First Congregational Church
October 27, 2013
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
"Who Do You Want To Be?"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Did you hear about the minister who said she had a wonderful sermon on humility but was waiting for a large crowd before preaching it?
Walter Cronkite recalls the following incident: Sailing back down the Mystic River in Connecticut and following the channel's tricky turns through an expanse of shallow water, I am reminded of the time a boatload of young people sped past us here, its occupants shouting and waving their arms. I waved back a cheery greeting and my wife said, "Do you know what they were shouting?" "Why, it was 'Hello, Walter,'" I replied. "No," she said. "They were shouting, "Low water, Low water.'" Such are the pitfalls of fame's egotism.
Winston Churchill was once asked, "Doesn't it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?" "It's quite flattering," replied Sir Winston. "But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."
This morning's scripture passage continues the lessons on prayer Jesus teaches the folks in the middle of Luke's gospel. It was back in Luke, chapter 11, that Jesus' posse asked him how to pray, and he gave all of us what we know as The Lord's Prayer. In the chapters following, and including our passage this morning, it's sort of like Jesus said, "Okay, here's the formula....Father, hallowed be your name" and all the rest of it, and then he followed it with a lot of "don't pray like this," and "not like this," and don't forget about this point." It's such a long lecture, so-to-speak, we don't always remember that "teaching point" of prayer being an underlying factor.
Before we get to the passage, though, I wanted to uncover another little "teaching point." Remembering that Jesus was raised in the Jewish religion, he was taught to memorize great parts of the Torah - the first five books of our Old Testament, along with parts of the Talmud. The Torah was the written law and the Talmud was the oral law, the "argued" definitions of the Torah. In a terrible over-simplification, if the Torah said, you shall not work on the Sabbath, knowing that cattle had to be feed regardless of the day, the Talmud defined how much a person could lift - on the Sabbath - before it was considered work.
The Talmud contained a formula for morning prayers that was to be recited by traditional Jewish men. The prayer began, "Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman." Professor Eliezer Segal of the University of Calgary shed some light on this formula. He said, "The 'has not created me a woman' blessing is part of a subgroup that expresses similar gratitude for not having been created a gentile (i.e., a heathen) or a slave." We will hear a prayer in a moment, but then, it would have been as common as "Now I lay me down to sleep" is to us.
The final teaching point before hearing our scripture today has to do with tax collectors. Just like in our day, someone has to collect the taxes. Being a tax collector in any culture may not be a glamorous job, but someone has to do it. In our culture, there are very specific formula for a tax collector's compensation, and I'm sure it has to do with education level, years of employment, and a host of other factors.
In Jesus' culture, some tax collectors were Jewish, some were Roman, some were perhaps Samaritan or other religions. Their religion didn't matter, so long as they collected what the government wanted. But the government didn't pay their tax collectors. The collectors had to add a price or percentage on top of what they were to collect. So if the tax was - let's say - $50, the tax collector would charge us and additional $10 or 20% for the effort. It wasn't the fact that they charged more than the government tax that made tax collectors such "scum." It was how much more they added. In my little parable, let's say the acceptable surcharge was 1-3% - not 20%. And in the Jewish realm, to "cheat" your own kin folk with a 20% surcharge was truly highway robbery.
Now I don't know if there were prescribed morning or evening or any other prayers for Jewish women. And the odds were that not all tax collectors were bad guys. But I do know that understanding more of the background of the culture of this morning's passage may change your view of both the Pharisee and the tax collector.
Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Thank you, Judy. There are great potential sermon titles with this passage: "Who Do You Judge?" "Are Some Prayers Better Than Others?" "Can Gratitude Go Bad?" Even "Who Do You Want To Be?" - although it is a common question at Benzie Community Chorus rehearsals - is a question that requires more thought than what we might immediately determine after Jesus' parable.
It is so easy to jump to the answer - "Well I sure don't want to be the Pharisee." But has time given us an unfair understanding of the Pharisee? Wasn't he just doing what he was taught to do? We can't hear his voice, so maybe he isn't belting out his prayer like a common braggart. We don’t know whether he is a Pharisee with heart or not. We know only that he is grateful for what he has escaped in life and for what he has achieved through his own strength of character. And yes, he's a character in a story.
Likewise, we don't know whether the tax collector has heart or not. And we don't know his voice either. And we don't know if he stopped being a tax collector after his "repentance." It was a pastor named Roy Terry from Sarasota that got me to wondering who was who in this passage. His suggestion is that maybe Jesus was trying to make a point about either extreme. And maybe he's right. Because I don't know that the real point here is about groveling before God, beating our chests and loading up on sackcloth for the spring fashion scene. Both men are grateful, for different things, yes.
If only we could have been there that day, because I - for one - would like to have seen Jesus' eyes when he was telling the story. Was his face all hang-dog, weary of the having to seemingly teach the same lessons over and over? Or was there a twinkle in his eye, suggesting that there was something else going on - underneath the surface story?
Dave Lose - over there at workingpreacher.org suggests that maybe this parable is a trap. "For as soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as with Luke, we are doomed. Anytime you draw a line between who's "in" and who's "out," this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side. 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." As Sheldon, from the Big Bang Theory says, "Bazinga!"
Jesus started his parable with the address: "To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else," The first question we might rightly ask is, "Is Jesus speaking to me?" "How much am I positioning myself "against" others - for whatever reason? How often do I say things that are really about making me sound or feel better - than I need?
The next question from this parable might well be asked from a distance: If it is not comparison that answers "Who Do I Want To Be?," then what is it that we all - the Pharisee, the tax collector, those confident of their own righteousness, those who look down on others, and us - what is the key component of prayer for all of us? God's grace.
It is God's grace that forgives us when we misunderstand or when we miss the true nature of God's blessing. It is not anything we can do - no prayer, no posture, no action on our part can obtain God's free and unmerited favor that makes us righteous and justified. It was a Richard Burkey that states it so succinctly. "In this parable, Jesus calls us to humility. The best definition I’ve ever heard of humility is: "Humility is not denying the power you have but admitting that the power comes through and not from you." He ended his remarks with this: "The challenge of the parable is not to put ourselves down, but to lift our need for God up."
William Beebe, the naturalist, used to tell a story about Teddy Roosevelt. At Sagamore Hill, after an evening of talk, the two would go out on the lawn and search the skies for a certain spot of star-like light near the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then Roosevelt would recite: "That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun." Then Roosevelt would grin and say, "Now I think we are small enough! Let's go to bed."
Let us pray. God of grace and God of glory, on your people, pour your power. Crown your ancient church's story. Bring your people into glorious flower. Grant us wisdom and courage, faith and honest humility, lest we miss your kingdom's goal and we fail you and ourselves. Remind us to reach down - to lift up, to hold up rather than push away. As we go about our week, remind each of us to seriously contemplate the question, Who Do We Want To Be?, that we may become the person you have always seen us to be. For loving us, forgiving us, and gracing us, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.