First Congregational Church
October 23, 2016
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
“Almost, But Not Quite”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A young boy lived in the country. His family had to use an outhouse, which the young boy hated. It was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and always smelly. The outhouse was located near the creek so the boy decided that he would push it into the water. After a particular spring rain, the creek swelled so the boy pushed it in.
Later that night his dad told him that he and the boy needed to make a trip to the woodshed. The boy knew this meant punishment. He asked his father why, to which his dad replied, "Because someone pushed the outhouse into the creek and I think that someone was you. Was it?"
The boy responded that it was. Then he added, "Remember when George Washington's father asked him if he had chopped down the cherry tree? He didn't get into trouble because he told the truth.” "That is correct," the dad said, "but his father was not in the cherry tree when he cut it down.”
This morning’s scripture passage is another of Jesus’ parables, one that doesn't really have a name, but someone I read this week called it the Parable of the Prayers - or Prayers. In the book of Luke, this passage immediately follows the one from last week, the passage about prayer that never actually uses the word prayer. So today’s passage - is almost like last week’s, but not quite.
9 He 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. 11 The 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But 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!’ 14 I 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.”
Thank you, Mary. There was a very lost, wicked, and rebellious man who decided it would be good for business if he went down to the church and joined it. He had a little scam business on the side, cheated on his taxes, and had never been a member of a church in his life. But when he went down to be received into membership, he gave public testimony to the church that there was no sin in his life, and that he had grown up in the church, so they readily accepted him as a member.
When he went home he told his wife what he had done, and his wife, a very godly lady, exploded. She condemned him for being a hypocrite, and demanded that he go back to the church the next week and confess what he really was. Well, God used his wife to speak to him, and he took her admonition to heart.
The next Sunday he went back to the church, walked down to the front again, and this time confessed to the church all of his sins. He told them he was dishonest, a cheat, a scam-artist, and that he was sorry. They revoked his membership on the spot. He walked out of the church that day scratching his head and muttered to himself: "These church folks are really strange. I told a lie and they took me in; and when I told the truth they kicked me out!”
In Jesus’ time, the Pharisee would have been considered the good guy–wearing the white hat - a good synagogue leader in his town. What the Pharisee said he did in our passage, he likely did. For the most part, Pharisees were super-religious men who were extremely careful about obeying the Torah, which is basically the first five books of the Old Testament. They also followed the Mishnah, which explained how to obey the Torah, of which there might be several chapters in the Misnah devoted to one single verse in the Torah. In addition, they followed the Talmud, which was a commentary on the Mishnah.
A tax collector, in Jesus’ day, was considered the scum of the earth, the very bottom of the religious food chain in Israel. He was considered the villain–the one with the black hat, so-to-speak. Tax collectors were usually Jewish people, hired by the pagan Romans to collect taxes to be paid to Caesar. (Insert the recollection of Jesus’ words, “render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s.”)
Because the Roman government didn't pay these Jewish tax collectors, the collectors demanded more than what Rome required, adding their own sur-charge. Most of the Jewish population would have been fine with this arrangement, except that many tax collectors, on top of being deemed traitors to their own people, extolled more than their fair share of tax from the people, lining their own pockets at the expense of the everyday people.
Over the years, when looking at scripture passages, I’ve learned that one of the first things is to look for, is the most obvious lesson. In this case, it would be the easy judgment of the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is to be humble. Maybe the second thing to look for in a scripture passage is the less obvious — in the obvious; what - in our understandings - may actually be interpretational traps.
The “trap” of the simple interpretation of this parable is in completing the circle. If we don’t pay attention, as David Lose says, our prayer can become, "Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble, which of course we are, or we wouldn’t be praying this prayer.”
How many of us, on seeing someone down on their luck, have said - a little too cavalierly, ”There but for the grace of God go I?” It isn't that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
We don’t know if today’s tax collector was a crook or not, but in his mind, he thinks that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He believes that he has done nothing of merit; in fact, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.
It’s also helpful - when looking at parables and passages - to take into account the physicality of the situation, and in today’s parable, it takes place at the Temple. On the grounds of the Temple, one was always aware of who you were, of what status you had, of what you thought you could expect from God. Although everyone could go into the Temple, only Jews could pass into the next section. And then only Jewish men could go into the next section, which was closer to the Holy of Holies. Then there was the section where only Jewish religious leaders were allowed. And finally, there was the place, the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter, once a year. Each section had clear “insiders” and “outsiders.” In the mind of this morning’s Pharisee, there were two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and Lord Almighty, wasn’t he glad that he wasn’t one of the later?
Since this is a parable - a story that Jesus made up to make a point - a story with many layers of meaning - here’s my thought. Both men had a little bit right and a little bit wrong. While humility is a great characteristic, I don’t think that God gets all excited when we view ourselves - or anyone, for that matter - as low as dust and good as worm slime. Granted, the passage doesn’t use that language, but it gets darn close, with the tax collector beating on his chest, not daring to even look up, standing in the back, so unworthy. For people who suffer from or grew up with various mental illnesses, humility is not necessarily the best quality to nurture.
Yes, we need to realize our own sins, to repent and work hard at not repeating them. But at some point, we need to come to the place of realizing and embracing the fact that God has gifted each of us with a unique set of abilities, to do things in this world that not everyone else can do. Those abilities can change over time, but that doesn’t mean we are without purpose.
And even though the Pharisee gets a little right, and the tax collector gets a little wrong, neither one has the complete truth - almost, but not quite. Because whenever we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee and the tax collector.
It was my not-yet-met buddy, David Lose, who dropped the bomb on this idea of dividing groups into those like us and those not like us. He said, “Anytime you draw a line between who's "in" and who's "out," this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side. And therein lies my personal struggle. “But God,….”
He finished his thought with this: “Read this way, the parable ultimately escapes even its narrative setting and reveals that it is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.”
And then Scott Hoezee finished the thought. “If you are able in your life to avoid committing crimes or cheating, should you be thankful for the strength of character that prevents you from walking down certain sordid paths? Of course on all counts! But we must never forget that each of those things is a FRUIT of God’s prior grace at work in us. (space) Let us pray.
God of all that is good, so many of us thought that we would go to a nice little Sunday church service and call it good. But sometimes, Great God, you catch us - with convictions so close to the heart that we stand, stymied and silent. So forgive us our sins of dismissal, of one-upmanship, of appraisal and assessment before compassion. Give us wisdom to avoid that which will ultimately damage the vision you have of us, wisdom to bring about the good that is needed from each unique individual. In the acknowledgment of the gifts and talents you give us, and in your forgiveness and mercy, accompany each of us with that sense of wholeness in you, of justification in you, in peace in you. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.