Sermon: PENTECOST 23, October 23rd, 2016
In the Name...
A grumpy fellow once complained to a pastor, "I don't go to church because it's full of hypocrites." "That's not true,” the pastor replied, "We're not nearly full at all. I’m sure you’ll fit right in."
On the face of it, this morning's Gospel has quite a satisfying ring about it. A hypocrite gets his come-uppance and a pious man is justified. Simple and straightforward. But, if there's one thing we should remember about Jesus' parables, it's that when they seem simple and straightforward, we're missing the point.
Take today's. We're not dealing here with two stereotypes. The Pharisee is not the buffoon he may appear to be at first glance and the tax-collector is not the saint he may appear to be, either. These are much more complex characters and, to appreciate the power of the parable, we need to get to know them better.
The tax-collector. He's not just a bookkeeper or civil servant. He's a traitor to his people and a blasphemer to his God - to put it mildly. He's a Jew who has decided not merely to work for the Romans, the pagans who are oppressing God's Chosen People, but, he's actually taken a job where he makes a fortune out of that oppression. Tax-collectors don't care in the least who they hurt or what commandments they break. They're out for themselves, pure and simple. They're going to have the big houses and fancy women. They're living large and enjoying it.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, is a man who exemplifies the noblest principles of society and religion. Not only does he practice the strictest morality and ethics, he goes beyond that. How can we tell? By looking at his stomach and his wallet - his stomach and his wallet. That's where you can see how seriously he takes his faith.
"I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all I get." The Bible doesn't require fasting twice a week. This is something he chooses to do as a personal discipline. He gives tithes of all he gets. The Bible only requires tithes on certain kinds of income, but this man doesn't let that technicality affect his stewardship belief that everything he has belongs to God and should be tithed. He's a man who lets his personal lifestyle be seriously determined by his religious beliefs.
By his actions, he is a living example of the highest and best values, ethics, and morals. On the other hand, by his actions, the tax-collector is a living example of the lowest and worst values, ethics, and morals.
So why, then, does Jesus seem to praise the evil man and condemn the good? Well, let's look a bit further and see if that's really what happens.
The first thing we should notice is that both men have come to the temple to pray. No big surprise to find the Pharisee there, but, the tax-collector? That's interesting. What's someone like him doing in a holy place? Jesus' audience would have found that image curious, to say the least.
And, the second thing is that both men have come with a prayer of thanksgiving. The Pharisee gives thanks for the blessings he has received. The tax-collector gives thanks for God's mercy. So, third, both men have, in their prayers, revealed something about themselves. The Pharisee, that, because of the grace of God in his life, he can stand before God with head held high. The tax-collector, that, with his burdened conscience, he cannot so much as lift his eyes to Heaven. And, the amazing thing, the really incredible thing, is that both are right. Both are right.
In another place, Jesus says that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, we won't be getting into the kingdom of heaven and, when you think about it, that's a pretty disturbing thought. The righteousness of the Pharisees was legendary. They went out of their way to do all the right things all the time. So, if doing all the right things all the time is their righteousness, then, how can I exceed that? What hope is there for me, or any of us?
Fortunately, the same hope that there was for the tax-collector.
You see, this parable revolves around standards and the sad thing about the Pharisee is that he has chosen a poor standard by which to measure himself. He's looking down at the tax-collector. That's like Kohl's comparing itself to Dollar General. It's silly. It's absurd. There's no question that Kohl's has better products and service. The tax-collector, on the other hand, doesn't look down, or even sideways for his standard. He looks at God. He's Dollar General looking at Neiman-Marcus and he knows he has nothing to boast about. Nor should Kohl's, by the way, from that perspective.
The tax-collector is, indeed, a big-time sinner, like a drug pusher at a high school, but, the Pharisee doesn't realize that he has also committed a thousand and one more subtle sins and that, compared to God; he stands no taller than the tax-collector. Maybe he didn't murder anyone, but he hated them. Maybe he didn't commit adultery, but he lusted. Maybe he didn't steal, but he was jealous.
Yes, the Pharisee has much for which to be thankful. Yes, he can give thanks that his beliefs and practices have kept him from committing all sorts of evil deeds. But, all the tax-collector cares about is what God thinks and that's why he's in the Temple. He's coming to grips with the pain and suffering his sins have caused others. He knows he's betrayed his people and his God and he's begging for forgiveness. He's all torn up inside and he knows that only God can save him.
Jesus doesn't say the tax-collector was justified because his lifestyle was good. He doesn't say that violence and extortion are acceptable behaviours. No. On the contrary, God wants us to follow his laws and commandments as closely as we can. The Pharisees had the right idea. We should be good citizens and good churchmen. But, where they went wrong was that they focused exclusively on what they did and not on what they thought. They did a lot of good things, but, they thought they were better than everybody else and that was their mistake.
The parable doesn't tell us what happened to the two men, but, we can guess. We can guess that, like St. Matthew, the tax-collector gave up his sinful ways. Like Zacchaeus, he probably did a good deed to match his good thoughts and changed his life. The Pharisee, on the other hand, probably continued to think all the wrong thoughts and, spiritually, that cancelled out the value of his good deeds. He didn't change his soul.
It's really quite easy to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. We do the Pharisees' works, but, we pray the tax-collector's prayer. We pray, fast and tithe and live a godly, righteous and sober life, but we acknowledge the fact that we don't all the time. That's why we're here today, in the temple, as it were. We're thankful to God for the blessings we've received; but, we're also humbled when we think of the mistakes we've made and we ask God to heal us so that we can do better.
No, the church is not full of hypocrites. The hypocrites don't go to church because they don't think they need it. On the contrary, the church is full of people who are honest; honest with themselves and honest with God; part Pharisee and part tax-collector and seeking to strike a balance. May we succeed in that goal and return to our homes justified.
In the Name...