Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Today’s Gospel lesson contains a little parable in which the moral is so abundantly clear it feels more like one of Aesop’s fables than a Biblical parable. The moral of the story is something like, Don’t think too highly of yourself like this hypocritical Pharisee; instead, be like the self-abasing tax collector. Or, even simpler, we can boil the point of this parable down to two words: “be humble.”
But here’s the thing: this parable is from Luke’s Gospel, and one thing we need to remember about Luke is that he is the master of reversals. He begins his story with Mary singing the Magnificat—in which the mighty are brought down low and the lowly are lifted up—and he concludes with a thief on the cross being promised paradise. If he’s telling a parable that seems too obvious, it’s probably a trap. So let’s take a closer look at these two characters.
First, there is the Pharisee. We are used to thinking of the Pharisees as Jesus’ opponents, but if we look at what he’s saying, we have to acknowledge he’s not really boasting. He’s only telling the truth: he is righteous. He leads a life blameless according to the Jewish law. He fasts and gives 10% of his income to God and genuinely doesn’t act like the unsavory characters to whom he compares himself. I’m almost jealous!
So if he’s actually doing what the Bible commands him to do, then what is his problem? It all 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. Yes, he prays to God, but in the end, his prayer is actually about himself. He misses the source of his blessing, which leads him to despise the people God loves. He may leave the Temple as righteous according to the law—just as he entered it—but he is not justified. And frankly, it would never occur to him to ask to be.
I understand this Pharisee on a gut level: I know what it’s like to work hard to be righteous—to strive diligently to be good. I want to do well in my various responsibilities: to be a good teacher, a good pastor, a good daughter, a good citizen, a good friend, a good wife, and more. Because I understand what it’s like to be the Pharisee, it is vitally important for me to remind you and to remind myself that our worth does not depend on our accomplishments! We are beloved children of God. We are of infinite worth to God, no matter what we do or don’t do. We have been set free to do our best in our various responsibilities not in order to deserve God’s love but because we already have it.
What a blessing it is to remember that self-worth, dignity, purpose, and— most especially the people around us –are all gifts from our adoring God! All these people around us are precious children of God who are also simultaneously recipients of God’s favor and love and deserving of our respect and care. There is no “other.” All our differences fade away when we recognize that we are kindred recipients of the love and grace of the eternal God.
Which leads us to our second character, the tax collector. Once again, Jesus in Luke’s story is messing with our expectations. This tax collector’s prayer doesn’t have an ounce of repentance in it. He doesn’t sound sorry about what he’s done wrong. He makes no pledge to leave his employment or render restitution to those he has cheated. He makes no promises to lead a new and better life when he leaves the Temple. The only thing he does is acknowledge that he is utterly and entirely dependent on God’s mercy.
Ah, but that’s everything, isn’t it? This tax collector has grasped the one thing the Pharisee did not: that all of his life is God’s—everything he does and everything he has, his past, present, and future—all are entirely dependent on God’s grace and mercy. It is a perfect illustration of what we call in Lutheran circles “justification by grace alone.” Which I must say I’m delighted to get to discuss, because I was kind of sad that I won’t be with you on Reformation Sunday next week. But here’s the heart of the Reformation in today’s Gospel! Here’s the concept that Luther clung to, the fact that if anything about his salvation rested on his ability, his character, his motivation, his goodness, or his faith, he was lost. He could claim nothing other than God’s good favor.
That’s the pinch point where the first part of the trap of Luke’s parable rests. Because the minute we decide that we are going to take the obvious message of this parable to heart and resolve to “be humble” like the tax collector, it’s pretty hard not to also be grateful we’re not like that Pharisee. And then the trap has sprung. Because that pits us against others again, and it’s not really about us. It’s not about our humility or our lack of pride or even about our being children of the Reformation, justified by faith. It’s not about us; it’s about God.
There’s another trap in Luke’s little parable too. That’s the temptation to hear in the tax collector’s prayer an example that we ought to live our lives fully and entirely aware of our status as sinners too. The minute we do that, though, we’ve once again shifted the focus away from God’s activity to our own status. And the trap is sprung one more time. Once again, it’s not about us — it’s not about our being sinners, undeserving of God’s grace or however we might choose to express our unworthiness. It’s just not about us; it’s about God.
This is the heart of justification. Because God is God, and God chooses to love us, we are freed from insecurity and despair, freed to share that same Good News and mercy of God with others. Recognizing that we are justified provides our central identity. It has the power to illumine all our decisions and choices, particularly regarding the people around us.
The main difficulty with justification is that it runs contrary to our cultural impulse to justify ourselves via our accomplishments, wealth, beauty, youth, or possessions. We live in a world that loves winners! What use is justification to the “self-made” man or woman that our culture adores? Maybe that’s part of the anguish. Because the goal of being self-made, self-sufficient, and impervious to need is a myth. No, more than that, it is a LIE. It is a crushing burden to carry, and it is routinely exposed by any illness,death, or loss. At the core, we are dependent, vulnerable, finite creatures. I know that is a difficult—maybe even painful—thing to admit, but the moment we do – perhaps in a flash of desperate insight kind of like the tax-collector’s – we are freed from the burden of self-justification.
This parable — and for that matter, the Reformation — was and is an attempt to shift our attention from ourselves — our piety, our passions, our faith, our failures, our glory, our shame — to God, the God who delights in justifying the ungodly, in welcoming the outcast with open arms, and healing all who are in need. God creates light from darkness, raises the dead to life, and pulls us all —Pharisees and tax collectors, righteous and sinful, disciples and ne’er-do-wells — into a realm of unimaginable and unexpected grace, mercy and joy. We are God’s beloved, recipients of amazing gift of grace, sent forth to love and care for all those around us.
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider