Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pentecost 22C

I think I can sum up today’s gospel reading in one short sentence: Jesus says not to be a smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk. So, there it is. Now I can go sit down and enjoy the rest of the service having preached the shortest sermon of my life.

But if I do that I will have fallen into the trap that Jesus set for us. We think we know whose side we’re on in Jesus’ little morality tale. Especially in the way Jesus tells it. And that is dangerous territory. We better watch were we step.

In Jesus’ story we have two people praying. We have the smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk of a religious leader who thanks God that he’s not like the dirty, disgusting sinners and moral midgets that he has to deal with all day. He thanks God that he’s better than them.

And in contrast, we have a hated tax collector, who grew rich off of collaborating with the enemy, collecting taxes for the Roman empire, taking more than he needed to, and pocketing the difference. He was a thief and a collaborator. He helped God’s people under the Roman boot. He was NOT welcome at worship. And now he has the audacity to ask God for mercy.

The story says that the Pharisee held the tax collector with contempt. And I’m sure the feeling was mutual. There are no innocent parties here.

The thing is, the Pharisee isn’t wrong. That’s why this story isn’t as cut and dried as we might think. Remember that Jesus’ audience was Jewish. The Pharisee was modeling what an exemplary Jewish life looks like. He was doing everything right. He was the perfect Jewish leader. He was giving thanks that he was able to bear faithful witness to a world that God wanted.

And Luke’s listeners would have heard this story after the fall of Jerusalem where the temple was destroyed, and so they probably wondered why Luke’s Jesus picked on the Pharisees. Certainly he could have found a more appropriate target.

It was the Pharisees that kept the Jewish faith alive as Jews scattered all over the known world in order to escape annihilation after the Romans decimated Jerusalem, It was the Pharisees, this particular group of rabbis who preserved the faith and taught the tradition so it wouldn’t be lost. They took up the cause of salvaging the Jewish rituals from the temple ruins. If it weren’t for the Pharisees’ heroic faithfulness, Judaism would probably have been destroyed.

And so the Pharisee prays,

“I give you thanks, O God, that I have been able to keep the commandments, that I’ve been faithful in giving what you ask, that I’ve been remembering your peoples’ suffering by fasting. I thank you that temptation has not overcome my desire to live for you.”

If you think about it, it’s a pretty Lutheran prayer. The text says that the Pharisee trusted in himself, but I don’t really see that happening here. The Pharisees’ prayer is one of thankfulness in what God has done in him and for him. He recognizes that he couldn’t be faithful on his own. He thanks God that he can follow the rituals and the traditions that make up the heart of the Jewish faith. He thanks God for doing in him what he could not do himself. If it was all his own doing, this prayer was mere bragging to the Almighty, if his faithfulness was his own hard work, then why was he thanking God for the ability to be so obedient?

Then we have the hated tax collector, who can’t take his eyes off the floor. He whispers his prayer, “Be merciful to me, a sinner.” Simple. Humble. To the point.

But I wonder if both the Pharisee and the tax collector were praying the same prayer, but in different words. A religious leader, thanking God for helping him be faithful in a world where it’s so easy to fall away from the faith. And a tax collector who knows that his actions have put him at odds with God and God’s people, and who asks God to repair him and his broken relationships.

They probably didn’t realize they are really brothers with more in common than they might have liked to admit. They both called out to the same God asking for the same thing: they called out to the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Jacob and Rachel. Those stories were their stories. The same God was at work within both of them. They called out to the God who spoke the whole of creation into being, so that their same God would re-create them.

I don’t like the traditional interpretation of this story because it creates a binary universe. It trades on “us verses them.” It assumes that there are righteous and unrighteous people. Those who are in and those who are out.

And in interpreting the story the way we usually do - that the Pharisee is a smug, arrogant, jerk, and the tax collector is a poor, humble, sinner, then we better watch where we step, because this is where the trap that Jesus lays for us is hidden.

If I asked you where you were in this story, I’m guessing most of you would say that you’re more like the tax collector than the Pharisee. After all, you’re not a smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk. And then you’d look down your humble noses at the smug, arrogant, self-righteous Pharisee, and in doing so, you’d become just as self-righteous as he is.

“I give you thanks O God, that I’m not like this smug, arrogant, self-righteous jerk of a Pharisee. I thank you that I’m a poor, humble, sinner, who knows what the faith is REALLY about. I thank you that my eyes are not blinded by pride.”

And how would that prayer be any different from the one we believe the Pharisee prayed?

I think, for us, this story helps us remember that it’s God who does the humbling and God who does the exalting. It’s remembering that we, gathered in this place as God’s people, cry out to God where we are. It’s about trusting that God is at work in us, whether as a Pharisee who gives thanks for the faithfulness he’s been able to see in his life, or the tax collector who calls out to God to restore him to the life he knows God wants for him. In both cases, we are humbled, so that God may be exalted.

And at the end we will all go home justified.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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