious to his sin, the other is overwhelmed by his sense of shame at his sin. From Jesus’ perspective they are equally in need of the love and mercy of God. God’s embrace is big enough to hold them both. God’s forgiveness is offered to them both. And both should be beating their breasts’ and confessing. But the Pharisee is blinded and deafened by his sense of holiness, and can neither see nor hear the invitation.
In pastoral counseling and in psychotherapy, it is often said that the first step in getting well is admitting that you have a problem. If that is the case, the tax collector is healed on the spot, while the Pharisee remains trapped in denial. That denial is what kept Jesus in trouble with the “righteous” of his community. They refused to acknowledge that they also needed forgiveness, and were infuriated when Jesus related to people that they had written off.
Let’s not forget that it is by God’s grace that we are where we are and who we are today. Humility is the true acceptance and tolerance of the weaknesses and shortcomings of other human beings! True humility accepts another person’s weakness as much as our own!
A truly humble person neither views himself higher than others, nor does he regard himself lower, but is rather aware of a common bond with the other’s humanness–in having strengths and imperfections.
Think about this: “At the most fundamental level of our humanness, it is our weaknesses that make us alike, it is our strengths that make us different.”
A man unfamiliar with Christianity was accompanying a Christian missionary on a car trip in Africa. The missionary had been trying to explain the Christian message to his companion, but the man was having trouble understanding how Jesus would come to die for people who hated him.
Then the car began to act up, and they had to stop alongside the highway. There wasn’t much traffic, but when finally a truck carrying two men passed, the pair tried to flag them down. But the truck did not stop.
After a while, by tinkering with the engine, the missionary was finally able to restart the car. They had not gone far when they came upon the truck, now stalled by the road. Outside it were the two men who had not stopped.
The missionary’s companion said, “Now we can pay those fellows back in kind. They passed us up and now we will pass them up.”
“No,” said the missionary. “We must stop and help them.”
After they did that and were again under way, the man who’d been trying to understand Christianity said, “I now begin to understand what you have been trying to tell me about Christ coming for his enemies.”
That’s the way Jesus says we can go home justified, free and stronger in our faith. Let’s learn from the Master, let us be like the sinner in confessing our sins together. Amen.
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