Sunday, October 27, 2013

Close to the Ground

Luke 18:9-14
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
October 27, 2013
William G. Carter

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 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. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' 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!' 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."

I need to warn you that this story comes only from the Gospel of Luke. Luke is fond of saying, "Everything is going to be turned upside down."

Today’s story sounds kind of like this:

"Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a good person.  The other was bad. The good person came away bad.  The bad person came away good."

Everything gets turned upside down. You can't turn the pages of the Gospel of Luke without hearing a story like this one. Sometimes it shows up when Jesus gives a one-liner: "The first shall be last; the last shall be first." Sometimes it shows up in two one-liners, back-to-back: "Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh."  (6:21b) "Woe to you who laugh, for you will weep and mourn."  (6:25b)
Can you hear the flip-flop pattern?

Sometimes it happens in a story, like the one we heard a few weeks ago. Jesus said,   "Once there were two people -- one was rich, the other was poor. The rich person died and went down to torment. The poor person died and went up to Abraham's bosom" (16:19-31). That's all we know about them:  one was rich, the other was poor. And in the end, there was a great reversal of fortunes.

In Luke, sometimes we will hear this in an Advent song. The mother of Jesus sang these words: "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up those of low degree; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." (1:52-53). In church they sound like lilting lyrics, but they have the power to ignite a hundred revolutions.

Luke’s consistent message is, "Thanks to Jesus Christ, everything will be turned upside down." In the final line of today’s text: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

It comes as the punch-line of the story Jesus told: "Once upon a time, two people went up to the temple to pray. One of them was a pious Pharisee. The other was a nasty tax collector." Then everything was turned upside down. By the end of their prayers, the bad person was justified with God. He was “put right.” And the good religious person was . . . well, we don't know what happened to him. He slipped away off the page.

We have to wonder why. Why this great reversal? One person comes out smelling like a rose. . . and the other comes out smelling.  Why? Obviously, it has nothing to do with the kind of life they lead.

After all, the Pharisee was a righteous man. Forget all those stories you've heard about the Pharisees. They were not moustache-twisting villains. No, in the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were religious heroes. They were lay people committed to keeping Jewish faith alive. They were faithful in worship, well-schooled in the scriptures, and deeply concerned about social justice. Listen: every church needs more people like that.

This man is impressive. His piety led him to fast, to abstain from food twice a week to devote himself to prayer. What's more, he tithed his income. He gave ten percent off the top to support God's work. Our office would like to know his address. We want to send him a pledge card. As someone notes, "This Pharisee is the faithful, dependable type (of person) who pays the salaries of ministers so they can preach on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector."[1] He was a good person, a righteous person.

By contrast, you have probably heard about the tax collectors of that time. They were Jewish citizens who collaborated with the Roman Empire. They collected all the imposed taxes that the Empire used to pay for the troops that occupied Jewish towns. The Empire winked and said, “Our collectors can collect as much as they want.” To be a tax collector then was to be a willing participant in a system of institutionalized cruelty. Politically, he was a traitor. Socially, he was a scoundrel. Religiously, he was considered unclean. And all the Jewish people sang, “Mama, don’t your babies grow up to be tax collectors.” They were hated. Despised. Banned from the sanctuary of God!

So what does it mean that this tax collector "went up to the temple to pray?" What kind of person is this? Slipping in the side door, standing in the shadows, trying not to be seen, quietly beating his breast, averting his eyes, mumbling the words of Psalm 51. What kind of person is this? He may have a prayer on his lips, but his life is reprehensible. Can one little prayer get him off the hook? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Is that sufficient to gain him forgiveness? Yes. Jesus says it is enough. That prayer is enough.

But what about the Pharisee’s prayer? I don’t know if you knew this, but it is taken right out of an ancient Jewish prayerbook. The prayer went something like this:

I thank you, O Lord, that you have set my portion with those who sit in
the house of instruction, and not with those who sit on street corners;
for I rise early, and they rise early, but I rise early
for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk;
for I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward
and they labor and do not receive a reward;
for I run and they run; I run to the life of the world to come
and they run straight to the pit of destruction."[2]

He wants God to know that he is doing everything he can to be pure and race toward heaven. But it comes out as if he is saying, “I thank you, O Lord, that I am not like a lot of other people." He stands off by himself and says the sort of thing that many people will still say:

"I thank you, O God, that I don't live in a rundown city like that."
"I thank you that you have given me a better education than others."
"I thank you that I am not a bigot like those people."
“I thank you that, unlike others, my investments have turned out well.”
"I thank you that my marriage is happy."
"I thank you for the color of skin that I received."
"I thank you that I'm not a youngster anymore."

Or more to the point, "I thank you, O God, that I'm better than that man over there." Can you imagine somebody praying like that? Especially in a church? It is intended as a prayer of thanks, but the gratitude seems to misfire. It starts to smell like superiority. And it ignores the hard truth that sooner or later, the field does tend to level out. First becomes last, last becomes first, life seesaws and may level out.

Meanwhile, the tax collecter begs for mercy, because he has come to know that's the only thing he can do. The Pharisee can stand off by himself to say, "Lord, I am glad I'm not like him." But we know better. Don’t we know better?

Remember Linus and Lucy? They were talking one day. Linus said, "Lucy, why are you always so anxious to criticize me?" Lucy replied, "I just think I have a knack for seeing other people's faults." Linus said, "What about your own faults?" Lucy said, "I have a knack for overlooking them."

When he writes about this parable, Eugene Peterson calls this “the tale of two sinners.”  He says both of them are in church. They are both there – the one who believes he belongs there, and the one who isn’t so sure. Gene says, “Churches don’t do a good job of screening the people who show up there,” and all of us can be glad for that. If everybody here knew absolutely everything about everybody else, they would start wondering what kind of God is running the place?

I mean, really: sinners here?

Peterson says they are both sinners. One man is driven to his knees. He knows his life is a disaster. He is incapable of fixing everything that he has messed up. He still needs a job to feed his family, even though the work is questionable at best, and his neighbors hate him. He doesn’t know what to say, other than “God, have mercy on me.” Yep, he’s a sinner.

And then there’s the other one. He is so confident in his own abilities that he really doesn’t need God, because he’s doing it all himself. Remember his prayer? 

I thank you, Lord.
I am not like the others, Lord.
I fast twice a week.
I donate a tenth of my income.

Listen to what he says: I do this, I do that. The I’s have it! It’s all about him, isn’t it? Yep, he’s a sinner, pitiful old arrogant sinner. Perhaps the most pitiful thing of all is that he doesn’t know what he is. He believes he is something better, and therefore he has no need of grace.

This is the only parable that Jesus tells about church behavior. Did you know that? It is the only parable that he actually sets inside a sanctuary. His other tales are of treasures in fields, or seeds planted by a farmer, or glimpses of commerce and family life. But this parable is placed in the house of worship, with the spotlight on two very different people who show up there. The one character who is hungry for the kindness of God is the one who goes away healed. God’s grace for him.

As for the other one – somebody please tell me: why is he there?

Even so, we have to be careful. The temptation for us tax collectors to say, “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like that arrogant Pharisee.” That would also be a terrible thing, because we are more alike than different. All of us! And do you see that sinner over there? Maybe it is you.
The only antidote for any of this is humility. Serious, joyful humility… humility comes from the word for “soil.” We are close to the ground here.

I like the old story that my friend Charles Rice tells. He found it in The New Yorker, I think.

During a recent transit strike in New York, a young man was walking home from work through the park.  It was late and he was alone.  In the middle of his trek he saw someone approaching him on the path.  There was, of course, a spasm of fear. He veered, the stranger veered.  But since they both veered in the same direction, they bumped in passing.

A few moments later the young man realized that this could hardly have been an accident, and felt for his wallet.  It was gone.  Anger triumphed and he turned, caught up with the pickpocket, and demanded the wallet. The man surrendered it.

When he got home, the first thing he saw was his wallet lying on the bed. There was no way of avoiding the truth: he had mugged somebody.[3]

That could have been you - that could have been me - because we are more alike than different.

The Gospel News is what Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke: “God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.” (6:35). It’s a strange statement when we first hear it, because we don’t think that is the way God should run the world. But that is how Jesus describes the Father: kind, even to though who don’t know it; gracious, even to a world that is no friend of grace.

This is the God we glimpse in Jesus, who, in the moment he is crucified, cries out in prayer, “Father, forgive these clueless human beings.” Our lives, our eternal destinies, depend on that answered prayer.

Let me say it straight: there is grace from God. Forgiving, cleansing, healing grace. It is often ignored, even by religious folk. But it is God’s grace, a complete gift for those who need it most. Grace turns everything upside-down. I’ll say more about that next week.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Fred Craddock, The Gospel of Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) p. 211.
[2] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 142
[3] Charles Rice, The Embodied Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) pp. 130-131.

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