20th Sunday After Pentecost – October 27, 2019
One of the convictions that shapes my life and ministry is my firmly-held belief that our God has a sense of humor. To wit: I chose to preach on the text I just read almost a year before I had any idea that this would be Reveille Day, and I would preach one time. In the sanctuary. Thirteen steps above where you are seated. At the end of the stewardship campaign. Using a text where the guy who tithes is actually criticized by Jesus. All in a sermon, on the virtue of humility.
I am convinced that there are certain things, sisters and brothers, that only happen to me.
The Academy Award-winning actor Brad Pitt was once asked what keeps him humble, and he told the following story: “I telephoned my grandparents the other day, and my grandfather said to me, ‘We saw your movie.’ ‘Which one?’ I said, and he shouted, ‘Betty, what was the name of that movie I didn’t like?’”
He goes on to say “I thought that was just classic. I mean, if that doesn’t keep your feet on the ground, what would?” (1)
This morning’s text is difficult to both understand and preach. It would have been a tricky teaching for Jesus’ hearers as well. The reason that it is difficult to understand and preach is because, as the Lutheran pastor David Lose writes, “Anytime you draw a line between who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out,’ this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side.” The reason it would have been tricky for Jesus’ original audience is because it once again illustrates Jesus’ propensity to make heroes out of the “wrong” people—tax collectors, Samaritans, gentiles, women, and the like. The risk we run as hearers of this text is the temptation to say to ourselves (or to God!) “Thank God I am not like this Pharisee!” (2)
Last week, I remarked to our Wednesday noon communion group that this could be the shortest sermon that I have ever preached. Boiled down to one sentence, this sermon could simply say “Don’t be like that Pharisee. Amen.” In fact, for centuries this text has been more or less preached that way by many preachers, preachers including me. And yet, as I spent the week consulting nine different commentaries on this text, I realized that this text is far richer and more complex than initially meets the eye.
One of the reasons that sermons on this text can easily tilt towards the facile is because centuries of Christian antisemitism have reduced the Jewish party of the Pharisees to something much less than they actually were. In fact, as you know we even have developed a pejorative term based upon the stereotypes of the Pharisees: Pharisaic, a word of which the Oxford English Dictionary lists as its second definition “self-righteous or hypocritical.”
As such, we are unsurprised that in this morning’s text, the Pharisee behaves as he does as he looks down his nose at the hated, lowly (though repentant) tax collector. “Thank God,” he says, “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.’”
The more I read this text, the more the Pharisee sounds in my mind like the Dowager Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey. Imagine Maggie Smith reading the Pharisee’s line and you will we know what I mean.
The truth, however, is that Pharisees were not elitists. This was a charge sometimes leveled against the Sadducees, who were identified by the contemporary historian Josephus as Hellenized Jews representing the upper social and economic echelon of Judean society, and whose religious roles included maintaining the Temple. (3)
On the contrary, the Pharisees were the theologians of the people, those who sought to make the ancient teachings of Judaism relevant to the society of their own day. Despite the fact that the majority of Luke’s references to the Pharisees are not complimentary, for the majority of Jesus’ Jewish listeners, the Pharisees would have been respected teachers who walked the walk and talked the talk. (4)
In other words, they tried to do what we try to do.
Which brings us to the tax collector, someone who by contrast, would have been truly despised in the time in which Jesus lived. As you might expect in Jesus’ day people were no more excited to pay taxes than we are, especially when they are provided for the oppressive, pagan, occupying force that was the Roman Empire. Remember that the Jewish people believed that the arrival of the messiah of God would usher in an overthrow of the Roman oppressors and return the kingdom to Jewish control. As such, paying one’s hard-earned money to a government who you wish to exit your land was not something people enjoyed doing.
So there you have it: two men in the Temple in Jerusalem addressing God, one giving thanks for how righteously superior he is, and the other over in the corner, all alone, eyes downcast, beating his breast, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! As the scholar Ibn al-Tayyib notes, “the Pharisee talks as if there were no righteous person on earth as noble as he, while the tax collector prays as if there were no sinner on earth as evil as he.” (5)
The word Pharisee means “set apart,” so it does not surprise us when Jesus describes him as “standing by himself,” which he does in this parable so that he does not become ritually unclean. According to scholar Kenneth E. Bailey, “the prayers of first century Judaism was of three types: confession of sin, thanks for bounty received, and petitions for oneself and others.” He makes the point that this Pharisee’s prayer falls into none of these categories; “his public remarks are an attack on others clothed in self-advertisement…Rather than comparing himself to God’s expectations of him, he compares himself to others.” (6)
The Pharisee reminds God “I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” while the written law only required fasting on the annual Day Atonement. The Pharisees instead chose to fast two days before and two days after each of the three major feasts, or twelve days each year. This man fasts 104 times each year! Likewise, he only needed to tithe grain, oil, and wine. This Pharisee tithes from all of his income.
If the Pharisee’s generosity is borne of his genuine gratitude for God’s blessings in his life; if he lives and gives for God’s glory, then so be it. In this scenario, his giving glorifies the God who created him. Yet if his generosity is only so he can think more highly of himself than he does of others, he has misused religion entirely, and especially a religion that holds among its highest virtues “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with your God.”
In other words, the Pharisee goes home unjustified, not for doing the right thing (which he in some ways did), but for doing the right thing for the wrong reason. We can do and do and do and do, yet if our hearts are not changed, and if they do not bear the fruits of the spirit, our doing can actually draw us away from God and away from others.
In the end, this parable is a liberating text about grace, a reminder that, in a world where we are constantly reminded that we are only what we do, that our value is predicated upon our output, our standing before God comes not from all of our many accomplishments, not from all our accolades, and certainly not how we stack up against everyone else. Instead our standing before God comes from who God is and the mercy God shows to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a mercy we can never earn, which is good news, because we can’t and thankfully do not have to.
Furthermore, in the tax collector we learn that some of God’s best work is with broken people ready to make a change, to do something new, people who have given up on everything but God, people like this tax collector, this outsider, the underdog, the kind of person the Gospel of Luke just loves to talk about. In this parable, when all we can ask for is mercy, God is present and grace abounds.
This month, as we have moved through this sermon series called “The Four Virtues of a Joyous Life” where we have explored gratitude, persistence, faith, and humility, I have found myself particularly moved by reflections shared in worship by Tracey Watson, Gretchen Biernot, Mel Ely, Jim Tucker, Joe Thornton, Boyd Bullock, Shirley Bogaev, Claire Kaugars, and Annie Lou Wax, reflections on one simple question: What do you love about Reveille?
These responses were as different as the people who gave them, and they included things like learning the faith as a child growing up here, finding a life’s call and vocation to teach equality and righteousness, being baptized as an adult here after not being raised in the church, finding a place and a people who carried you through the heartbreaking death of an infant, a place where you could raise your kids and use your professional gifts to heal the sick half a world away, and so on, and so on. There is simply more than I have time to recount.
In many ways, the real blessing of the story is not the Pharisee, extraordinarily generous though he was, and it is not the tax collector, despite the newfound clarity with which he now saw his life, work, his work and his trajectory. The true blessing of the story in so many ways is the Temple itself, for the Temple in this parable serves as the place, the house of worship where two very different people from two very different lives, people on opposite ends of the social, economic, religious, and cultural landscape could gather and encounter nothing less than the presence of the living God. It shows the power of what God does when God gathers us together out of our disparate lives and allows us to be an integral part of each other’s transformation in this life, in this time, and in this place.
Indeed, the Pharisee could have added some much-needed “Why” to the “What” of his piety, and indeed, the tax collector, if his words were as sincere as they sound, needed to depart from the Temple and go home and seriously update his resume to reflect his newfound life’s trajectory. Still, the house of God was and remains the place where, in the often mysterious way in which our God works, people were able to come as they are before a righteous and holy God who takes us as God finds us and makes us into something beautiful, redeemed, and new.
What is your reason to submit an estimate of giving card today? What transformation of God’s world will you help to bring to bear? There are children in this church today who will stand one day in this chancel on their confirmation day and say those words of eternal life: “I believe.” There are people whose names we do not know who will someday come through our doors and find a new or renewed trajectory for their lives. There are people in this place already healing each other’s wounds, bearing each other’s burdens, blessing each other’s lives.
What will you, in the words of the psalmist, “give back to God for the blessings poured out on you,”the God who liberates us from being only what we have done?” There are as many reasons to give as there are people who make Reveille the church, the outpost of God’s kingdom on earth that it is. It is Christ and Christ alone who is the same “yesterday, today, and forever. That is God’s promise to us, and in the end, that is what we are investing in today, for the sake of Christ, for the sake of generations to follow, just as the generations before us did as they gathered in this space for the first time, sixty-five years ago this week, all for the glory of the God who takes us as God finds us, heals us in our brokenness, unites us in our differentness, redeems us in our sinfulness, and resurrects us in God’s permanence. Thanks be to God.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, p. 190-191.
Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, Kindle Edition.
Bailey p. 354