Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Trinity, Keezletown, and St. Jacobs, Mt. Crawford, on October 23, 2016, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture lessons are Luke 18:9-14 and 2 Timothy 4:6-18, 16-18.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Last Sunday we heard Jesus’ parable about the widow and the unjust judge. We learned that God is nothing like that judge who only granted the widow’s requests in order to get her off his back. Jesus encourages us to be constant in prayer, daily connecting to God, who loves us and wants to help us. Well, today we have another parable and it is also about praying. This time Jesus wants us to be well aware that what is in our hearts as we pray is very important.
In introducing this parable, Luke tells us who Jesus addresses this parable to, when he first told it: He told this to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
Can we possibly think of anyone who builds themselves up by tearing others down?
Jesus presents two actors in this parable, a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. Now you and I are already conditioned to think poorly of the Pharisee, since the gospels present them as the antagonists or adversaries of Jesus so often. In this instance, this Pharisee lives up to our expectations. He’s at the Temple and he begins his prayer with a “put-down” of folks he thinks are not worthy: God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even this tax collector.
And then this Pharisee reminds God of what he has done that is so good: I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of my income.
The tax collector, stands at a distance and won’t even look up. He beats his breast and says,
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Jesus completes this parable with these words: I tell you, this (tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Justified: being declared okay in the eyes of the one who does the judging.
Let’s dig a little deeper into this parable. Why do you think Jesus made the Temple at Jerusalem the setting for his story? Back then everyone knew that when you went onto the temple grounds, you were immediately reminded of your status. There were “insiders” and “outsiders”. There were courtyards for Gentiles and unbelievers. There were courtyards for men and courtyards for women. There were courtyards for the “pure” and courtyards for the “impure”. The closer your courtyard was to the Holy of Holies, the more important a person you were, they thought. So before these men ever begin their prayers, they knew, and everyone observing knew, where they stood in the eyes of the Temple Leaders.
This parable may seem so straightforward. The good guy is the tax collector because he is humble. The bad guy is the Pharisee because he is conceited. End of story.
Well, not so fast. Consider that everything the Pharisee says in his prayer is true. He has been faithful in doing everything the law of his religion required. He gave 10% of everything to the Temple. He not only fasted, he did it twice a week, when the law required it just once per week. By the standards of Jesus and the Bible, he is living a righteous life, more so than all the others he happens to mention.
To bring this parable closer to home, you have certain standards and expectations of folks you want to be part of this congregation. It’s right in the constitution and bylaws. Attend worship faithfully, be baptized, receive Holy Communion often, give regular offerings, read the Bible, and live a clean life. Do so and you’re welcome to remain in the congregation and your entrance to heaven is assured.
I think this parable may just put us who think this way in the shoes of the Pharisee. We feel so righteous and good. But we have to be very careful not to miss the true nature of why we can feel confident and good. Luke says of the Pharisee, “he trusted himself.” His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord in the Temple that day, but it really is about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
The Tax Collector, on the other hand, possesses no means by which to claim any righteousness or good about himself. He really has done lots to offend the law of Israel. His only recourse then is to throw himself on the mercy of the Lord; to beg for forgiveness.
Let me share something about Martin Luther. The house where Martin Luther died is in Eisleben, Germany. Luther was born in Eisleben in 1483 and he was baptized in his nearby Catholic Church. When Luther was 64 years old, he returned to Eisleben to help settle a dispute there among some of the people and he preached his last sermon at the downtown cathedral. The house where he was staying is just across the street from the cathedral and that was where he became ill (I’m sure it was his heart). His very last words are a significant cap to everything he taught and we Lutherans believe and teach:
It is true. We are all beggars.
Back to our parable: the Tax Collector hasn’t done anything in this story. He didn’t give a sacrificial offering. He didn’t return the money that he had undoubtedly overcharged in taxing the people. Yet, Jesus says he rather than the Pharisee is accounted righteous and justified by God. What made the difference? It was giving all the credit to God and not giving himself the credit.
Toward the end of his ministry, the apostle Paul could have this same understanding about who gets the credit. You heard our second lesson today from the Second Letter of Timothy. The time for my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Finally, I would have us think about our Holy Communion today as an expression of what this parable is all about. As we come forward, we have confessed our sins in spirit of humility. We have asked for the forgiveness that only the Lord can grant. All are welcome at this table. We are all equal; we are all beggars. There is no special requirement to receive God’s gift.
This day may we again humble ourselves before God, give God all the credit, and not think of ourselves as better than others.
Thanks be to God! Amen.