2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 sermon by Shannon Jung
Luke 18: 9-14. 23 October 2016
Part of the fallout from this electoral season, regardless of who wins or loses, is the acrimony that has been generated by the primaries and the general campaigns. Yes, there has been mud-slinging in the past; yes, there has been controversy. But a number of commentators suggest that this one has reached a new level of incivility and hostility.
So Hillary Clinton speaks of the Trump supporters as “deplorable.” Trump demeans women and Muslims in ways that would have been unimaginable. The mud has been slung from both directions.
If you believe this is an exaggeration, consider your reaction to what Al Gore announced after the 2000 presidential election: “Just moments ago I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States…I offered to meet with him as soon as possible so that we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we’ve justpassed…I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.”
That Gore put country above partisanship was part of a tradition, and one that served as a model for the greater good of the country. But that sounds light years in the past.
That this sort of reconciliation is increasingly hard to imagine between Clinton and Trump at the conclusion of the 2106 election suggests we are in dangerous territory. It may well be that long-term damage has been done to the country.
This is not a partisan message. Rather today our Gospel parable speaks to our situation. Can we get past this? Is there a possibility of making peace the way that Gore and Bush did?
Listen to the Word of God. Luke 18:9-14.
The parable seems pretty straight-forward at first. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the Pharisee looking down his nose at the tax collector. It's easy to interpret the parable in simplistic terms, in part because the dramatic action of this parable is so very predictable. Knowing that Pharisees are regularly cast in the gospels as Jesus' opposition, we all too easily judge the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is for us to be humble. In short, we look down our noses at the PHARISEE. OoooPS!!!! There goes the humility! Remember the country song: “Oh, Lord, ain’t it hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.”
There is good reason for a straightforward interpretation, as Luke seems to frame the parable in just these terms. The difficulty with such an interpretation is that we might well end up thanking God for our own humility., "Lord, we thank you that we are not like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble." In short, we might trip over our humility and find ourselves being the Pharisee.
In order to avoid the kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable. It may help to note that, in fact, everything the Pharisee says is true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous (see Luke 15:7). So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven't said, "Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people...", but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, "There but for the grace of God go I"? It isn't that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.
The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no way in which to claim righteousness. As a class, tax collectors were bottom feeders. They were thought to be working in collusion with the Roman occupiers and were widely regarded as traitors. They were at the bottom of the social ladder, so the Scripture says that Jesus ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners. The tax collector has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord. He knows that he does not deserve any consideration.
Here is the essential contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own behavior; he does keep the law; he fasts twice a week, he observes Sabbat. He does everything that God has asked the believer to do: and thus, he seems to reason, God will justify him. In fact, he is making a claim that he can control his own salvation by observing Torah. He wants to control God; he comes close to demanding that God save him. And well God might… On the other hand he demeans, heaps contempt upon the tax collector.
Then there is the tax collector who has no such standing. He knows that he has sinned in many ways. That has probably been made quite clear to him, perhaps especially by the Pharisees. This is not an individual, isolated case. Anyway, the tax collector is persuaded of his own sinfulness before God. He throws himself on God’s mercy, he is desperate. He beats his chest – a sign of repentance, and shrieks “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Jesus then tells the crowd, “Behold, this man went home justified rather than the other, the Pharisee.”
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Why is that, exactly? And what does it have to do with our presidential election?
It is no accident that this exchange takes place at the Temple. On the grounds of the Temple, you were always intimately aware of who you were, of what status you had, of what you could expect from God. There were, at the Temple, "insiders" and "outsiders," and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood. But when Jesus died all this changes. The division between insiders and outsiders is erased; we are all revealed as unworthy and at the mercy of God. We are all loved equally by God.
To my mind that is what makes the acrimony and insults and disrespect evident in this election just wrong for the Christian. It is the love of God that saves us, and that is all. We should despise no man or woman, no Trump supporter or Hillary backer. They are our neighbors. It is the love of God that gives any of us ultimate worth. And so in Christ there is no East or West, no liberal or conservative, no Republican or Democrat, no one who is less worthy or more worthy. Woe to the one who despises any other.
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. 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 a desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.
At the end of this story, the Pharisee will leave the Temple and return to his home righteous. This hasn't changed. The tax collector, however, will leave the Temple and go back down to his home justified, that is, accounted righteous by the Holy One of Israel. How has this happened? The tax collector makes neither sacrifice nor restitution. On what basis, then, is he named as righteous? On the basis of God's divine fiat and ordinance! Thus each time we interpret this parable we find ourselves, yet again, with nothing to claim but our dependence on God's mercy. When this happens and we forget if only for a moment our human-constructed divisions and stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, are justified by the God of Jesus and invited to return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude.
Let us go back just a moment to the first verse of our parable. That verse sums up the intention of the parable.
Theretheauthor says that Jesus told this parable “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
We would do well to avoid even thinking of some people as “insiders” and others as “outsiders.” Jesus clearly viewed all the great sinner groups of this time as those who were loved by God and who did not trust in their own status or conduct.
Furthermore, who are we or anyone else to say that some groups are deplorable, or that they are beneath contempt? We who have been justified by God are grateful for our justification, and we seek to live out Jesus’s care for all people. We know that others should not be abused or demeaned or treated as scum.
As we come to the communion table this morning let us come remembering that Jesus came for all peoples. We trust not in our own righteousness but in the power of God.
And we rejoice in that power, that ultimate worth. We are grateful for God’s generosity to all. I’m suspecting that the tax collector expressed his gratitude out of his heart, realizing that he was a justified sinner. Ironically, his is the example we need to follow.