Sunday, October 23, 2016
New Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, IL
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘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.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This week’s gospel text reads a little bit like a joke – a pharisee and a tax collector walk into a bar temple. But the punchline of this joke is deceptively tricky. Nowadays, we’re used to reading pharisees as hypocritical bigots and tax collectors as humbly repentant sinners; but the twist at the end of the story where the tax collector’s prayers are justified and the pharisee’s are not would have been more surprising to Jesus’ original hearers than it is to us. In contrast to the pharisee’s prayer thanking God that he is not like the tax collector, we know that the pharisee is the person that we are glad not to be like, right?
Ha! And there’s the punchline of the joke. It’s almost impossible to hear this story and not go away thinking something along the lines of, “God, I thank you that I am not like that pharisee!” As it turns out, we are every bit as judgmental as he is.
It’s a disturbingly easy trap to fall into, and Jesus knows it. It almost seems to be an inherent part of being human that we categorize people into “us” and “them” groups, deciding who is in and who is out. This election season – which will finally end in a little over two weeks – has shown us clearly the depth of division in our country. And that division also shows up in our churches, too – not just between rival denominations, but in and among our own congregations. In our churches, we single out “those people who don’t give enough money” or “those people who don’t take good enough care of the worship space” or “those people who sure don’t act very Christian outside of church” or “those people who hardly ever come to church at all.” We draw lines between ourselves and other groups of people without even thinking about it. But the problem with that – as Jesus points out in this story – is that God always ends up on the other side of that line.
So how do we read this story without making it about judging pharisees, or tax collectors, or anyone else? Jesus actually gave us sort of an interpretive key at the end of last week’s gospel reading. If you’ll remember from last week, the story of the persistent widow and the unjust judge ended with Jesus asking a question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Immediately after he asks that question, Jesus tells this story about the pharisee and the tax collector. The question connects the two stories and shows that they both have something to do with faith.
So where do we find faith in this story? Arguably, both the tax collector and the pharisee show some kind of faith when they go up to the temple. The tax collector beats his breast and cries out to God for mercy. This shows that he has faith in God as the one who justifies, and that he has faith that God will be merciful to him. I mean, if he didn’t have such a faith, he probably wouldn’t go to the temple at all.
The pharisee certainly professes faith in God. He is a righteous, generous, and educated person who has dedicated himself to trying to live by God’s commands. However, he shows by his words and actions that he actually puts his faith in himself rather than in God. In his prayer, he congratulates himself for essentially earning his justification through his own righteous actions, instead of crying out to God for justification like the tax collector. In the pharisee’s eyes, he has pulled himself up to where he is by his own sandal-straps, and so he looks down on other people for not doing the same.
But this is not actually good news for the pharisee. Even if it were true that he could somehow earn his own justification, the life he lives – of constant tithing and fasting – sounds difficult and stressful and exhausting. And it means that his justification depends entirely on his ability to keep going and keep doing all of these things. But what if he became ill and could no longer fast or go to the temple? What if his house burned down or something happened to a family member and he could no longer tithe because he needed that money more? No matter how well he’s doing toward justifying himself at any given moment, his human effort will always be limited, and sooner or later, he will fail.
What the pharisee fails to acknowledge in his prayer is that justification and all that we have come from God as free gifts. No matter where we fall on the scale from tax collector to pharisee, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s grace. We are all equally reliant on God’s mercy to make us righteous before God. This means that none of us has any right to judge anyone else for who they are or how they live or how they relate to God. But it also means that none of us has to worry about earning our justification by who we are or how we live or how we relate to God. Ultimately, the most important lesson to glean from this parable is that we are to put our trust in God, and not in ourselves.
I think that this is a message that is especially relevant for our times. I’m in a class this semester called “Spiritual Formation for Changing Times”; in which we’re talking a lot about the ways that the church has changed over the last several decades, and about how it continues to change. During one of the very first weeks of class, we took a look at the 2014 Pew Report on religion in America. For those who are deeply invested in organized religion, this particular report can make for some pretty depressing reading. Since 2007, the percentage of people in the US who don’t identify with any religion has risen from 16% to 23%, nearly a quarter of all Americans. The number of people reporting weekly church attendance has dropped, and distrust of institutional religion has grown. These trends are especially stark in younger generations, who have an overwhelming tendency to be much less religious than older generations.
This is a deeply painful reality for those of us who love the church. We long for these pews to be filled by our children and grandchildren, but that dream seems to be slipping further and further away. And in response, we buckle down and reinvest our time, our energy, and our money into developing and redeveloping the church. We fundraise and buy projection equipment and advertise to try to raise our visibility in the community, but none of it seems to work. So instead we argue with one another about what the young people want, what will bring them ‘back’ to church, and we create rifts in our congregations out of our bitterness and our grief.
But what we show most clearly by these actions that we have faith in ourselves to renew the church. We feel fear and anxiety about what the future of the church might look like because we can’t imagine how we can possibly carry on doing all this. We are tapped out on money and energy and resources.
What this fear and anxiety shows is that it is time for us go up to the temple, to stand before God and beat our breasts, saying, “God, be merciful to us, sinners!” It’s time for us to acknowledge that we are human, that we have fallen short. And it is time for us to put our faith back in God. It’s time for us to trust that our lives and this church are in God’s hands, not ours.
This means making a big leap of faith. It’s not easy to let go of our worries. And God has a long history of doing things that no one expected – making shepherds kings, blessing barren women with children, and even coming to this world in the flesh as the son of a poor carpenter. God is forever bringing life in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. Whatever comes next in the life of the church will probably be different from the church life that we have known, and it may be difficult for us to accept and adapt to that.
But we have every reason for hope when it comes to the future of the church. After all, we are the body of Christ for the sake of the world, and God has already raised that body from the dead once. God’s history with the church is full of mystery and miracle, and that gives us every reason to hope that the future will be just as wondrous and unexpected. It is time for us to let go of fear and anxiety about the future, to trust that the church is in God’s hands, and to wait with hopeful expectation for the new things that God is about to do. It is time to allow ourselves to be liberated by grace from the pressure of trying to earn salvation for ourselves and for the church.
So today, let our prayer be, “God, we give you thanks because we are like other people, like pharisees and tax collectors,” because they, like us, are justified by God’s mercy, God’s grace, and God’s love. Praise be to God!