Saturday, October 22, 2016

Righteousness Misfired

Luke 18:9-14
Ordinary 30
October 23, 2016
William G. Carter

Jesus 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.”

Two people go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, the other is a tax collector. And if you have been paying any attention to the Gospel of Luke, you know what kind of people they are.

The Pharisee is a terrible, horrible, no good person. Throughout his Gospel, Luke has trained us to boo and hiss whenever a Pharisee walks onto one of his pages.

One day, the Pharisees were sitting nearby when Jesus was teaching in a house. Just then, some villagers dug a hole through the roof and lowered a paralyzed man at the feet of Jesus. He stopped his lesson long enough to look at the man and say, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees say, “Hey, nobody but God can forgive.” Jesus looks at them, looks at the man, and says, “OK, get up and walk too.” So the man gets up and walks away, as the Pharisees grumble.

After this, Jesus goes to a dinner party at the home of a questionable man (a tax collector, by the way). There are a lot of questionable people there, hanging around with Jesus. The Pharisees stand outside and complain, “Why do you eat and drink with sinners?” They just can’t imagine it.   

After that, on a Sabbath day, Jesus is walking with his disciples through the grain fields. His disciples start plucking the grain and munching on it. Immediately the Pharisees step out from behind a mulberry bush to complain, “Why are they doing this? Don’t you all know the Bible? It’s the Sabbath. God says don’t do any work.” Of course they would say that; Luke says they are Pharisees.

And after that, on another Sabbath, they lurk around the edges of a synagogue as Jesus begins to teach. In the crowd, there is a man with a paralyzed hand. Jesus said to him, “Come up here.” As he goes up, Jesus stares into the shadows at the Pharisees. He says, “What is the law of God: to do good or to do harm? To save life on the Sabbath or to destroy it?” With that, Jesus heals the man, and the Pharisees are “filled with fury.” (6:11). Of course they are. Luke says they are Pharisees.

So after one episode after another, Luke reports a story from the mouth of Jesus: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee…” And all of us say, “Boo! Hiss! Away with the Pharisee.” We’ve been trained to know what kind of person he is.

And we also know about the tax collectors. Luke has been telling us about them too. Of course, they are generally unsavory characters, collaborators with the Roman Empire, betrayers of their own townspeople – but they are responding to the Gospel of Jesus.

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness. He began to preach, “The One who is greater than the rest of us is coming. Change your ways and God will forgive you. Be baptized and have your sins be washed away.” And do you know who came forward to respond? Tax collectors! (3:12)  They wanted a fresh beginning.

Luke says this is the invitation of Jesus. God’s Kingdom is right in your face, step into it. He said to a tax collector named Levi, “Come with me,” and Levi dropped everything to go. He was ready for it. He’s the one who threw the great banquet for Jesus. In fact, he filled the house with more tax collectors, and Jesus ate with all of them. They were ready for it too.

Luke says they kept coming, like moths to a flame. They wanted whatever Jesus had. They considered him their friend. (7:34). In fact, remember the great parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son? Jesus told them specifically on behalf of the tax collectors (15:2) who kept surrounding him. It doesn’t say that they all changed their lives, but they wanted what he had . . . and the Pharisees snarled at them all.

So when Jesus says, “Once upon a time, a Pharisee and a tax collector both went up to the temple to pray,” we are already prepared to hear the story. Both of these are stock characters.

The Pharisee is a religious leader, a man serious about his own righteousness, and he wraps up his rightness in his prayer: “I thank you God, that I’m not a bad person, like this tax collector. In fact, I give you a tenth of my whole income.” But there’s something about the prayer that is deeply flawed, and I think you know what it is. It’s in the phrase, “I thank you that I’m not like him.” He says that, and he falls through a dangerous trap door.

Meanwhile the tax collector knows his life is a mess. Maybe he’s like all those real-life tax collectors who swarmed around Jesus. They want what he has, but it keeps eluding them. Maybe they don’t have the courage to walk away from their polluted jobs, or to make amends with the townspeople who hate them, or they can’t quite abandon their ill-gotten wealth. All we know about this guy are two things: he can’t make eye contact with God, and he begs for mercy with no evidence that he is worthy of it.

Listen to what Jesus says: the tax collector is made right with God, not the other.

Well, of course. We have been set up to hear it, and to believe it. It’s all about begging for mercy, rather than declaring how good you already are. As Jesus says somewhere else, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He has no blessing for those who are smug and superior.

The Pharisee wouldn’t have heard him say it, of course. He was too busy humming, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘cause I get better looking each day.”[1]

Now, I hope you realize that what we have here are a couple of cartoon characters. These are not healthy, well-adjusted human beings. The tax collector isn’t finished with his redemption yet. As we will hear next week in the story of the tax collector Zaccheus, he still has a journey ahead of him. God may justify and forgive in the moment this guy utters the “sinner’s prayer,” but he is still quite far from being a grown-up follower of Jesus.

And the Pharisee, what’s really the matter with him? Who would ever be so arrogant to prance around and declare that he is better than everybody else? Someone so smug, so self-righteous, what’s he doing in the temple anyway? He has no need for God, except for God to be his audience, for God to listen to him prattle on about how successful he is, how accomplished he has been. What kind of pathetic, needy, self-serving arrogant fool is this?

Just picture the poor, broken tax collector. He is just finishing his brief cry for mercy, yet he has to overhear that Pharisee go on and on about how wonderful he is ---Why, it’s enough that the tax collector could very well blurt out, “God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee!”

But if he says it, watch out. If you say something like that, the spiritual trap door might open once again, you could fall through it yourself, and everything you gained would be lost. If you catch my drift.

The spiritual life is never about superiority. It’s not about being a “winner.” There are no winners. By that I mean there’s nobody who is good enough to go up to God, flash a good report card, and presume that will get us in. That’s not how it works. If we were to get in, it’s not because we are good; it would be because God is good.

God is the One who sends us Jesus. God is the One who speaks through Jesus about God’s desire to rule over our lives. God is the One who made us the way we are, the One who knows how needy we are, the One who calls us to step away from all destructiveness and into the presence of grace. God knows that even if we are able to do it, like the old time tax collectors who were so ready for a fresh beginning, even then it would be hard to give up the bad habits, the ornery moods, and the quiet collaborations we still make every day with the empire du jour.

The only way we are going to be righteous is if God makes us righteous. One of the Bible words is God “imputes” righteousness in us[2] – that is, we are saved not only by faith in Jesus, but by the faith of Jesus. His righteousness is shown in the cross and resurrection of Christ’s self-giving love. He is the One who saves and reconciles. All we can do is make ourselves available and welcome the hard work Christ does on our behalf. It is a replaying of the death of our own superiority and the justifying power of Christ’s resurrection.

Here’s how somebody else says it:

What Jesus is saying in this parable is that no human goodness is good enough to pass a test like that, and that therefore God is not about to risk it. (God) will not take our cluttered life, as we hold it, into eternity. (God) will only take the clean emptiness of our death in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. (Jesus) condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use; he commends the (tax collector) because he rests his case on a death that God can use…

For Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable… As long as you are struggling like the Pharisee to be alive in your own eyes – and to the precise degree that your struggles are for what is holy, just, and good – you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification. Only when you are able, with the (tax collector), to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace.[3]

It’s all about grace, the good favor of God. That is what gathers us in. That is what sets us free from the slavery to our own ambition. Grace liberates us from the possibility of any arrogance. It’s all about God, who creates us with the ability to live in relationship to that grace. It’s all about God who is willing to die to bring us into holy fellowship and to rescue us from ourselves.

So here we are, the people who tell stories like this. We tell them because we know grace gathers us into this temple. We come here to pray, because we believe our lives depend entirely on the mercy of God.

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

[1] Thanks to Mack Davis for this song, the self-love ballad of the smug Pharisee.
[2] See 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 4:6, Galatians 3:22 (with its accompanying footnote)
[3] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1988) pp. 182, 184

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