Monday, October 25, 2010

Really Good News

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 24, 2010: Luke 18:9-14

The parable we just heard is deceptively simple. It seems like an easy parable about the virtue of humility. It is not. Luke prepares us for it by saying

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.

This is a parable about who I trust to make me righteous or justified or saved. That is, it is a parable about the very heart of the Gospel. This is what Christianity looks like.

It is obvious from the story that it is not supposed to look like the Pharisee. We are used to Pharisees being among the bad guys in the Gospel, particularly in Luke. But let’s consider this Pharisee a bit more closely.

He is not really a bad man. He is, in fact, a good man. He is a model of the religious person. Yes, he prays in thanks that he is not like other people who are sinners, which sounds very arrogant to our ears. But that was a perfectly normal prayer for a Jew of his day, and, in fact orthodox Jewish men still begin the day by praying

Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a Gentile.

Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a slave.

Blessed are you, Hashem, King of the Universe, for not having made me a woman.

Which is just to say, he is praying like his people pray.

Consider this: what would we do if a man like this Pharisee walked in the door of this church? He would receive the usual Two Saints welcome, of course. But I’m also willing to bet that as soon as we got a whiff of his credentials, we, myself included, would move mountains to get him to sign on the dotted line and, by all means, get that man a pledge card!

So he’s a little arrogant. We can work with that. It’s more than worth it for what else he brings. Why, in a year or two he’ll make a fine candidate for the Vestry.

Then there is the tax collector. He is, well, a tax collector, most of whom appear to have been unpleasant people, to say the least. Tax collectors were extortionists and traitors. They were mostly Jews who worked for the Romans, the occupiers. They collected the “tax,” that is they collected what the Romans asked for and as much else as they could so that they could live comfortably.

Of course, maybe this guy was a nice tax collector. But that isn’t the point or Jesus would have said so. All that we know is that he beats his breast and says, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

If the tax collector came in our door he would, I trust, receive the usual Two Saints welcome, but with, perhaps, a little caution. And if all he did during the entire Service was sit in the back pew beating his breast and muttering to himself, we would probably be glad to see him walk back out the door and be out of our hair. One of us would undoubtedly say, “Something didn’t seem quite right there.”

And Jesus says he is the one who goes home justified, righteous, saved.

Is that fair? No it is not. Not sure it isn’t fair? How about this:

Next week we are back in the Temple and once more we see the tax collector. How do you want him to appear? With a little improvement, or even a lot if we are lucky? Some reform would be nice yes.

Instead all that we see is the tax collector dropping to his knees, beating his breast, and saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then what happens? I believe I hear Jesus saying once again that he goes to his home justified. That’s the logic of the parable.

Now is that fair? No, it is not. But then, grace is rarely fair, and throughout Scripture we have been warned, in words from Isaiah

My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.[1]

We want to justify ourselves or at least we think that is what God wants us to do. We must prove our worthiness. That is the business of life. That is the business of religion. And we have learned it with our mother’s milk.

But it is not what Jesus taught us. Jesus taught us that if we think of religion as all the things you and I must do to get right with God, than he came to do away with religion. Episcopal priest and theologian Robert Farrar Capon says

[The church] is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical, and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for [us].”[2]

This is the point at which most of you say, “Wait just a minute. Does that mean I don’t have to ‘be good?’ Can I literally ‘get away with murder?’ And, come to think of it, does this mean I don’t have to go to church?”

Yes. But (you knew there was a but, right?) who would do injustice to someone they know God loves? And, if the news really is that good, that in spite of everything I have done in my life, despite the mess that I am, God loves me as much as the day I was born, don’t I feel compelled to say “thank you?”

And that is why we call this “Eucharist,” from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” We do not come here week by week to make ourselves right with God. We come to say thank you that God has already chosen to be right with us.

And that is the heart of the Gospel. As Robert Capon says in many of his books: Jesus did not come to improve the improvable or reform the reformable. He came to raise the dead. And that is precisely what he has done, is doing, and will do for ever.

A little coda: we are coming up on stewardship time and there will be more to say about that in the coming weeks. But the application from today is simply this: stewardship, like everything else in Christian life, is about gratitude. It is about saying thank you. We don’t make pledges or give to the church so that God will love us. We give because we are grateful for all we have been given. Our giving is a sacramental sign of our thanksgiving to God. If we choose to make our giving part of our spiritual discipline and to give proportionally and sacrificially, those are good things. But we do them because we are grateful.

The good news, you see, is not a bait and switch. It is really good news. For us. For the Pharisee and the tax collector.

[1] Isaiah 55:8.

[2] From The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988), page unknown. The quote is Romans 5:8.

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

Aloha and thank you. I needed this parable for a sociology class paper. It is the only part of my sociology paper that REALLY makes sense to me! God bless you and yours this season and for all time and eternity. -Marilyn K.