Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost October 23 2016

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
October 23, 2016
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-28; Luke 18:9-14

I don’t want to admit it, but I’m can be rather like that Pharisee in today’s parable.  I judge people.  I make assumptions about them and sometimes, I’m really glad I’m not them and don’t live their lives.

Let’s face it, lots of people make choices different to our own, or the ones we might make, if we found ourselves in their situation.  It happens all the time.

Sometimes, we make bad choices.  Sometimes, others do.  But taking a job where everyone despises you for doing it has to be hard.  And sometimes, that’s what life hands you.

We read this parable and think that Pharisee was a real jerk.  (Is that judging?)

The Pharisees were known for being hyper-religiously observant. They never missed a weekly meeting of their synagogue, they made all the sacrifices according to the Temple calendar, they attended all the festivals, they tithed, and encouraged people to read the scriptures and worship God.  They hassled Jesus with “gotcha” questions and critiqued everyone and everything that went on around them.

And to top it off, this particular Pharisee thanked God that he was blessed in this way, given the gift to know and to love God and to do all the right things.  And he found, on measuring his life against that of the tax collector, who was a notorious collaborator, oppressor, and all-round sinner and bad person, that his life was better, that he was better, than the taxman.  And he was glad!

But isn’t he exactly the sort of person we want in church?  Maybe not so obviously self-righteous, but always ready to show up and do the right thing, to attend all the services, to sing all the hymns, to give lots of money, to serve on vestry, to advise the pastor, and to ensure that other people help out, too?

And then there’s this tax collector.  In those days, tax collectors weren’t like the IRS, and our IRS employees are not like the tax collectors of old.  In those days, tax collectors were required to cough up as much as the regional bosses told them to, and the bosses didn’t care how they went about it. On top of that, they weren’t paid a regular salary; they had to raise more than the Romans demanded in order to make a living.  We also know that in many cases, they generally took more than they needed, and didn’t do so badly into the bargain.  Probably it helped that they could get some backup from a few brawny centurions if someone got mouthy or tried to hide assets.

So our tax collector would have been generally despised, because he was taking away the hard-earned income of honest people and living high on the proceeds.  And he wasn’t exactly welcome in the homes of the good people whom he victimized, or in the synagogues, because he was also a collaborator with the wicked oppressors.  He’d be about the last person you’d expect to see at worship services, or in prayer, just as the Pharisee would be the first person you’d expect to see there.

So here’s Jesus, turning things upside down again – praising the despised, and despising the praised.

Don’t you wish he’d stop doing that?

Because what do we feel when we realize that the people we thought were good and admirable and worthy examples for the rest of us are not so good and not so admired, while the people we thought were out-and-out losers, the kinds we want our kids to avoid, are the very ones God calls out as examples to the rest of us?

We feel really nervous and uncomfortable, don’t we?

Now it does help – some – that Jesus talks about this comparison in terms of pride and humility. 

The Pharisee wasn’t just a “good person” – he was arrogant about it!  He thought God had made him good and then rewarded him for his goodness.

And the tax collector might have been a “bad person” – but he was at least humble about it, and conscious that he deserved nothing from God.

So is it okay to be all the good person things if we’re humble about them?  Is it okay to be all the bad person things, if we don’t take pride in them?

Yes, but…

I think if we just say the story is about the danger of pride, and the virtues of humility, we might still have a problem.

Is pride always a bad thing?  What if we’ve done a good job at work and our boss says so, or gives us a raise, or a promotion?  What if we worked really hard and accomplished something no one else has been able to do.  What if we sang on The Voice and won the contest and a recording contract?  Should we put all that down to God’s gift alone?  Didn’t our efforts have something to do with our success?  Don’t we have some reason for being proud of ourselves?

Is humility always a good thing?  What if we hold back and sell ourselves short at work, and don’t get promoted, or we lose our jobs because we don’t do all that we can do, or be all that we can be?  How if we think that no matter what we do right, we will always be wrong?  How if we believe we have no value in the world or to God? 

Yes, I’ve drawn some fairly extreme suggestions from this contrast between not-too-much pride and way-too-much humility, but I think we can see that there may be times when either emotion might be suitable or not suitable, depending on the circumstances.

So what are we to think about this parable?

More than vice and virtue, I think the parable is about God’s grace and God’s mercy.

Which puts us right back into the series of questions of grace that we’ve been engaged in for the last few weeks.

God’s grace can come, unexpectedly, from unexpected sources; it can even seem grudging and hard-won, or, more happily, abundant and exorbitant and generous.

And here, in this parable, it shows up as justification – and in this parable, the one who goes home justified – that is, forgiven and at peace, is the one who realizes that only God can offer this peace and forgiveness.  And God grants it to those who know how badly they need it.

The problem with our Pharisee is he didn’t know he needed a grace he had not actually received – he thought God had made him better than anyone else, or at least better than the collaborating tax collector. He thought he deserved this for being so holy and righteous.

But the grace God was offering was that he might see himself as just as much in need of forgiveness and mercy as the tax collector.  That he might see the tax-collector as a brother and fellow believer of God, who might have something to teach him about his own need for that forgiveness and mercy.

Instead, this Pharisee chose to judge and dismiss both the tax collector and God’s mercy.

Rich in pride, he is poor in spirit.  Rich in man’s regard, he is bereft of God’s.  I hear echoes of the Sermon on the Mount in this parable; do you? 

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[1] 

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you, on account of the Son of Man.”[2]

The truth is we all need God’s mercy.

Once we realize that, we will have the proper amount of pride – none of it arrogant or self-serving – and the proper amount of humility – none of it self-degrading or wallowing.  We will know that we are valued, not for what we bring or who we are, but simply because God is merciful and loving.

Fortunately for us, God has offered mercy to us, and it is there for us, and all we have to do is accept our need and God’s gift.



[1] Luke 6:20

[2] Luke 6:22

  February 2018  
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