By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
October 23, 2022
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 lift up his eyes 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.”
Let us pray: Uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
An odd thing happens sometimes when I go to the doctor. I find myself trying to convince them how, despite my absolutely miserable condition, which has landed me at the doctor’s office in the first place, I truly have been getting along quite well and making the best of things — certainly not having a little pity party in the car, certainly not doom-googling my plight, certainly not assuming this ailment could be deadly, certainly not imagining people lining up to pay respects to my family while someone sings Amazing Grace. Of course, I am not like those people. Or if I am, I don’t want the doctor to know that, especially when I am in a paper gown.
On one memorable visit, as the doctor left the room, I saw an “A+” written in red on my file. I confess that at that moment I was so proud of myself. I thought, wow, look at that! I must have made a great impression. I must have seemed very competent, maybe even heroic. I nailed that appointment!
Later, it dawned on me… as you might have guessed by now… that A+ was actually my blood type.
It was humbling. I felt like I was seeing my own little Pharisee on the x-ray, residue from a world that is absolutely flooded with comparison and self-promotion and this stubborn need to seem right and good. Even when it gets in the way of our healing.
And to people just like us, here comes this little parable, spoken to people in Jesus’ day who, according to Luke, were confident in their own righteousness. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. We might think it a bit gauche that a Pharisee would pray-brag to God right in front of the Temple. Who does that? But imagine instead that the Pharisee has a polished Instagram profile. He has a special righteousness program that he thinks you should join. His name is on the top bracket of the donor list and engraved on the giving wall and his Temple Talk has been viewed over 15 million times. He has just released a bestseller on righteousness, “The four things I am not: Crook, Cheater, Fraud, and Failure” subheader, “like that guy.” And people buy it.
And we might also think it a bit over the top that a tax collector would beg for mercy and beat his breast in front of the Temple, like the horrified crowds do at the cross of Jesus later in Luke. Our culture is much more internal when it comes to sadness and shame. But imagine a person who just weathered a life-swallowing scandal like Bernie Madoff, someone who makes people genuinely angry because his career mislead and harmed people all while enriching himself. Then imagine he comes to a point where he sincerely wants out, wants to start again. Imagine a person who has hit rock bottom and leaves rehab or the hospital or the extremist group or another sleepless night of beating himself up mixed with prayer who is desperate for a new life. And people don’t buy it. But he actually does.
This little parable is so quick in the Gospel of Luke you could easily miss it. You could easily subscribe to the best-selling Pharisee Gospel, some form of which is always in vogue. Now it comes to us from the health and wellness industry and glossy ads and some churches. The Pharisee Gospel sounds like this: The world loves you when you have no issues, no baggage, and no needs. God rewards those who play by the rules with a life of popularity and health and churches as big as college football stadiums. They shall be quietly praised for earning every bit of it whether they did or not and they shall be closely associated with a savior that they act like they don’t actually need. But the Pharisee Gospel also says woe to those who are identified with a mistake. Those who worked in the wrong industry, who ate the wrong things and bought the wrong things and were in the wrong place at the wrong time and whose bloodwork was off and whose child did something wrong and who served a church at a down time in history. They shall quietly be blamed and used as a warning in a worldview that doesn’t think people can actually change. This worldview has a bias toward comparison and competition, toward looking around at how you’re doing compared to other people, rather than looking inside or toward God. Since it believes change is unlikely, it tends to value the past more than the future and it is utterly exhausting. This parable sneaks in to challenge it.
Thankfully in this parable, Jesus shares the moral of the story right away, doesn’t make people guess what he is trying to say. “Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted.” This parable, like all parables of Jesus, challenges assumptions that are so accepted that they are like the air people breathe, that the good man deserves to be justified and the bad man, regardless of his poignant speech, does not. This parable sneaks in and offers a startling new truth breathed out from the lungs of God.
The new truth sounds like this: In the Temple of every heart, there is a Pharisee and there is a tax collector. In every heart, there is a good person who strives to do everything right and yet lives in constant fear of failure, an anxiety that won’t turn off. And, in every heart, there is a broken person who has disappointed people, especially herself, sometimes in devastating ways. The parable suggests… If you want to know what true righteousness looks like, if you want to know what it looks like to go away justified, not just as an individual but as a society, it looks like the broken person inside each of us experiencing a love so beautiful and free and miraculous that it could never be earned. It also looks like the good person experiencing a love that was never conditioned on their achievement. This love can only be received as a gift. The love of God that is as reliable and generous and abundant as the sunrise and just as impossible to control.
This text tends to appear around Reformation Sunday, and it challenges the church even as it comforts. Sometimes Presbyterians have an inner Pharisee who might say, “God, we thank you that we are not like those other denominations, judgey, bombastic, and corrupt. We have advanced degrees and robes, not those tacky Hawaiian shirts. We have generous mission giving as long as the market is good. We are open-minded and inclusive except toward people who annoy us, and we tend to be the most humble people we know. We certainly have the best past.” But, if the Protestant Reformation taught us anything, it is that we are caught up in the same sin as everyone else. We are no worse but no better.
And that lands us with our inner tax collector. The part of us that knows how it feels to cry to God for mercy, to beat our breast in grief at what our church has lost and who we have lost, that part of us that has been cast to a “far off” place in society and saddled with the scandals of the past and sitting in a paper gown, wondering what’s gon wrong, wondering if maybe we are being grounded for messing up so much. But instead, that is where grace finds us. Sunday comes and lifts the church out of the dirt and reminds us that Christ’s grace did not start with us nor will it end with us. Sunday comes and dares us to believe that this grace actually applies to us and to those other people as well. So, we rise again and laugh at ourselves again and serve others again.
One of my favorite quotes comes from C.S. Lewis who wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.” And on a day when we celebrate 20 years of ministry with Arlene Decina, I can think of few better role models for what Christian humility looks like in the world. Sitting on the ground, listening to children and marveling at God’s love story called the Bible.
The root of the word humility is humus which means ground. And I have to remind myself that the ground is the place where things grow. For all the times that the followers of Jesus wanted to be in the high places, the courts of power, the mountaintops, the right and left hand of God, Jesus kept calling them back to the ground, teaching about seeds and dust and eventually this tomb in the ground that everyone was sure would be the end of the story until it became the most beautiful beginning.
Lucky for us, God’s love is not a grade we earned for good behavior or good theology. It is actually our blood-type, the ever-beating pulse of grace, that has been given to us by Christ, who humbled himself on the cross that we might be exalted, propelled toward a life abundant and eternal. This is a worldview that is biased toward hope. Insistent that people really can start over, that churches can become new again, because in Christ, because of Christ, our future is more important than the past.
Thanks be to God.