20 Pentecost, Proper 25 – October 23, 2022
“You Might Be Wrong.” So says a sign over a bar in a drinking establishment. “You might be wrong”.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us the story of two men who went to the temple to pray. One, a sleazy, good-for-nothing tax collector and collaborator with the Romans and swindler of his own people prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He had nothing, claimed nothing and sought everything.
The other man, an outstanding, righteous, sacrificial, Bible-obeying person prayed, “God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of everything I receive.” He is not just a good man, but a really good man, who does what Jesus urged and goes the extra mile in his living and giving.
Then Jesus lands a zinger by saying, “I tell you, this person (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee.” So, what do we do with that?
First, let’s look more closely at the meaning of justified. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines justified as “having or shown to have a just, right, or reasonable basis”. In our Christian theological context, justification is “the act whereby God declares a person righteous when he or she trusts Christ. It is the means by which God establishes a relationship between God and people. It doesn’t make people perfect but rather declares them perfect in God’s sight. Someone has put it this way: “Justification means God sees me ‘just-as-if’ I’d never sinned!””
The difference between the two prayers is that the prayer of the tax collector is addressed to God and God alone; it is an open and honest prayer, seeking nothing but the mercy of God. The Pharisee’s prayer is different: though it may be spoken to God, it is really about the Pharisee himself. And it is about him, in comparison to the one who stands far off. It is a prayer of self-justification, and its tone is one of condescension.
We completely miss Jesus’ point if we ever find ourselves saying, perhaps silently, “God, I thank you that I am not like so-and-so.” So, who is that for you? It’s probably not a tax collector or a Pharisee, but it’s someone or some type. Most all of us have this unverbalized, perhaps secret list of people or types of people we find detestable, and about whom we are certain and thankful that we are not like.
This is the problem: that we trust in ourselves that we are righteous, and regard others with contempt. And it’s so easy to do this! It’s so easy to divide humanity into groups, to decide who are the “good people” and who are the “bad people,” to draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” between who is acceptable and who isn’t.
Br. David Vryhof writes: This Pharisee and this tax collector can stand together on common ground if they both will see that their hope is not in themselves, but in God. We can stand on common ground with all manner of people if we will see that we are united in our desperate need for God. When we acknowledge our need for God and our oneness with all humanity, we no longer need to justify ourselves. We will be able to drop all comparisons with others. And we will begin to enter into the “freedom of the children of God” who know that their righteousness depends not on what they have done for God, but what God has done for them. This is the foundation of the gift of humility, to recognize that God is God, and that we are not God.
The children’s story Old Turtle and the Broken Truth gets at this nicely. In it, the truth of the universe comes to earth but on its way, is broken in two. One half – that we are special and deserve to be loved – gives strength and happiness, but over time it leads to arrogance and disregard for others. Only when we discover the other half – that all others are also special and deserve to be loved – can we live into the peace and goodness of the universe (and, we would add, of God!). This is the heart of justification, the empowering word that frees us from insecurity and despair and then frees us again to share that same good news and love of God with others. Recognizing that we are justified has the ability to provide our central identity and to shed light on all our decisions and choices, particularly regarding those around us.
So, let’s revisit that sign – “you might be wrong”. This parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly. Anytime we draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, we will find God on the other side.
Two men go up to the temple to pray. One preens, the other weeps. One self-protects, the other surrenders. One catalogues, the other confesses. God hears both prayers. But only the honest and desperate prayer of confession changes a life.
Two men went up to the temple to pray, and one went home justified because he recognized his need.
God is loving, gracious and merciful. Thanks be to God! Amen.