Gospel: Gospel: Luke 18:9-14
The coming reign of God will involve unexpected reversals of fortune with judgment rooted in mercy. Jesus tells a parable in which the one who humbles himself is exalted and the one who exalts his own righteousness is humbled.
9[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man 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.”
Those poor disciples. You thought Jesus was giving you an answer – but his answer is a trick question. So two tricky parables back to back about prayer, faith, and righteousness, don’t worry if you’re feeling a little off balance. Parables are meant to make us stumble a bit I think, or at least shake our footing loose so we are not so sure of ourselves and our world view – in order to reground us with Gods world view.
Parables are dangerous. And The danger in this parable is like many – when you start making one to one comparisons and use a parable as a template for what a “Christian should be like” or how we should act. Parable open us and suggest ways God might be at work. And if it sounds like the same old same old, we need to read deeper and go further.
So based on a quick evaluation of Luke’s Gospel – we might conclude that the Pharisees are the enemy. Don’t be like the Pharisees. They are bad. They are full of themselves. We, good Christians, are not like them. And then we pray.
“Lord, we thank you that we are not like those hypocritical, overly pious, self-righteous Pharisees. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble. And we do so much for this church Lord, we are so good at being Christians, but there’s some people Lord, who need to hear this parable… Amen.”
Oh, parables are dangerous. So what’s the parable actually trying to put before us?
Here is one the essential contrast. One praying person makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord’s benevolence. One of them wants to add his stuff to a list – and make sure while he’s at it, that God knows his list is a pretty good list, and that it’s longer than most. And presents it to God as a gift. The other hasn’t kept track of anything but faults and mistakes. And lays them all at God’s feet and says, “I’m giving these to you, I’m sorry, I dunno what to do with them.”
The other essential contrast is that One Praying Person makes it a competition and seems to be very concerned about the actions or inactions of others compared to themselves. The other praying person is only concerned with his own actions and sins against God and presumably others.
Luke tells us the audience of this parable – and the purpose somewhat. He writes that Jesus told the parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and that looked at others with contempt. I wonder if this changed their minds – or just confirmed their assumptions that they were indeed righteous. Hard to tell. Hard to know how a parable will work in someones life. Especially one like this that kinda convicts us all…
I used to be pretty sure I was on the right track. Doing all the right things. Making the right choices. Until about 6 years ago when I had a kid. Then I realized I know nothing. And now, she is old enough to remind me of it. Sometimes it takes a life-changing event to make you realize that most of those choices and things you just do your best with, praying without ceasing for patience, guidance, and strength.
The pharisee asks nothing of God – he does not ask for mercy or forgiveness or help or anything – but neither does he show mercy to his praying neighbor. This is at least a two sided parable if not more – turning the story around in our reading, we see multiple facets of the gem. Trusting in God’s righteousness, not our own. Freely admitting our sin and our weakness. But also avoiding judging others – and placing ourselves in the position of the righteous judge. It is God who judges and justifies – makes righteous – not us, and certainly not our list of good chores we’ve done for God.
It’s not the Pharisee but rather the tax collector, that morally suspect, second-class citizen, who goes home “justified,” right with God. “The Pharisee had enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble.” (New Interpreter’s Bible p. 343).
We aren’t told if the tax collector changed his ways in this short parable. But this isn’t the first tax collector to show up in Luke’s gospel and not the last. We’ll skip next weeks reading from Luke in order to speak of reformations, but Luke’s next vignette is a real tax collector coming face to face with god in Jesus Christ – and Zacchaeus the tax collector has his life transformed over dinner.
We come face to face with Christ in the meal we receive today. Eating and drinking for the forgiveness of sins. At a table where all are welcome and none are judged except by the righteous god who seeks to bring home the lost and feed the hungry. “When this happens and we forget if only for a moment our human-constructed divisions and stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, are justified by the God of Jesus and invited to return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude.” (David Lose,)