Sermon – October 23, 2016 – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Pentecost 23,

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

That, at the risk of stating the obvious, is a soliloquy from Hamlet. The plays of William Shakespeare are interspersed with these where his characters think and muse aloud as they engage the problems of love, or ethical behavior, or the anxieties of circumstance. They are spoken to an audience of one – the readers notwithstanding. Soliloquies, solo acts.

Jesus shares a parable today that tells of two men at prayer. But one is a soliloquy – a solo act – while the other is a petition directed at the other. The Pharisee’s conversation is with himself. The tax collector is engaging God with expectation.

The Pharisee, one of the chief stewards of the law and the religious ways of the people, prayed in a form that would have been quite familiar and acceptable to those listening. This was not an unusual way of praying, to thank God that he was not like those other sinners and scoundrels whose sins were so apparent, and as he glanced around, he include the hated tax collector among those sinners. This was an acceptable prayer, but somehow it is challenged in the parable. We’ll come back to why.

And then we have the tax collector. Everyone knew who he was, the guy who came around, palm up demanding taxes from his community of Jews on behalf of the Roman government, lining his pockets as best he could, held in contempt, even considered unclean under the law. Little to redeem him. Yet his profile before God is commended and the Pharisee’s is not.

The point Jesus is making is that the Pharisee’s prayer is to himself, and all he seeks from God is God’s endorsement. There’s the trap, the echo chamber where we proclaim and then agree with our own righteousness, especially as it is held up against another. As soon as we begin to compare our righteousness with another, when we begin lifting up in vanity and pride all of the wonderfully holy things we do, then we take our place with the Pharisee. The Pharisee’s problem is not that he wasn’t trying to be faithful, after all he surpasses the demands of the law by fasting not once, but twice a week, he tithes his income. His problem was that in his address to God, the prayer was all about himself, “I, I, me, me.” By the time the Pharisee is done with his inventory of holiness, there seems little for God to do but to agree with him. And in doing so, the Pharisee leaves no room for God to work in his life. He seems to think he’s all done, completed his journey of holiness, and now just has to buff it off a little now and then in his prayers. Just to remind God.

The Pharisee is not wrong about his zeal for the law. The Pharisee is to be commended for his careful stewardship of the covenant story. But we have to remember why Jesus told this parable and to whom. Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” You see, in assuming that shiny profile before God we must cast our shadow over another; we must treat another with contempt as we justify ourselves by comparison to the less holy. Jesus is not saying model your life after the taxpayer, be a thief, be greedy, betray your people. No, but he is saying that one thing that this tax collector got was that he emptied himself before God making it possible for God to begin working in him. The Pharisee felt little need and made little room for God to work in him.

Finally, after all is cleared away, this is an invitation to trust God over our own works, over our own self-assured, certainty of our holiness, over our contempt for others who so obviously fall short, whose sins are so apparent. This is an invitation to trust God first and then let God work in us. It is an invitation to open ourselves completely to God. How many times do we present our resumes before God and then demand that God respond approvingly, that God confirm what we already know. How many times to our prayers end up full of I’s and me’s and not you’s and they’s? I read somewhere that believers sometimes confuse the root with the fruit. . . the root of our salvation, of our righteousness is Jesus Christ, and the fruit of that root is the works we do, the love we show, the forgiveness we practice, the humility we assume before God and the neighbor. These are the fruits, produced by our faith in the root of the tree, Jesus Christ.

The Pharisee was confusing the root and the fruit, and in doing so the Pharisee had forgotten some of his own lessons, like that taught in the 51st Psalm, “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” The Pharisee was too confident in his own holiness. The tax collector for his part, just opened himself up, head down, heart heavy, throwing himself on the mercy of God, trusting that God is good for God’s word. He is the model, much to the surprise of the listeners.

So, we have this distinction, ‘don’t be like the Pharisee who is too confident in his own righteousness, be more like the tax collector who, recognizing his sinfulness, opens himself up the mercy of God. And that would be worthwhile to note even if that was all that was going on here.

We need to keep this story first in its time, where it would be shocking. . . a flipping of expectations that the sinful tax collector’s piety would be more acceptable to God than the Pharisee. Yet that’s what Jesus does, he flips things on their heads here and points out the tragedy of the Pharisee’s expectations that his was a redeeming position before God compounded by his contempt for those he deemed less holy. Because we know that when Jesus speaks, when Jesus walks into the room, when his teaching flips our expectations, grace proceeds from him, hope takes hold, change is possible. That’s why we call it the gospel, the good news. Grace takes the fore, and the grace of this story, friends, is that Jesus, while pointing out the behavior that fails to please God, Jesus is teaching and cajoling and turning even those who self-justify to the way of grace and forgiveness and new life. This is not just good news for the poor tax collector, this is good news for the Pharisee and all of us who are so confident that we have it all figured out that we don’t make a way for God to work in our hearts, those of us who still believe that we have to impress God into loving us. Because Jesus stands there as the issuer of the invitation the message is that his is the new way. The way of self-justification is deceptive . . . it cause us to separate from one another, . . . causes a dependency on our own litany of holiness for the confidence that God would love us, when God has told us time and again that he loves us without condition. There’s the real trap that Jesus wants us to avoid, and it is to that very trap, that very fear that the depth of his mercy is applied, for to confuse the root from the fruit, finally leaves us responsible and accountable for our own righteousness and salvation, and there is nothing but despair when we realize that we cannot, finally, do this. That the solo act is a dead end. Jesus does not want us to fall into that trap.

Instead, Jesus is determined to show another way. He has come not only to save that tax collector, the unambiguous sinner, to move in his life and bring new hope, he comes also to save the Pharisee, the self-satisfied, those least interested in his way and most confident in their own. The solo acts. He brings warning, teaching, but most importantly, grace. So urgent is his mission to claim even these hearts, As he was raised on the cross, they mocked him. “If you are the Son of God, take yourself down from the cross.” Yet he did not, did not make it about his own power and righteousness, instead he gave himself over completely to the mercy of God, he dying for them, too.

No, both the Pharisee and the tax collector need God’s mercy in Christ. Their only difference is that the Pharisee doesn’t know it and the tax collector does. Yet the good news is that Christ yearns—and dies–for the hearts of both. Let’s let that gracious gift inform our prayers, our worship, indeed our very lives.

Thanks be to God.