Getting Ready for Reformation Sunday
Note from CM: Sorry for the delay, but I had a very busy day. I just cleaned a lot of spam out of the comment thread.
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The Gospel reading for this week is Luke 18:9-14, Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
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.’
Here are some of the good comments I’ve been reading as I prepare to preach on this text.
First, from Matt Skinner at Working Preacher:
One lesson of the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 comes from its insinuation that religious folks like ourselves may have a tendency to get it all wrong. Even if we could hear the private prayers of our congregation, we will misunderstand the bigger picture. To be more precise: we may misunderstand how God hears those prayers and how God regards the individuals who are praying them.
The Pharisee in the parable isn’t wrong to be grateful that he isn’t a tax collector. He knew that that professional choice was available to him, if he wanted to take it. But he didn’t. Soaking the Galilean population as a Roman stooge might have given him an easier path toward a more comfortable life. But his faith, his privilege, or his values took him in a different direction. Thank God.
There’s no arrogance in his belief that he chose or inherited a better way. Where he falls short in the parable is in his unspoken assumption that the tax collector resides beyond the limits of divine mercy. Whether he actually hears the tax collector’s prayer or not, he wrongly assesses the tax collector and his dignity. What’s even more tragic: he misunderstands God.
If I heard your prayers, I’d misread your motives. Worse, I’d want to play God by deciding which prayers are worth considering. Like the Pharisee in the parable, I’d assume that your prayer for mercy (like the tax collector’s) wasn’t sincere enough to get God’s attention. Or, like many misled readers of the parable, I’d assume that your prayer of thanksgiving (like the Pharisee’s) wasn’t a real prayer but a self-gratifying expression of you own high regard for yourself.
Working Preachers, be careful about what you assume. Don’t make narrow the wideness in God’s mercy. We don’t know what God hears when God listens to the prayers of the world.
We do know this, however: that no one resides beyond the reach of God’s compassion and God’s desire to reconcile. We also know that the prayer God, be merciful to me, a sinner! is a perfectly good place for anyone to begin.
Here are some thoughts from Eric Smith at Lectio:
Pharisees are a favorite target of gospel-writers and modern Christians; we have made their name into a synonym for “hypocrite.” But it’s worth pointing out that this whole parable depends on the audience understanding that a Pharisee would have been utterly righteous. The whole setup is built on that; it’s like a joke about a nun and a criminal. The joke only works because everyone assumes that the nun is very holy. This parable assumes that Pharisees were unimpeachable, and it then plays on that stereotype (this particular Pharisee was kind of chauvinistic) for effect. The take-away is not that “all Pharisees are hypocrites,” but rather that “Pharisees were so righteous that when one wasn’t, it was noteworthy.”
Suzanne Guthrie, at At the Edge of the Enclosure, found help in grasping this passage through this quote from Thomas Merton:
Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks. The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility, and Christian humility is first of all a matter of supernatural common sense. It teaches us to take ourselves as we are, instead of pretending (as pride would have us imagine) that we are something better than we are. If we really know ourselves we quietly take our proper place in the order designed by God. And so supernatural humility adds much to our human dignity by integrating us in the society of other men and placing us in our right relation to them and to God. Pride makes us artificial, and humility makes us real.
It is supreme humility to see that ordinary life, embraced with perfect faith, can be more saintly and more supernatural than a spectacular ascetical career. Such humility dares to be ordinary, and that is something beyond the reach of spiritual pride. Pride always longs to be unusual. Humility not so. Humility finds all its peace in hope, knowing that Christ must come again to elevate and transfigure ordinary things and fill them with His glory.
• Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island
Don Clendenin, at Journey with Jesus, cites some ancient wisdom compatible with the lessons of this parable:
I’ve always loved the tender wisdom of St. Maximos the Confessor (seventh century): “The person who has come to know the weakness of human nature has gained experience of divine power. Such a person never belittles anyone… He knows that God is like a good and loving physician who heals with individual treatment each of those who are trying to make progress.”
Finally, we return to Working Preacher, and the words of David Lose:
All too often, it would seem, our moral geography is no less rigid than that of this Pharisee. Where, then, can we turn? But perhaps this is the point of the parable all along. If we take an honest look at the various venues of our everyday life, whether familial, religious, or civic, we realize that we have no where to turn, for even when we judge this Pharisee aright and chide him for his self-righteousness we have fallen prey to the same temptation: “Lord, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee….” So perhaps Jesus tells this parable precisely so that we recognize that, like this tax collector, our only hope is the God who seeks out the lost, who rejoices at the repentance of the sinner, who justifies the ungodly, who causes light to shine from darkness, and who raises the dead to life.
If this is true, if we recognize that any status we claim comes from God alone, then perhaps we can look at our neighbor — even and especially those who disagree with us — with more generous eyes and recognize a fellow forgiven sinner for whom Christ died. Contempt has no place in our public life, in our religious life, in our personal life. And the only antidote for contempt is a compassion and solidarity born of our shared sense of need.